The Runner's High
May 15, 2018
After a nice long bout of aerobic exercise, some people experience what’s known as a “runner’s high”: a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a lessened ability to feel pain. For decades, scientists have associated this phenomenon with an increased level in the blood of endorphins thought to elevate mood.
Recently, German researchers have shown the brain’s endocannabinoid system—the same one affected by marijuana’s THC—may also play a role in producing runner’s high, at least in mice.
Our ancestors most likely depended on a runner's high when chasing down their food. It may have served as a way to numb the pain, tired legs and blistered feet so they could keep up with their prey. Today, though, we still can get that benefit when we exert ourselves. The key is: how much exertion does it take?
Endorphins are chemicals that act like their medically-engineered counterpart, morphine. Runner's have credited them for feel-good effects for decades, but it wasn't until German scientists used brain scans on runners that they were able to identify where they originated. The researchers found that during long runs of at least 2 hours, the pre-frontal and limbic regions manufactured endorphins. The greater the surge in these brain areas, the more euphoric the runner felt.
These painkillers are produced in response to discomfort, but that doesn't mean you have to be in severe pain when you run to experience them. There's a certain sweet spot specific to an individual that helps trigger these endorphins. They typically occur during a challenging run, like a tempo run, but not when you're in a gut-busting run like in a race. Attempting a pace or distance that's too tough, and you will most likely be overwhelmed by trying to feel good. Conversely, a pace that's too casual and won't produce discomfort may not trigger the effect as well.
While endorphins get most of the attention, you body also makes endocannabinoids, which are comparable to the THC chemical in marijuana. Anandamide, a type of endocannabinoid produced in the body is believed to create a feeling of calmness and is more likely to be produced when feeling stress rather than pain. While it's difficult to distinguish between stress and discomfort, it is believed these endocannabinoids are produced by the body in the same way through similar exertion levels.
Research also showed that these endocannabinoids are 3x more prevalent in your body in the morning rather than the evening, so perhaps you should focus on those morning runs more often.
In the meantime, whether you run outdoors or on your treadmill, you always have a chance to reach new highs!