How running can give you a legal high

Running is one of the most popular forms of exercise around the world, but did you know that some runners experience a euphoric high during their runs? I investigated how and why this might be the case, and heard from some of those who were fortunate enough to experience this so-called ‘runner’s high’.

Some people who run regularly may end up chasing the euphoric runner’s high experience. (Image – Sarah Chai Pexels)

Worldwide, running is the second most popular method of exercise behind walking, whilst in England, it is the most popular form of exercise followed by fitness classes. It is very difficult to estimate the number of people who run worldwide, however, one investigation estimated the number of total global runners to be over 621 million people!

There are several reasons why running is one of the most popular ways to keep fit, including the fact that it is a solitary activity, meaning you do not have to rely on other people’s busy schedules. Likewise, all you need is a pair of trainers so you can do it pretty much whenever and wherever.

Some people also run regularly to chase the famous “runner’s high” that some people are lucky enough to have experience. This is something that I achieved myself completely unintentionally and have been chasing ever since.

Letting go of my ego helped me enjoy running and achieve a runner’s high

I used to despise running. Despise is a strong word, I know, but I just could not seem to fathom how anybody actually enjoyed running. My mum is a seasoned runner, having ran 20 marathons and countless shorter race distances. For years she tried to get me running with her, with a very low success rate. 

I tried countless times to get into running but found that I often really struggled to pace myself and would end up getting a stitch or being completely unable to breathe within five minutes. At one point, I had concluded that I just was not cut out to be a runner until a friend of mine pointed out to me that the key to learning how to pace yourself is about, “learning to let go of your ego.”

There are all sorts of tips out there advising running newbies on finding their perfect conversational pace, which is – as the name suggests – a running pace at which you can still hold a conversation. It is about finding what works for you. 

The magic mile, or mile trial, is a common pacing tip. It involves running one mile, or four laps of a standard running track, relatively fast and timing it to get an indication of your top speed. Every couple of weeks, you are encouraged to attempt your magic mile again, but this time at a quicker pace than before. 

Adding two to three minutes to this magic mile time during your regular runs supposedly helps you to find a comfortable pace. For example, if your first magic mile run takes 10 minutes, then aim to run at around 12 to 13 minutes per mile on your daily runs. But, on your next magic mile run, try to be quicker than 10 minutes.

There are many different ways one can learn to pace themselves, one of which is the so-called mile trial which can be done by running four laps of a race track at a high tempo pace and timing yourself. (Image – Wikimedia Commons)

Obviously, sometimes this is easier said than done for some because if you know you are capable of running ten-minute miles, then you will try to run ten-minute miles at all times. However, this can result in overexertion which can lead to runners becoming overly fatigued and discouraged, or worse, injured.

So, this is where learning to let go of your ego comes in. Although you know you can run a little bit faster, to avoid that deadly stitch or keeling over, learn to slow down just that little bit!

The magic mile method of pacing yourself is not the only method, though. For me, I learnt to find my conversational pace by monitoring my heart rate.

I learnt this trick from TikTok – which seems to be where I learn everything these days – back when I was about to accept failure and give up on my running career altogether due to my apparent inability to run without feeling like my lungs would collapse.

All you have to do is calculate your maximum heart rate which can be estimated by subtracting your age from 220. I am 22 so my maximum heart rate is 198 beats per minute (BPM). According to the American Heart Association, a good target for complete beginners is to run between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate. So, in theory, for me, this is anywhere between 99 and 139 BPM. 

Heart rate zones can be used to help you find your conversational running pace. (Infographic – created by the author with information from healthiack.com)

With this in mind, I set off on a run with my trusty FitBit on and headphones in, monitoring my heart rate with the intention of finding my conversational pace ensuring it did not go much over the 140 mark – allowing a bit of wiggle room, of course. 

It felt weird at first, like I was running in slow motion, and I was conscious that people would be judging me, but in reality, I doubt anybody really noticed. For the first time in my life, I was able to run for 20 minutes without losing my breath and without getting the agonising stitch I had become all too familiar with. And, for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed a run! 

As my fitness improved, so did my ability to run a bit further outside of the 99-to-139 BPM window, and for longer lengths of time. I even began integrating the occasional sprint interval into my runs as I love the challenge of seeing how fast I can run in a short burst of time – usually to the chorus of a really angry song. However, there are a fair few songs that I now cannot hear without associating them with aggressively running on a treadmill or through a park!  

Running has slowly become a major release for me. On days where I feel especially anxious or stressed, I will often throw on my trainers and go for a run. It does not have to be a long one, but elevating my heart rate, I find, helps relieve tension and takes my mind off life’s worries temporarily. 

It was on a particularly stressful day that I had my very first experience of a runner’s high. I forced myself out of the door and went for a run, only intending on being gone for no longer than 30 minutes. As I neared the 30-minute mark, however, I felt this overwhelming burst of energy and joy that I had never experienced before whilst running.

This feeling allowed me to comfortably, and very happily, continue running for another 25 minutes, meaning I pretty much doubled my run time. Afterwards, I felt a buzz for hours. At first, I attributed this buzz to a sense of pride as I had ran way further than I intended or anticipated, but now I know it was a rare experience of runner’s high that I have only felt once since over a year later.

