High on Running

When I asked my friend Tom for an explanation of the runner’s high, his answer was simple: “Everything that hurt before, goes away.”

The pain that had started to creep throughout his body during his long run would suddenly dissipate. The nagging injury that had long resided in his foot would no longer feel like it was about to erupt from his sinewy tendons. His previously tense shoulders would relax. His breathing would feel lighter. His step would feel lighter. He’d still be running, but now it would be in an aura of bliss. When everything that hurt before went away, Tom knew that the runner’s high had come upon him.

Source: Wikimedia.

For many, the “runner’s high” is probably regarded in line with other seemingly outlandish and unlikely physiological concepts like vertigo and phantom limb sensation. Others may consider “runner’s high” to be somewhat of an oxymoron, for surely an activity that is often associated with intense exertion and discomfort could never simultaneously deal out a happy high. While the overall wellbeing benefits of running—from cardiovascular health to joint health to mental health—have been proven again and again and are subsequently understood by many, the runner’s high remains more of an “elusive phenomenon” (Sachs, 1991).

But, it turns out that Tom isn’t alone in his reflections about the sensation that some experience during or after a run.

In phenomenological analysis, the runner’s high is regarded as an “experience of absence” (Whitehead, 2016). Feelings that are normally present for runners—such as the heaviness of limbs on a long run or the unforgiving pushback of pavement—are gone. The body moves differently through time and space in what seems to be an effortless meditation (Whitehead, 2016). Runners report feeling invincible and as if they could run forever without tiring one bit (Davis, 2015). Tom says that “it’s a unique feeling that combines fatigue with relaxation, positivity, and energy” and all he wants to do when he’s experiencing the high “is tell people how awesome they are.” Tom explains that he never knows when the burst of running joy will come, but he always knows when it does.

Now, at this point you’re probably thinking that this all sounds pretty darn trippy. You may be wondering if runners are really out there “getting high” on the reg, and if your daily afternoon jog around the neighborhood will ever induce a similar euphoria. Or, if you’re like me, you’ve been wondering what the neuroscientific and psychological literature says about the runner’s high.

What I’ve come to learn in more detail aligns with what I had always heard in the running community: the high that some experience is due to a “flood of endorphins.” Endorphins are hormones secreted in the brain and nervous system that bind to the
brain’s opioid receptors. When opioid receptors receive endorphins, the rewarding “high” feeling that people describe is triggered in the brain (European, 2007). It’s worth pointing out that chemical components of hard drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine also bind to and activate opioid receptors. Thus, people really aren’t exaggerating if they equate a runner’s high to a drug-induced high.

A simplified representation of the brain’s opioid receptor system. With running, “opioid” is replaced by endorphin. Source: NOPERI.

In the past I would reduce the idea of runner’s high to imagery of colorful excitement-inducing particles swirling through my own body and my friends’ bodies after we finished a tough workout or were in the middle of a long run. Well, it turns out the imaginative concept that I developed as a young runner was actually not that far off.

Various studies have shown that blood endorphin levels rise dramatically in response to exercise. For example, one study that measured beta-endorphin levels in 11 elite runners before and after a 15km run found that endorphin levels immediately after the run were significantly higher than they had been before the run (Harte, 1995). Additionally, as endorphin levels rose during the run, positive emotions rose significantly as well. Many researchers have replicated significant simultaneous hormonal and mood elevations in response to exercise in both human (Janal et al., 1984; Wildmann et al., 1986; Vives & Oltras, 1992) and animal models (Li & Chen, 1987), thus thoroughly establishing the exercise/blood-endorphin level relationship.

However, scientists wanted additional proof of endorphin action that was more specific to the brain. While early studies demonstrated the cool connection between running and endorphin levels in our bodies’ blood, researchers were itching to pinpoint what was going on with hormone systems in runners’ brains.

