We’ve all heard of the runner’s high – that elusive post-run feeling that some runners experience after (or even during) a run.
Many studies have been conducted over the years to understand exactly what causes the runner’s high.
What’s clear is that some runners get it, whereas other runners don’t.
If you are lucky enough to experience it – feelings of calm, even euphoria, may overcome you.
Many runners view the runner’s high positively because it is thought to improve running performance.
But what exactly is the runner’s high? What causes it and how do you boost the post-run feeling?
In this guide we’ll look at:
- What is the runner’s high?
- What does the runner’s high feel like?
- What causes the runner’s high?
- Do all runners experience post-run feelings?
- How long does the runner’s high last?
- 6 ways to boost the post-run feeling
What is the runner’s high?
The runner’s high is so-called because it describes an ephemeral post-run feeling that some runners experience.
There are two main neurotransmitters in the body that are responsible for producing the runner’s high:
- Endocannabinoids (eCBs)
The release of these chemicals are partly responsible for improvements in mood following aerobic exercise.
They promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety and feelings of calm.
Endorphins and eCBs produce similar sensations, but the main difference is how far they can circulate in the body.
Endorphins can only be created by specialised neurons, whereas pretty much any cell in the body is capable of making eCBs.
This means eCBs have the potential to make a bigger impact on your brain.
This is important because endorphins were thought to be the primary source of the runner’s high.
However, more recent research has shown the powerful effects of eCBs in the body during exercise.
According to one study, evidence suggests that the runner’s high depends on the release of eCBs.
Adding that exercise increases the activity of eCBs by inducing an “euphoric-like” effect.
What does the runner’s high feel like?
The runner’s high is defined as a ‘euphoric sensation experienced during running’.
During the runner’s high, you may feel:
- A heightened sense of calm and wellbeing
- An elevated mood
- Reduced levels of stress and anxiety
- An enhanced appreciation of nature
Of course, how you feel during and after a run is completely down to you as an individual.
Some runners report feeling tired, fatigued, even nauseous after a run, for example, so the experience of the runner’s high is varied.
Some studies suggest that the human ability to experience a ‘high’ during a run is down to our ancestors.
Early humans had to hunt for their food by chasing down prey, often at speed over long distances.
The theory is that feel-good chemicals were released to help early humans achieve the necessary endurance, stamina and speed to hunt.
The key takeaway?
Whilst today we are not running to hunt, we are hardwired to experience a euphoric feeling during and after exercise.
What causes the runner’s high?
Exercise increases the levels of endorphins and eCBs in the body.
Your body releases chemicals (opioids and endocannabinoids) in the blood to help deal with the physical stresses of exercise such as running which can be pretty demanding on your body.
Studies tell us that the endocannabinoid system is crucial for a runner’s high.
But we know that the runner’s high is not experienced by every runner though.
This may be down to the fact that exercise-induced psychological changes reported by runners are known to be dependent on exercise intensity.
Research shows that humans have increased exercise-induced eCBs following high intensity endurance running.
Interestingly, studies show that humans and dogs are very similar in this sense!
This neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other mammals like dogs habitually engage in aerobic exercise.
Studies have also found that the release of eCBs in the body is also triggered by the following stimuli:
- Sexual orgasm
- Tissue injury
The bottom line when it comes to exercise?
Any high intensity endurance exercise (e.g. exercise that feels ‘comfortably hard’) can trigger the release of ‘feel good’ chemicals in the body.
Do all runners experience post-run feelings?
The runner’s high and post-run feelings are not experienced by all runners.
It doesn’t occur consistently either in all runners, even if you have experienced it before.
This makes the phenomenon all the more elusive!
In fact its very existence is down to runners verbalising how they felt during and after a run.
What we do know is that you are less likely to experience the runner’s high if you are a beginner runner.
You need to develop your base level of fitness and endurance before being able to tap into the post-run feeling.
You will also need to run a few miles before being able to experience it.
It’s not something that happens straight away.
How long does the runner’s high last?
The runner’s high can last anywhere between a few minutes to a few hours.
Whilst it’s seen as a short-term effect, long term benefits of the runner’s high have been identified by researchers.
The runner’s high is seen as a neurobiological reward for endurance exercise.
It gives a strong sense of contentment, fulfilment and achievement.
So once you experience it, you’re more likely to return to running as a habitual form of exercise.
6 ways to boost the post-run feeling
Now you know more about the runner’s high, are are 6 ways to boost the post-run feeling.
#1 Perform high intensity endurance exercise
As I explained earlier, humans have increased exercise-induced eCBs following high intensity endurance running.
This means low intensity running such as an easy run is unlikely to induce eCBs at great levels.
Running at 80% to 90% of your max heart rate is optimal for producing eCBs.
Your pace should feel comfortably hard.
#2 Get enough sleep
We all know the benefits of getting a good night’s sleep for optimal running performance.
A good night’s sleep can also boost the post-run feeling.
Research has found that you need 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal feel good hormone production.
You will also want to ensure you practice good sleep hygiene.
This includes setting a consistent sleep schedule and routine and optimising your bedroom environment – ensure it is quiet, dark, relaxed and cool.
According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control, you also want to avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
#3 Go for a run in the morning
Studies have found that eCB levels are three times greater first thing in the morning compared with the evening.
This could suggest that running in the morning is more likely to produce the post-run feeling, as opposed to running in the afternoon or in the evening.
#4 Reduce your stress levels
Although the runner’s high is known to reduce levels of stress and anxiety, chronic stress can have a huge impact on your health.
Chronic stress can also dull the effects of eCBs over time.
This suggests that you are less likely to experience the runner’s high if you lead a stressful lifestyle.
#5 Run with a friend or in a group
Research on rowers showed that those who exercised together significantly increased their endorphin release when compared with solo athletes.
So consider taking a friend on your next run to boost those post-run feels!
Alternatively, join a running club and surround yourself with like-minded runners.
#6 Listen to music
Music has the potential to change both the body and mind during physical activity.
Research has found that listening to music during exercise elevates your mood and distracts you from pain and fatigue.
So next time you go for a run, listen to your favourite playlist for an extra feel-good kick!
Bonus tip: Listen to your body!
Endorphins or eCBs can’t override an injury or lack of training.
So if you’re returning to running following an injury, or just starting out on your running journey, you need to be careful not to push yourself too hard in an attempt to experience a runner’s high.
Your health is more important – so listen to what your body is telling you.