Science Behind Runner’s High : Running Induced Pleasure


 

For many years, Runner’s high – the euphoric feeling experienced and reported by many athletes after long running (26.2 miles) – had been a stuff of a sport legend. Being the most elusive and sought after myth, it had gathered attention from scientists and researchers from time to time.

Is it just a myth or something for real? The anecdotal evidence in the past had been mixed.

 

Divergent Hypotheses

The Endogenous Opioid Hypothesis

In Mid 1970s, one theory suggested that the answer lies in endorphins i.e. the hormones naturally produced in the body during exercise have opiate or morphine like properties.[1] But there have been much debate that these chemicals are too big to cross the blood-brain barrier. And when something doesn’t reach brain, how is it supposed to induce any kind of effect in it? Quite legit.

The Cannabinoid Hypothesis

In 1992, another chemical was discovered that could easily cross the blood-brain barrier like nobody’s business, Anandamide (wiki).[2] The name was derived from Sanskrit word, ‘anand’ standing for bliss. Not only did it give brain a nice buzz but dilate the blood vessels and lungs as well, thus helping one run better and longer.[3]

This makes sense. Even from the evolutionary perspective, where the concept of persistence killing ruled.

Evolutionary theory

There is a group of scientists who believe that runner’s high has much to do with how our ancestors hunted for food. They managed to catch their prey not because they could outrun the animal, but because they could continue to run longer. This exhausted their prey and finally catching and feeding on it, taught the brain to feel a sense of bliss after long running.[4]

Goals theory

Keeping an unachievable or a difficult goal in front of you, one like running 26.2 miles, also gives one a high. However, it is still not clear why this high is experienced even though running this far might not be unachievable for some.[5]

Partial Brain Shut Down theory

Another idea is of a partial brain shut down, where the brain becomes insensitive to pain and shin splits due to glycogen depletion. No proof are available though.

Is Runner’s High Legit?

The good news is that researchers have now confirmed that runner’s high is legitimate and that one can train oneself to feel it by slowly raising the intensity of running exercise. The Runner’s High phenomenon can help you push your body endurance and stamina to new limits without muscular pain that can come by after a prolonged workout.

How to Achieve Runner’s High?

So do you wish to send your mind soaring? If yes, then make sure to follow the suggestions below:

  • Get into the Groove: Just like endorphins increase happiness, happiness also creates a surge in endorphins. Therefore, get into the right groove with an iPod & listen to some great beats to set up the right mood for the run.
  • Get Longer: Start at a speed comfortable to you and then gradually increase your speed to the maximum, maintain it for 30 seconds and then gradually go back your comfortable speed again. Whenever you feel fatigued, slow down but don’t stop running or start walking. Continuous running motion is important in achieving this state. Slowly and steadily, your body will find its speed and motion.
  • Try Intervals: Try to mix alternates of higher and lower intervals during the run. The increase in physical demands also increase the release of endorphins more than the one in a steady run.

Word of Caution: The above method may or may not get you result, but prolonged workout without necessary practice and stamina may result in injury or sickness. Always keep your body hydrated and keep practicing because practice makes perfect.

If you’ve had experience with the runner’s high or find some useful data. Share it in the comments below.

References:

[1] Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, Tolle TR. The runner's high: opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Cereb Cortex. 2008 Nov;18(11):2523-31. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn013. Epub 2008 Feb 21. PubMed PMID: 18296435. ^Back to Top^

[2] Sparling PB, Giuffrida A, Piomelli D, Rosskopf L, Dietrich A. Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system. Neuroreport. 2003 Dec 2;14(17):2209-11. PubMed PMID: 14625449. ^Back to Top^

[3] Dubreucq S, Koehl M, Abrous DN, Marsicano G, Chaouloff F. CB1 receptor deficiency decreases wheel-running activity: consequences on emotional behaviours and hippocampal neurogenesis. Exp Neurol. 2010 Jul;224(1):106-13. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2010.01.017. Epub 2010 Feb 4. PubMed PMID: 20138171. ^Back to Top^

[4] Galdino GS, Duarte ID, Perez AC. Participation of endogenous opioids in the antinociception induced by resistance exercise in rats. Braz J Med Biol Res. 2010 Sep;43(9):906-9. Epub 2010 Aug 27. PubMed PMID: 20802976. ^Back to Top^

[5] Hinton ER, Taylor S. Does placebo response mediate runner's high? Percept Mot Skills. 1986 Jun;62(3):789-90. PubMed PMID: 3725516. ^Back to Top^

Last Updated: April 29, 2014
Next Scheduled Update: June 29, 2014

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