Cross Training For Runners

The Science Behind the Runner’s High: Unraveling the Neurochemical Symphony

10 Mins read

Runners high is like chasing after a mythical creature – sometimes you catch it, sometimes it slips through your fingers. But have you ever wondered what exactly this mystical state is and how you can gain more control over it? Well, my friend, I’m here to shed some light on the subject.

Now, let me be honest with you from the start. There’s no foolproof method that guarantees you’ll achieve this coveted state of bliss. It’s a bit like trying to catch a shooting star. But fear not, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of experiencing it.

And you know what’s even more fascinating? Understanding the brain chemistry behind the runners high is like unraveling a captivating mystery in itself.

In this article, I’m going to dive deep into the world of runners high. Buckle up because we’re diving deep into:

  • What exactly is runners high, and how it feels (spoiler alert: it’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced)
  • The factors that trigger this blissful state
  • The intricate mechanisms that make it happen in your brain
  • The pros and cons of runners high (yes, it has a few downsides too)
  • Practical tips on how to chase and catch that elusive high
  • And so much more that will leave you buzzing with excitement.

Excited? I bet you are! So, without further ado, let’s embark on this exhilarating journey and uncover the mysteries of the runners high.

What’s A Runners High?

Have you ever heard of the runners high?

It’s like the holy grail of running experiences.

Picture this: you’re out there pounding the pavement, and suddenly, a wave of pure bliss washes over you. Your stress levels plummet, and you feel like you’re floating on cloud nine.

Even pain seems to take a backseat, as if it’s been banished from existence. It’s like your body has unleashed a secret weapon, and you’re the lucky recipient of its magical effects.

Now, here’s the fascinating part. Scientists have been scratching their heads for years, trying to unravel the mystery behind this extraordinary state. And while we don’t have all the answers just yet, there’s a consensus that it’s all about the incredible chemical dance happening inside your body during exercise. It’s like your own personal symphony of neurotransmitters and endorphins, creating a masterpiece of euphoria.

Your Brain On Running

When you lace up your running shoes and embark on a high-intensity workout, something magical happens in your brain. It’s like a chemical symphony conducted by your own body that enhances your joy and diminishes your perception of pain.

Let’s take a closer look at the extraordinary substances at play.

For a long time, endorphins were hailed as the heroes behind the runners high. These naturally occurring opiates released by the brain during exercise were believed to be the main contributors to the euphoric state. They acted as painkillers, soothing the discomfort caused by intense physical activity. It was like having your own personal stash of morphine but without the side effects.

However, recent research has thrown a curveball into this endorphin-centric theory. Enter the endocannabinoids, another group of chemicals that come into play during exercise. These internally produced cannabis-like substances have been found to play a larger role in triggering the runners high, while endorphins might have been hogging the spotlight unfairly.

Imagine endorphins as your body’s homemade opiates, working in harmony with your brain’s prefrontal and limbic regions—the same areas that respond to intense emotions like love. They flood your brain, creating a sense of well-being and pleasure. So yes, chasing the runners high may turn you into a bit of a craving enthusiast, but hey, that’s not a bad thing if it motivates you to run more often, right?

But here’s an intriguing twist: endorphins might not be able to work their magic on their own. They are large molecules that need a little help to pass through the blood-brain barrier. That’s where the endocannabinoids come in. Think of them as the supporting cast, assisting the endorphins in their mission to bring you that delightful high.

Scientists have speculated that endocannabinoids played a vital role in our ancestors’ survival, keeping them focused and driven as they hunted for prey or fought off predators. While we may have evolved significantly since then, these same brain chemicals continue to motivate us, pushing our bodies to their limits and rewarding us for the hard work we put in.

So, what exactly are endocannabinoids? In essence, they’re nature’s version of THC, the active compound in marijuana. Endocannabinoids are released by the brain and have a profound impact on the entire body. When triggered by stress, they induce feelings of tranquility and calmness, soothing both the mind and tense muscles. It’s like a natural chill pill.

Stress triggers the release of cannabinoids, leading to that sought-after high feeling. And as a result, the pain signals in your spine are modulated, increasing your tolerance threshold.

What’s more?

Recent research suggests that endocannabinoids, rather than endorphins, may play a larger role in triggering the runner’s high. Endocannabinoids are internally produced cannabis-like substances that are released during exercise. They interact with cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system and have a similar impact to cannabis. Endocannabinoids contribute to a sensation of tranquility, calmness, and pleasure, promoting a state of well-being. They can also help modulate pain perception and increase pain tolerance.

