runners high, Dali

A Runners High is a Gift from the Brain

One of the most rewarding aspects of running is the runners high. A runner’s high is a euphoria that some people experience after long sustained runs at a consistent pace.

At some point, often unpredictably, in the rhythm of one’s breath and the constant pound of feet against pavement, the world shifts. It’s as if our very neurons, those microscopic fibers transmitting electric pulses, decide collectively to gift us with an ephemeral clarity. The “runner’s high,” as it’s pedestrianly named, is not merely a biochemical jolt of endorphins; it’s an ascension, a fleeting moment when the oppressive weight of daily existence lifts. The runner is momentarily unshackled from the endless chatter of the mind, the self-consciousness, the recursive, incessant thoughts about thoughts. It’s a paradox: in the very throes of physical exertion, when one might expect to be most anchored in the body, the mind achieves this ethereal lightness. It’s as if, in the process of pushing our bodies past their perceived limits, we’ve earned a brief respite from the tyranny of the self, a state of grace bestowed by the very brain that often ensnares us in loops of overthinking. This gift, when it comes, serves as a reminder: sometimes, liberation is found not in rest, but in motion.

Chemical responses in the brain likely create the feeling of euphoria. As it occurs during long distance running and can last for up to an hour after the run. Thereby, creating a sense of purpose and pride that encourages us to do more aerobic exercise, such as biking or swimming.

Endorphin response

It has long been held that a runners high is a release of endorphins and other chemicals in the brain.

Endorphins are a type of neurotransmitter that is released in response to pain. And also released in response to strenuous exercise. They are widely believed to reduce pain and provide a sense of well-being.

Endorphins, or “natural painkillers”, relieve pain without the risk of addiction or side effects found in many prescription drugs. Typically, they release in response to physical activity, such as running.

More importantly, endorphins activate receptors in the brain called opioid receptors. This is how they reduce anxiety and create feelings of euphoria.

Specifically, opioid receptors found in the brain control emotional states. So when endorphins bind with these receptors, they change how a person feels.

What happens to the brain

Endocannabinoids are chemicals made by the brain that affect how we respond to stress and pain. Anandamide is an endocannabinoid that has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and pain sensitivity.

However, unlike the lipophilic anandamide, β-endorphin cannot cross the blood–brain barrier, rendering central effects of peripheral opioids unlikely.

Johannes Fuss et al

Benefits of running

It’s been well documented that long-distance running can create a feeling of euphoria when they reach the finish line.

Running is an activity that can be challenging on both the mind and body. To reach our high personal goals, it requires months of training for hours on end. Often leading to feelings of stress and anxiety. This is where the runner’s high comes into play.

When a runner reaches a state in training or a race where the feelings of accomplishment outweigh the physical effort, they are met with a flood of endorphins. This response helps mitigate stress with reduced anxiety about the performance. 

The feeling of happiness is one reason why runners often have a reduced perception of pain when they are running. This form of exercise helps create a feeling of calm and control. All in all, runners sometimes even experience a sense of calmness and accomplishment before they actually reach the half marathon finish line.

A study found that people who ran at a pace that was 10% faster than their speed at their best mile time had lower levels of anxiety than those who ran at their best mile time pace.

Running at a consistent pace has been shown to reduce anxiety and control emotional reactions more effectively than other forms of aerobic exercise.

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