The Runner’s High…

For those of us lucky enough who have experienced the baffling phenomenon known popularly and affectionately as a ‘runner’s high’, we have earned some bragging rights.

It allows us to plough and flow through some of the toughest runs with contentment as we find that sweet spot. Our bodies are tired, maybe even exhausted, totally spent, but the ‘high’ seemingly resets our efforts and our brains and motions go on auto pilot.

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Yet the question remains, is there truth to a ‘runner’s high’ and, if so, is it psychological or biological?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘runner’s high’ as “a feeling of euphoria that is experienced by some individuals engaged in strenuous running and that is held to be associated with a release of endorphins by the brain” (MWD. 2016).

runners high_3It is not isolated to running since many athletes who participate in other sports such as bicycling, skiing, sailing, and surfing have reported similar experiences.

Psychological

Over the last few decades, scientific research and investigation has explored the experience.

In the 1960s, it was simply called a ‘second wind’ because it seemed to push athletes on to longer distances, heightened endurance, better performance and improved recovery.

Altered state of consciousness

The ‘runner’s high’ term evolved in part due to the increasing number of marathoners and long distance runners who reported and described their elation.

Various renditions of euphoria, power, spirituality, peaceful calm, an altered state of consciousness, increased energy, as well as reduced pain and anxiety that is true bliss, occurs either during prolonged bouts of intense workouts or immediately after.

The potent and emotional responses have been compared to the responses similar to a drug.

The mysterious feeling

It is personal, intimate, private, ambiguous, subjective, and unfortunately not every athlete experiences the effect and not consistently – even the same people do not ‘high’ with every run – it eludes us now and then.

Indeed, there is no apparent minimum distance, length of workout, particular time of day, or specific moment when it kicks in.

Biological

Historically, endorphins, which are our body’s naturally occurring opiates, or pain killers, and chemically much like morphine, were considered the common contributor to a ‘runner’s high’.

runners high_2However, recent research suggests two additional factors that concur with the possible elation of a drug or biological response:

1. A fall in leptin

A number of communiques and Press Releases last year based on a study conducted at the University of Montreal and published in Cell Metabolism reported that a fall in leptin (the satiety hormone) levels is a factor.

Leptin is a fat cell-derived hormone that signals to the brain when the body has enough fuel and energy, and a fall in leptin levels increases motivation for physical activity as a means to enhance exploration and the pursuit of food.

People with lower fat-adjusted leptin levels, such as high-performance marathon runners, could potentially be more susceptible to the rewarding effects of running and thus possibly more inclined to exercise (PR. 2015).

2. Endurance running linked to pleasure

The Washington Post and Scientific American, based on a study published in 2015 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested that Endocannabinoids, the chemical in the brain associated to pleasure increases with intense endurance running and training.

“Endocannabinoids can basically be thought of as the body’s self-produced marijuana and, like cannabis, can impact a wide range of physiological processes, including appetite, pain, memory, and mood” (Eunjung Cha. 2015).

The research is conclusive: a ‘runner’s high’ is real with substantive evidence; and albeit fleeting, indefinable, or elusive – we want the incredible sensation that elevates our drive to keep on running.

Connect with Expert Leslie Olsen.

References

Eunjung Cha, A. (2015). Scientists say ‘runner’s high’ is like a marijuana high. To Your Health. The Washington Post. 

Lavelle, J. (2015). New Brain Effects behind “Runner’s High”. Health. Scientific American. 

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (MWD). (2016). Definition of Runner’s High.

Public Release. (2015). Body fat hormone leptin influences runner’s high. Cell Press.

Quoted from: Leptin Suppresses the Rewarding Effects of Running via STAT3 Signaling in Dopamine Neurons

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