Regarding the claim that endocannabinoids are the primary cause of the runner’s high, it’s important to note that the research on this topic is ongoing and not yet definitive. While some studies suggest that endocannabinoids have a more significant role in triggering the runner’s high compared to endorphins, further research is needed to fully understand the complex interplay of these neurochemicals during exercise. One study conducted at the University of Heidelberg reported that endocannabinoids play a larger role in the runner’s high, while endorphins have little to do with it (Boecker et al., 2008). However, additional research is required to validate and expand upon these findings.

Picture of happy man running on bridge

Why Do Runners High Exist?

Have you ever wondered why the runners high exist?

Well, it turns out that our bodies are incredibly resilient and adaptable, capable of pushing through discomfort and pain when the need arises. Let’s take a journey back in time to understand its origins.

Picture this: our ancestors roaming the ancient lands, hunting for prey under the scorching sun, enduring the harsh bite of cold winds, and persevering through exhaustion.

They would go for prolonged periods without food, occasionally picking up injuries along the way. These were the true warriors of survival.

It is believed that the runners high evolved as a performance-enhancing mechanism during those grueling hunting expeditions.

Our ancestors needed something to keep them going, to help them transcend the physical limitations imposed by their environment. Enter the runners high, a gift from evolution.

Think of it as nature’s motivational boost. The rush of endorphins flooding their systems would have acted as a soothing balm, alleviating discomfort and pain. It was like a surge of energy, allowing them to push through fatigue and focus on the hunt. Runner’s high became their secret weapon, enabling them to endure and thrive.

Benefits of the Runner’s High

Here are the main reason so many runners are obsessed with this euphoric high.

Euphoria and Improved Mood

One of the primary benefits of the runner’s high is the intense feeling of euphoria and happiness that accompanies it. The release of endorphins and endocannabinoids during exercise can contribute to a sense of well-being, reduce stress, and improve mood.

Pain Relief

The runner’s high is often associated with a diminished ability to perceive pain. The release of endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, can provide temporary relief from discomfort and contribute to a more enjoyable running experience.

Increased Motivation

Experiencing the runner’s high can enhance motivation and drive to continue running or engage in other physical activities. The positive emotions and sense of accomplishment associated with the runner’s high can help individuals stay motivated and committed to their exercise routine.

Improved Mental Function

The release of endorphins and endocannabinoids during the runner’s high can enhance cognitive function, including improved focus, clarity, and memory. This can have positive effects on productivity and mental performance throughout the day.

Downsides of the Runner’s High

In your pursuit of runners high, be careful not falling into the following traps.

Unrealistic Expectations

Some individuals may develop unrealistic expectations of the runner’s high, expecting it to occur every time they run. However, the runner’s high is not guaranteed with every workout and can be influenced by various factors. Setting unrealistic expectations may lead to disappointment or frustration if the desired experience is not achieved.

Dependency and Addiction

While the runner’s high itself is not addictive, the pleasurable sensations it produces can create a desire to chase that feeling repeatedly. This can potentially lead to an excessive focus on running or exercise, which may result in overtraining, burnout, or an unhealthy relationship with exercise.

Risk of Injury

The runner’s high can diminish the perception of pain and discomfort, potentially leading individuals to push themselves beyond their physical limits. This can increase the risk of injury if proper precautions and listening to one’s body are not prioritized.

Individual Variability:

Not all individuals may experience the runner’s high or experience it to the same extent. Factors such as genetics, fitness level, and individual neurochemistry can influence the likelihood and intensity of the runner’s high. Comparisons or feeling inadequate due to not experiencing the runner’s high as others do can lead to unnecessary pressure or dissatisfaction.

How To Get Runner’s High

Looking to experience the elusive runner’s high more often? Well, you’re in luck! I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve that can boost your odds of tapping into that blissful state. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Push the Pace, but Find Your Sweet Spot

Remember, a runner’s high is triggered by physical discomfort, but that doesn’t mean you need to push yourself to the brink of collapse. It’s all about finding that perfect balance. Research suggests that a long, continuous bout of rhythmic exercise is more likely to induce the high.

Aim for a steady-state cardio session where your effort is challenging yet sustainable. On a scale of 1 to 10, strive for a 6 to 7 level of exertion. Run at 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for a duration of 30 to 45 minutes.

Breathe rapidly, but still maintain a conversation with your running buddy. Keep up this intensity throughout the workout. If you’re not quite there, kick it up a notch. If your usual pace is a comfortable 10:00-minute mile, push yourself to aim for a 9:30 or 9:00-minute pace. You should be huffing and puffing but still able to keep going.

