Many people who frequently run for long periods of time experience what’s known as “runner’s high.” This sensation generally creates a feeling of immense joy, calmness, and pain relief. However, runners aren’t the only people who experience this euphoric sensation. Individuals who engage in other types of rhythmic aerobic exercise also can achieve a runner’s high.
Read on to learn what causes this sensation and five tips to help you achieve a runner’s high.
What Causes Runner’s High?
Different conclusions exist within the scientific community about which psychological and biological processes cause someone to experience a runner’s high. For many decades, most scientists believed endorphins released during exercise created a runner’s high. However, new research now points to endocannabinoids as the cause of this sensation.
The endocannabinoid system is the region of the human brain that responds to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the main active compound in marjiuana. Researchers observed the brain activity of mice when running on exercise wheels and found that endocannabinoids like anandamide contribute to the mood-boosting and pain-relieving effects of a runner’s high.
Studies also found higher levels of anandamide in people’s blood after long bouts of aerobic exercise. Why? Because, unlike endorphins, this lipid-soluble endocannabinoid can pass through the blood-brain barrier and trigger the high.
If endorphins have any effect on the human brain during a runner’s high, it’s not the endorphins themselves — it’s the increased release of dopamine those endorphins trigger. Dopamine also plays a role in creating runner’s high, according to a recent study, which suggests the hormone leptin influences the rewarding effects of exercise through the brain’s dopamine neurons.
Fat cells create leptin — a hormone that signals satiety to the brain and reduces physical activity — while dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation, reward, and pleasure. In the same study, researchers observed the effects of leptin suppression on mice when running and compared that to the effects to mice without altered leptin levels. They concluded that mice with lower levels of leptin ran longer.
Because past research found a correlation between lower leptin levels and better performance in marathons, these study results came as no surprise. In fact, researchers speculate that a human’s ability to experience a runner’s high is what helped our early ancestors endure running long distances in order to hunt for food. Without a high to enable and encourage endurance, they would starve.
How to Achieve a Runner’s High
Here are five tips to help you experience a runner’s high:
- Exercise for Longer Periods of Time. While short-term, high-intensity workouts suit modern, hectic lifestyles, they won’t give you a runner’s high. Reaching a runner’s high requires about one to two hours of moderate-intensity, rhythmic aerobic exercise. It simply takes a longer amount of time for the physical effects behind a runner’s high to kick in.
- Push Yourself, but Not Too Hard. Pushing yourself enough to feel a moderate amount of discomfort can help trigger the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids in order to relieve the pain. However, pushing yourself too hard will only make your workouts miserable and put you at risk of injury. Yet, not pushing yourself at all will prevent the high because your body needs at least some pain before it will respond.
- Run More Often. The more you run, the better your chances of achieving a runner’s high. Don’t expect to experience this sensation as a new runner. You need to start small when you begin a habit of running or participating in any other cardiovascular exercise. In other words, you should start with fewer miles or shorter periods of time and then gradually work up to one or two hours a day. Once you can experience the high, it’ll make exercise easier and more enjoyable while motivating you to stay active.
- Never Start Without a Warm-Up. Before each workout, make sure you spend at least 10 minutes thoroughly stretching your legs and body to loosen your muscles. Relaxed muscles and joints help to lower your risk of pulling a muscle or sustaining an injury. Then, once you start your workout, gradually pick up the pace instead of starting at maximum speed. This approach helps ensure you don’t tire and burn out right away.
- Don’t Give Up. Not everyone enjoys exercise at first. Before you start building strength and endurance, you may find exercise boring and uncomfortable. Or, you might feel a lack of energy and motivation. However, exercise should soon feel much easier and more rewarding if you maintain a consistent schedule and don’t give up. This isn’t just because you may experience a runner’s high. Regular exercise affects the mind and body in many positive ways. You’ll burn more calories, have more energy, sleep better, have a clearer mind, and more.