The runner's high - what is it and how do you get it?
If you're into running, you'll probably have heard about the runner's high. Maybe you've been lucky enough to get it on some of your long-distance runs. It can quickly make your morning run every bit as addictive as that bar of chocolate you're constantly craving. But what is the runner's high, does it really exist, and how can you get it more often?
Run for it
Reports of a 'runner's high' relate to feelings of elation or euphoria experienced by runners. We know that our bodies release endorphins when we exercise, and that these endorphins can boost our energy levels and improve mood (1). But do they create a 'high'?
Some studies support the idea of a runner's high, whilst others believe it doesn't exist. One study carried out on a small group of 10 runners found that two hours of jogging increased the activity of pleasure receptors in the brain - so feelings of euphoria reported by long-distance runners could have some basis in scientific fact (2). A study carried out in 2012 revealed that intense endurance activity, such as running, led to an increase in brain chemicals known as endocannabinoids, responsible for signalling pleasure (3). It's not clear whether the runner's high really does exist - it's true that the endorphins our bodies release during exercise could lead to pleasurable, euphoric feelings, but the jury is still out as to whether there is scientific evidence to support the idea of a runner's high.
Enough science - how do you achieve it?
We know that the question you all really want an answer to is how do you achieve a runner's high? Well, learning how happy reactions in your brain are triggered could help you to achieve that elusive high more often. Scientists believe that the runner's high may have evolutionary roots. In the past (and today) it serves as a natural painkiller to help us achieve speed and distance when running. After all, the survival of our ancestors depending on their ability to escape predators and chase down food, so it makes sense.
Runners have credited endorphins for their feel-good effects for decades, but German research carried out in 2008 revealed where endorphins originated from during a run. During two-hour-long runs, the limbic and pre-frontal regions of the brain were shown to produce endorphins. The greater the surge of endorphins in these brain areas, the more euphoric runners reported feeling (4).
Tips for getting high
There are a few things you can do to improve your chances of achieving a runner's high. It's important to note though that if you're entirely new to running, it's not something you're likely to experience straight away. It takes time and plenty of training to build up endurance and stamina - and long-distance runners are more likely to achieve a high than those who are regularly running short distances. Here are our tips for achieving that runner's high more often!
It's important to push yourself into the realms of physical discomfort. Your runs should always be challenging, but comfortably so. Pushing your body without overdoing it will lead to the release of endorphins. You're more likely to experience a high when you have mastered fairly long-distance runs. A short run around the block at lunchtime is unlikely to cut it - although it's still good for your fitness of course!
Get a running buddy
A study carried out at Oxford University showed that rowers exercising together experienced an increase in endorphin release compared to those who rowed alone. If you have to run solo, listening to music can also help to spike your endorphin levels - just make sure it's your favourite tracks!
Endocannabinoids are a naturally-produced version of THC (the chemical responsible for the buzz marijuna provides). Your body produces more endocannabinoids in response to stress, as opposed to pain. So a challenging workout at 70-85% of your max heart rate should spike your cortisol (stress hormone) levels and help your body to produce endocannabinoids. Research also shows that levels of endocannabinoids are up to three times higher first thing in the morning - so heading outside for a morning run could mean you're more likely to experience a high!
It's important not to push yourself too hard when you first set out for a run, as it's common to feel fatigue within the first minute or so. Set your initial pace very slow and aim to increase it gradually.
Boost your speed
To get that high, you'll then need to increase your pace drastically for just a few minutes, allowing your body to make biological and chemical changes that will start to prepare you for the runner's high. Make sure you slow down as soon as you feel fatigue - remember, you shouldn't be pushing yourself too hard. You should experience a sudden surge of energy at some point after this and the key is to channel that energy into a hard run, after which the high zone should be within reach!
If you're a sprinter rather than a jogger or long-distance runner, there's no point switching up your style just for the sake of the runner's high. Running, or exercise of any kind, can still lead to the release of feel-good endorphins which will boost your mood and your energy levels. Focus on training at a level that suits you and don't push yourself too hard, as injury could occur. Hiring a running coach or personal trainer is a great way to set yourself running goals that are challenging yet achievable, and could help you to achieve that runner's high more easily.
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