Even if you aren’t a runner, you have probably heard of the runner’s high: a feeling of euphoria achieved after a run. It may sound elusive. You may have even found yourself wondering: Is it even real? Even if you’ve felt it before, you may have thought it was something you simply imagined.
Is the runner’s high just a myth and can a runner of any level reach it? Let’s break down the top three things you should know about runner’s high and the science behind it.
YES, THE RUNNER’S HIGH IS REAL
To clear this big issue up once and for all: Yes, the runner’s high is real. Even more, Angela Fifer, PhD, a certified mental performance consultant and Association for Applied Sport Psychology E-Board member, stresses it is real not only from a physiological/biochemical standpoint but also from a psychological one. If you’ve felt the runner’s high, there’s a high chance you weren’t just imagining things.
“From the psychological perspective, during and after a run, the positive feelings that runners experience are related to getting out and moving, letting our stress go and accomplishing a goal,” confirms Fifer. “Just getting out to go move helps us step away from our stress and the issues we might be struggling with that give us a fresh look from a different perspective.”
The science behind the runner’s high isn’t as simple as acknowledging its reality, however. If you’re thinking it just comes down to endorphins, it isn’t quite that basic — and recent studies added even more variations to the cause. Exercise in general has been proven to have many neurological benefits, including sharpened memory and improved mental clarity. This is due in part to improvement in mood and reduction of stress — which are byproducts of the runner’s high — and in part to the physiological and biochemical factors Fifer mentions above.
STUDIES DON’T QUITE AGREE ON ITS CAUSE
As the great Elle Woods said: “Exercise gives you endorphins; endorphins make you happy and happy people just don’t shoot their husbands!” Yes, I did just quote “Legally Blonde,” because this quote is the perfect summation of what most people attribute to the runner’s high. While endorphins are released during a run — brain imaging in 2008 confirmed this — it isn’t the only (or even the main) thing going on in your brain (as a more recent study found the endorphins produced during running “cannot cross the blood–brain barrier”).
This 2015 study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), rocked the running world, as it found endocannabinoids were also at play and yes, cannabinoid receptors in the brain were activated. If this all sounds familiar it is because this part of the brain is also affected by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana. (Now, cannabidiol (CBD) is also a hot topic.)
So, the term runner’s high was actually apt for the phenomenon. In 2015, another study attributed leptin suppression as playing a role in the runner’s high. And most recently, in 2019, even more has been added to the discussion, with this study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (MSSE), which found genetics (specifically, micro-ribonucleic acid (miRNA)) play a role in targeting specific receptors during running that are attributed to the runner’s high.
This is all to say there hasn’t been one definitive explanation for runner’s high. Oliver Stoll, a professor at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, acknowledged “the true existence of the runner’s high remains highly debated.” In his writing, Stoll outlines even more theories and studies that have been presented over the years, including right- or left-brain dominance and endorphins versus endocannabinoids.
IT’S NOT JUST FOR ELITES
No matter how advanced you are in the sport, you can experience the runner’s high. In fact, Fifer notes that even getting in a good walk can leave you with benefits, from feeling more positive and relaxed to better-prepared for the day ahead. It is important to note you won’t necessarily feel a runner’s high after every run; if you don’t, you aren’t doing anything wrong in your training.
“There is no definitive signal that you are experiencing a runner’s high,” she adds. “Look for signs that your mood and attitude have improved, you feel less stressed and anxious and are overall happier post-run.”