In 2008 a group of German researchers followed up on previous endorphin-related research by investigating how endorphinergic mechanisms worked in the brains of 10 long distance runners. After injecting a radioactive tracer compound known as [F]FDPN into the brains of the runners and scanning them before and after a two-hour long run, researchers found that feelings of euphoria were significantly related to changes in opioid receptor activity in parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. These brain areas are responsible for executive function and mood regulation (Boecker et al., 2008). As the quantity of endorphins increased in these regions, self-reported euphoria increased too.

Brain diagram with the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACG) labeled. Source: ACC Pinterest.

Another study that also looked at brain receptors focused more specifically on two aspects of the runner’s high: pain reduction and stress reduction (Fuss et al., 2015). In this research, both pain reduction and anxiety reduction were found to be significantly related to cannabinoid receptor activity in mice after running. The brain regions with the most cannabinoid receptor action were, once again, those largely responsible for emotion control.

Cannabinoid receptors function in the same way as opioid receptors, and they too are activated when drugs are consumed. That opioid and cannabinoid receptor systems are activated in the brain so much as to result in euphoria, pain reduction, and stress relief during running demonstrates that running can indeed produce a drug-like “high,” and that experiences of this high can be neurologically quantified (Kolata, 2008).

Source: Giphy.

Evolutionarily, humans probably experience the runner’s high because long, long ago to run was often to survive. Thus, the runners’ high was a sort of natural painkiller that arrived in high activity moments during hunter-gather life. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers found that species evolved for endurance activities (humans and dogs) experienced reward in response to running-related hormone signaling in the brain, while species that have not evolved for endurance (ferrets) did not experience these same benefits (Raichlen et al., 2012).

So, it seems that all of us humans—and our canine pals!—could experience a runner’s high. Whether this natural high is actually ever felt, of course, depends on one’s exercise habits. For some, the runner’s high will have to wait so long as that trot around town gets pushed back yet another day. For others, like myself and many of my teammates, the runner’s high comes occasionally to much enjoyment and celebration.

And then there are those who have truly become addicted to running and the pursuit of the runner’s high. If you recall that running and drugs trigger the same reward system in the brain, it makes sense that both running and drugs would, in turn, have the same addictive potential. Just as people addicted to drugs crave a drug-induced high, some runners find themselves in a cycle of run/drug-like reward/repeat.

Source: MommyRunEasy.

For instance, researchers used an animal model to demonstrate that highly active mice experienced far greater withdrawal symptoms, like teeth shattering, compared to inactive mice after they were administered a drug called Naloxone which is commonly used to block or reverse the effects of hard drugs in overdose situations. In another study, humans were asked to report their mood during “no run days” and “run days” over the course of a 15-day period. In line with the researchers’ hypothesis, runners reported greater feelings of tension, sadness, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and less vigor on “no run days” compared to “run days” (Conboy, 2008). This study also looked specifically at withdrawal symptoms, and participants who were least committed to running but also felt the most dependent on running (as assessed through training questionnaires) showed the greatest withdrawal symptoms on off-days.

So, where do we go from here with regards to the runner’s high? It is a beautiful natural phenomenon to be cherished by the “weekend warriors” and elite marathoners and Colby College Cross Country and Track runners alike, but it can also pull people in overall harmful ways. For runners, balance is essential. As is the case with so many things that give us pleasure, we have to find the amount of running and the type of running that will leave us most content; running can be a “positive addiction” just as much as it can be a detrimental addiction (Glasser, 1976; Honda & Yamazaki, 2004).

I anticipate that tomorrow will be my last track and field meet as a college athlete—a finish line of sorts after over a decade of competitive running. While writing this blog post and reflecting on my running career thus far, I can’t help but hold the runner’s high as a magical possibility that has forever floated around me during each run, each workout, and each race. Sure, I have felt bad about taking an off day before and I am often overcome with an urge to dash about and feel my legs working and my lungs breathing hard. But, I have sought to maintain my relationship with running in a healthy way—in a way that centers around spending time with my peers, learning from my coaches, and being grateful that I am able to run so freely in the first place. To all reading, may you find your own runner’s high in a way that makes you truly happy.

Source: LetsRun.



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