Chasing that elusive ‘runner’s high’? Seattle-area experts talk about their experiences

Many non-runners just can’t fathom the idea of ​​spending an hour, or several hours, running. For fun.

Runners, on the other hand, have a hard time letting a day go by. without in a hurry. Part of the love of the sport can be attributed to the phenomenon of the “runner’s high.”

So what is a runner’s high?

During an extended period of running, usually at least half an hour, many runners experience an increased sense of euphoria, decreased anxiety, and decreased sensation of pain. Researchers once attributed this “high” — a happy, buoyant feeling that I can go all day — to exercise-induced release of endorphins, the natural pain relievers released during periods of intense exercise, pain or stress , as well as while eating and during orgasm. Most likely it is more related to endocannabinoids, but we will come back to that point.

Runners aren’t the only ones who can experience the exhilaration of a runner, of course. It is common in endurance athletes or after an intense exercise session, such as high-intensity interval training.

According to Dr. Doug Hiller, an orthopedic surgeon and clinical professor at Washington State University Elson S. Floyd School of Medicine, any endurance athlete can reach this height, as long as the exercise lasts long enough and the maximum ranges of heart rate effort between 70 and 85%.

“It happens in many other sports, but most of the studies are on running and cycling, in part because they are easy to study in the lab,” he said. “A research group tested subjects who were in a choir. They found that endocannabinoids [indicating a “high”] they were lifted up after singing.”

Unlocking the runner’s high is not universal among all runners. Hiller said between two-thirds and three-quarters of athletes report having the experience. Some hit it every run or very often, while others have never felt, or rarely feel, the exhilaration of a runner. Part of the explanation behind the range could be that the feeling is subjective, so while someone may chemically experience a runner’s high, they may not notice anything significant happening.

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There seem to be some common themes on how to increase the chance of feeling that euphoric high.

Kati Leigh, Director of Events for MerGeo, a Seattle-based company that hosts trail runs and other events in the area, believes there are many different ways to unlock a runner’s high. “Some people only get a high while trail running. Some people only get a high when running with others. Some people only get high when they have a high-intensity workout,” he said.

For some, the harder the run, the higher the high.

“Often the most rewarding careers are the most difficult,” said Abram Dickerson, director of courses at Aspire Adventure Running. “Sometimes that struggle stems from a tough day or a general mental or physical lethargy that needs to be overcome. Sometimes the challenge lies in the distance nature or specific elevation gain of a race. There’s definitely a relationship between the struggles and the rewards associated with running.”

A correlation between exertion and runner elation would also explain why endurance athletes tend to remain happy, even after putting in hours of exertion during a particularly hard race.

Hiller has worked in the Ironman medical tent at Hawaii’s premier race since 1985 (and has finished three times himself) and has seen his fair share of exhausted athletes. “I’ve seen incredibly exhausted people who are as happy as people can be, and some who aren’t. It seems very individual and very much depends on your experience and expectations in the race versus the performance on race day.

Leigh agrees that more effort usually results in a high. “I’m more likely to experience a runner’s high when I push myself beyond my baseline fitness level,” she said. In the races he runs, he sees it firsthand in the participants.

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“On race day, most runners are happy before the event. However, when they’re done, their enthusiasm is fully ramped up,” he said. “It’s exciting as a race director to see how the riders transform when they cross the finish line.”

Running in nature also seems to encourage higher instances of euphoria for some.

“Natural settings invite a sense of fluidity and tranquility that is more difficult to access when surrounded by screens and pavement,” said Dickerson. “As we move our bodies in nature, we become more aware of the rhythms of the terrain, the seasons, the light, the weather, the forest, and there is an ease where we just slip into a state of flow.”

Leigh finds her daily worries melt away when she runs on land. “Trail running requires a greater focus on foot placement than road running,” she said. “It is easier to find a flow in the forest because the mind is more focused on the movement of the body.”

While personal preference and effort seem to play a role in reaching that runner’s peak level, there’s a lot of solid science on the subject.

After observing that the molecular structure of endorphins does not allow them to cross the blood-brain barrier, the German researchers looked at the endocannabinoid system, which is the system affected by tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as the compound found in cannabis and that you ” place”. ”

In 2015, a research team led by Dr. Johannes Fuss at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany tested the relationship between cannabinoid receptors and running with exercise-conditioned mice. The mice were divided into two groups: one would run for five hours on an exercise wheel while the other would remain sedentary.

The team found that the exercise group showed significantly less anxious behavior and higher pain tolerance than the sedentary group.

The researchers performed the same experiments on mice given antagonists that blocked endocannabinoids and endorphins in the brain. The endorphin-blocking mice showed minimal change in results, while the endocannabinoid-blocking mice continued to show signs of anxiety and pain sensitivity, despite running for five hours.

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In 2021, the same research team replicated the experiment with humans They recruited 63 experienced runners and administered similar tests. (One key difference: The drug used to block endocannabinoids in mice is not legal for human use.)

The volunteers ran for 45 minutes one day, then walked for 45 minutes on another. After each training, the scientists drew blood and performed psychological tests on the subjects.

The researchers found that while most participants said they felt high during the run, none felt it during the walk. There was no difference between the placebo group and the one that took the blockers.

More importantly, all the participants showed an increase in endocannabinoids in their blood after running and similar changes in their emotional state, even if their endorphin system had been turned off. Essentially, the findings indicated that endocannabinoids are most likely responsible for the euphoria of runners, and reaching that state requires high-heart-rate activities, such as running.

While research conclusively shows that exercise, in general, is good for us mentally and physically, perhaps the individual experience of runner’s high (why some feel it and others don’t, and how to unlock the feeling) is a mystery that will never really be solved. to be understood.

“I don’t think there is a single path to a runner’s exhilaration or an easy way to quantify the experience,” Dickerson said. “I experience a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment for every race I’ve done, no matter how big or small. I have never regretted going for a run. Ever. So really the answer is to run.”

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