Chasing the Runner’s High

When the feet pound the pavement, a welcome sense of euphoria can follow.

Illustration by Ward Sutton

As a runner, I am often asked what drives me to keep lacing up my sneakers. Here’s the truth: I don’t know. I love running, but when I’m really pushing myself, it’s The Worst.

There are plenty of reasons people take up running—even though it’s grueling. As a fitness regime, running is relatively low-cost, and anyone can start at any time. Then there’s the ulterior motive for many of us: chasing the runner’s high.

What is this runner’s high? In short, it’s your brain playing tricks.

The runner’s high has long been attributed to the release of endorphins, the rush of hormones that causes a feeling of euphoria after a burst of physical exertion (yes, including sex) or extreme stress. Endorphins have an effect similar to opiates such as heroin or morphine. They dampen our perception of pain and amplify pleasure.

However, a 2015 study by the Central Institute of Mental Health at the University of Heidelberg discovered endorphins are not the lone trigger for this effect. Endocannabinoids also play a role. These compounds are naturally synthesized by the body and activate the same receptors as THC, which you might recognize as the substance in marijuana that produces a high.

That’s not to say jogging is the same as smoking a doobie, but it can have similar calming, analgesic effects. Sustain a good pace, and you’ll stop feeling that twinge in your quad or cramp in your foot. Running regularly can alleviate anxiety and help elevate self-esteem.

What’s the best way to achieve runner’s high? Hit the treadmill and sprint until your calf muscles melt? Not exactly. Dr. John Macri, a clinical sports psychologist who operates New Jersey Clinical & Sport Psychology in Ridgewood, works with athletes to build mental toughness and improve performance. This includes identifying and dealing with his clients’ daily stressors; helping them manage their energy and emotions; and teaching routines to tamp down pre-competition jitters. Macri says the experience of runner’s high differs from person to person. There’s no single time or distance yardstick.

“One study said 115 minutes [is ideal], but I’ve also had people tell me they felt it after 30 minutes,” says Macri. “Sometimes they run for a long time and don’t get it. It’s variable.”

If you expect your first trip around the track or down the road to yield euphoria, you’re bound to be disappointed. It may take awhile to figure out what works for you.

“Start in small increments to prevent injury,” says Macri. “Moderate is better at the beginning, rather than distance….You want to leave a little bit in the tank.”

For me, the runner’s high came quickly. A 400-meter sprinter in high school (third fastest in Union County my junior year!), I made the leap to long-distance after college. I started at about a mile and a half, worked up to about three or four miles. Now I run about four times a week. I love to run at night—I have a lot of aggression when I get home. In my case, the runner’s high is a sort of loopiness that sweeps over me during my cool down, especially after an aggressive 45- to 60-minute run. I feel giddy! I feel great! I have no problems whatsoever!

And then I fall asleep.

Which reminds me: The runner’s high is short-lived. Is it worth it?

Just ask the millions who run.

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