Runner’s high can cause a deeply relaxing state of euphoria that reduces pain and discomfort. (Image: Me after my first ever runner’s high experience back in July 2020)

Can you really get a high from running?

The so-called runner’s high is a deeply relaxing state of euphoria – the sense of extreme joy and delight – that some runners feel after intense or lengthy exercise.

“Psychologically, runners may experience euphoria, a feeling of being invincible, a reduced state of discomfort or pain, and even a loss in sense of time while running,” Jesse Pittsley, PhD, associate professor of Exercise Physiology, told WebMD.

But why does it occur? Here comes the sciencey part!…

People have been trying to work out the cause of runner’s high for years. Recent research found that this ability may be innate, with numerous chemical factors also coming into play.

In their research, Bramble and Lieberman hypothesise that runner’s high links back to our early ancestors in hunter-gatherer times. Their survival depended on chasing down food to fuel themselves, and the euphoric feel-good chemicals released in their brains likely served as a reward and motivation for their hunting and gathering.

David Raichlen, PhD, is an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, as well as a recreational runner. He thinks that a runner’s high served as not only a cause of pleasure to our ancestors but a natural painkiller, helping to mask any injuries such as tired legs and blistered feet.

Many forms of exercise, including running, result in a rush of endorphins. These are chemicals in the body that act on opiate receptors in the brain and help to relieve pain whilst also increasing feelings of pleasure.

Endorphins are a response to numerous situations, including being in physical discomfort or stressful situations. As many of us will know, running and physical exercise can often cause physical discomfort, hence, we achieve a rush of endorphins so that we feel less pain.

Most studies surrounding runner’s high have focussed on the rush of endorphins being the cause of this euphoric buzz. However, Raichlen believes that a different class of chemicals called endocannabinoids are likely to blame.

Endocannabinoids are actually the same chemicals that the drug cannabis mimics. These chemicals alleviate pain and boost your mood, so much so that brain scientists refer to them as the “don’t worry, be happy” chemical!

Brain scientists often refer to endocannabinoids as the “don’t worry, be happy” chemical. (Image: Thirdman – Pexels)

To test his theory, Raichlen put runners on a treadmill at various intensities and measured the levels of endocannabinoids in their blood before and after.

Results concluded that running at both a maximum intensity and walking slowly was found to have very little effect. However, when running at a moderate pace, runners’ endocannabinoid levels tripled, and they reported to have felt really good afterwards.

Raichlen also speculates that our ancient ancestors would have ran at a similar moderate intensity to his participants, further supporting the view that runner’s high has likely been around as long as we have.

The endocannabinoid high can be achieved through other means of exercise too, such as cycling and hiking. So, in reality, it is more of a persistence high rather than a runner’s high, requiring around 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, so, if you are not a fan of running it is not all bad news!

Runner’s high may be rarer than you would hope but you can still enjoy running

Sadly, not everyone who exercises will get a runner’s high, and due to the subjective nature of the experience, it is difficult to measure, meaning different people may also have different experiences of it.

A runner’s high is also often rare for those that do occasionally achieve it. Anthony Collier, who has continued to run since his terminal cancer diagnosis in May 2017, told me how he has unfortunately experienced more running lows than highs over recent years due to the side effects of his treatment.

Anthony experienced his ultimate runner’s high experience back in May though when he crossed the finish line of a 100km ultra-marathon “as a 64-year-old bloke with terminal cancer… in the top 50% of [his] age group.”

Runner’s high is also very unpredictable, with Hekim telling me, “It’s a rarity and you can’t predict it. Except on marathons – you go through so much emotionally within those 26.2 miles, it’s difficult to not be emotionally affected at the end.

“I guess it’s exceeding expectations, but sometimes it can be when you are just running with a good friend and having a good chat or [there is] phenomenal scenery. There’s an emotional lift.”

A runner’s high is rare and unpredictable, however, you are almost guaranteed to experience one during a marathon, Hekim says. (Image: Julian Mason – Creative Commons)

There are of course many other benefits to running, both mentally and physically, so those of you who do not achieve a runner’s high should not be disheartened.

Rob Pitt is one runner who has never been lucky enough to experience the euphoric nature of a runner’s high, saying that “running makes me feel discomfort, reluctance, and pain while I’m doing it generally.”

“So why do it?” one may ask him.

“The sense of achievement it fills my life with… It’s also an excellent way to build mental toughness and has improved my life in unexpected ways,” is his response.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience a runner’s high may find themselves chasing that euphoric feeling like Graham Hart, who has been running for over 50 years and described runner’s high as, “A feeling of euphoria that continues for a long time after the run, often for the rest of the day.

“It’s a great feeling, a feeling you wish you could bottle… The high is something you certainly want more of and why running can become rather addictive as you seek more highs.”

For those of you who cannot quite motivate yourselves to get up and out for a run, maybe now you know that you can experience a real-life and legal high from it you might just be convinced to get those trainers on and start pounding the pavements.

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