Pair Up

Running with a partner can be a game-changer. Not only does it provide motivation and accountability, but it also adds an element of healthy competition. Find someone who can challenge you and vice versa.

Trust me, the camaraderie and support will do wonders for your running journey. And hey, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, why not join a running group? It’s like having a running family with diverse backgrounds and experiences. You’ll never feel alone on the road again!

Crank Up the Tunes

Ah, music, the ultimate mood enhancer. Did you know that listening to music while running can significantly improve your performance and delay fatigue?

It’s true!

A study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and published in the International Journal of Physiology, Pathophysiology, and Pharmacology found that music boosts power, strength, and overall workout duration.

Find Your Sweet Spot

Achieving the runner’s high requires a delicate balance. You want to push yourself, but not to the point of utter exhaustion. Remember, endorphins are those feel-good chemicals that flood your system in response to physical stress.

So, challenge yourself, but stay within a range that feels manageable. Think of it as finding your tempo pace, that sweet spot where you’re pushing your limits but still in control. It’s like dancing on the edge of exhilaration, where each step brings you closer to euphoria.

Set Meaningful Goals

Setting specific and meaningful goals can add purpose to your runs and boost your motivation. Whether it’s completing a certain distance, achieving a personal record, or running for a charitable cause, having a goal in mind can enhance your running experience and increase the likelihood of the runner’s high.

Real-life example: Imagine you’re training for a charity run to raise funds for a cause you deeply care about. Every step you take during your training runs is not only for your own benefit but also for making a positive impact on the lives of others. This meaningful goal adds a sense of purpose and fulfillment, increasing the chances of experiencing the runner’s high.

Embrace the Journey

Achieving a runner’s high isn’t always an instant result. It’s a journey of self-discovery and perseverance. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t reach that euphoric state every time you lace up your shoes.

Celebrate each step forward, and remember that progress takes time. Enjoy the process, and don’t let the pursuit of the high overshadow the joy of simply being out there, moving your body, and embracing the freedom of running.

Cultivate a Positive Mindset

Your mindset plays a crucial role in unlocking the runner’s high. Approach each run with a positive attitude and believe in your ability to achieve greatness. Visualize yourself running effortlessly, with a smile on your face and a lightness in your step.

Positive affirmations can work wonders, so repeat empowering mantras to yourself during your runs. Your mind is a powerful tool that can either propel you toward the high or hold you back. Choose positivity and watch the magic unfold.

Be Patient

If you’re a beginner, it’s important to manage your expectations when it comes to experiencing runner’s high. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same goes for this euphoric state.

It takes time for your body to adapt to the high-impact nature of running and for your mind to sync with the rhythm of the sport. But fear not, my friend, for with every mile you conquer, you inch closer to that elusive runner’s high.

Now, don’t let this news discourage you. Think of it as a journey of self-discovery and growth. Remember when you first started running? Every step felt awkward; every breath seemed labored. But as you put more miles under your belt, something magical began to happen. Your body started to adapt, your muscles grew stronger, and your endurance skyrocketed. That’s the beauty of running—each run brings you closer to becoming the best version of yourself.

So, if you haven’t experienced runner’s high yet, fret not. It’s worth the wait. Research suggests that most runners start to feel the incredible rush after a few months of consistent running. Think of it as a reward for your dedication and perseverance. Trust me, once you break free from the shackles of counting down the minutes until your run is over, you’ll know that runner’s high is just around the corner, waiting to embrace you with open arms.

But here’s a friendly reminder: Runner’s high is just one aspect of the amazing benefits running has to offer. Even if you haven’t reached that ecstatic state yet, don’t discount the other remarkable rewards you’ve already reaped. Running has the power to boost your self-esteem, reduce stress, increase endurance, and sharpen your brain function. It’s a holistic journey that encompasses more than just a single peak experience.

Runners High – The Conclusion

In conclusion, my fellow runner, I want you to remember that patience is key on this path. Runner’s high may not be an immediate gift, but it’s a gift worth waiting for.

And in the meantime, relish in the joy of each step, each breath, and each accomplishment. Share your thoughts, experiences, and questions in the comments below. Let’s build a community of passionate runners who support and inspire one another.

Thank you for joining me on this exhilarating journey. Together, let’s keep running strong, chasing our dreams, and savoring every moment of the run. The best is yet to come.

Wishing you endless miles of joy,

David D.

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