The Truth Behind Runner’s High, Its Mental Benefits & How to Achieve It

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Ah, the elusive runner's high. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. So, how do you gain more control over it?

Violet Lee

December 15 2023

Ah, the elusive runner's high. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. So, how do you gain more control over it?

While there's no foolproof way to guarantee you'll achieve the coveted runner's high, several ways make it more likely to happen. Understanding the brain chemistry behind this natural euphoric feeling is pretty cool. Discover how to increase the chances of returning home from a run smiling. 

What Exactly is a Runner's High?

A "runner's high" refers to the feeling of pure joy, reduced stress, and a decreased ability to feel pain due to a flood of endorphins released by exercise. 

What Causes Runner's High?

Endorphins! They are a naturally occurring opiate that acts like morphine when released into your brain. Not to say chasing a runner's high will turn you into a person with an addiction, but it will make your body crave that high again—which can be a great motivator to keep training! Endorphins are like home-brewed happy chemicals released in response to positive emotions like love.

In addition to endorphins, new research has shown that endocannabinoids play a more significant role in achieving a runner's high than previously thought. This chemical is a natural version of THC (the marijuana kind of THC) that gives you a full-body buzz once you reach that euphoria.

Researchers believe endocannabinoids helped our ancestors stay energized and focused as they hunted down wooly mammoths or battled saber-tooth tigers for food. Although we've evolved quite a bit since those days, the same brain chemicals motivate us to push our bodies to the limits and reward us for our hard work!

Why Do These Chemicals Get Released When We Run?

As a response to stress, our bodies produce both endorphins and endocannabinoids. Prolonged running puts physical stress on your bodily functions (no matter how well-trained you may be!), which causes you to pump out endorphins and endocannabinoids very quickly in large amounts. Extreme happiness, serenity, motivation, and gratitude are commonly reported by athletes when the runner's high finally kicks in.

What are the Benefits of Runner's High?

Beyond feelings of nirvana and heightened motivation, several additional benefits come with the famed runner's high.

Some of the most common benefits of running include:

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Elevated mood
  • Increased memory and focus
  • Improved immune system health
  • Improved mobility and flexibility
  • Heightened response to insulin
  • Weight loss maintenance

In addition to these benefits, many runners find that frequent runner's highs create a positive feedback loop: the more you get a runner's high, the more you want to run, which increases the frequency of your runner's highs. 

However, it's important to note that achieving a runner's high can take much effort. You won't feel the effects if you run around the block for a warm-up jog.

How Do I Get a Runner's High on a Regular Basis?

To increase your odds, run your next session faster. Push yourself. Go all in. You achieve this gold standard by putting stress on your body, so it's time to walk the walk, or rather, run the run. If you typically run a 10:00-minute mile, buckle up and aim for a 9:30 or 9:00-minute pace.

Some runners experience a high from ending their runs fast and strong, but that doesn't work for all. Some achieved a high consistently when running those 3-milers at a fast pace. They went hard the whole time, and this method, backed by research, worked. When you run consistently at moderate intensity, your body produces the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates that euphoria from endorphins and endocannabinoids.

To get a more consistent runner's high, try these techniques:

  • Run at 70% to 85% of your maximum intensity. You want to push your body into a state of stress, but not too far, where it bypasses the release of good brain chemicals to keep you alive and breathing.
  • Run for an extended time. One to two hours is typically the sweet spot for producing solid highs.
  • Run consistently. Newbies to the sport likely won't get a runner's high because their bodies can't sustain an intense enough level of exercise to push them over the edge into that blissful state.
  • Intervals are essential to prevent your body from acclimating to your workout. Remember, your body produces that high when it's under moderate stress, so you need to switch up your routine with high-intensity interval training to keep the stress factor flowing.
  • Get enough sleep. While you believe this might not affect your chances at a runner's high, studies have demonstrated that you need eight hours of sleep to achieve optimal endocannabinoid production. So get some ZZZs for a more frequent full-body buzz!
  • Schedule days of rest. Overtraining can have severe consequences for your body, such as shin splints, a runner's knee, and chronic foot pain when running. Even if you're craving another runner's high, give yourself time to rest after an intense run.
  • Zone out. Try to turn your brain off, at least during the middle portion of your run. If you focus too much on the end goal of experiencing a runner's high, it's unlikely you'll ever get there. Put on your favorite running playlist, get lost in thought, or run with a friend to help your mind relax as your body does all the hard work.

Why Should I Go After a Runner's High?

Nothing is quite as satisfying as feeling the boost of a natural high that your body has specifically designed to reward you after a lot of hard work. Apart from experiencing a euphoric sensation, here are some other reasons to continue your pursuit of the elusive runner's high:

  • Training will get easier. While the chemicals in a runner's high won't form an addictive habit, it will make your body crave another session. If you're having trouble staying motivated, hitting a runner's high quickly will keep your mind and body excited to push yourself to the limit more often.
  • Your mood will improve. Endorphins don't only kick in when your athletic performance peaks. All exercise releases these happy chemicals in some proportion, improving your overall mood—even if you're only out for a light jog. Many studies have linked decreased symptoms of depression with higher levels of physical activity. So, even if you're still working toward that first high, you'll probably notice you're in a better mood more often.
  • Losing weight will be easier. Because achieving a runner's high requires you to switch up your training, shedding a few pounds will be easier than maintaining a consistent routine. When your body gets accustomed to a specific type of exercise, it's harder to lose weight. But with a varied routine, you'll put enough stress on your body to burn those calories.
  • It gives you a solid goal. Sometimes, running can feel like a chore — where exactly am I running to, anyway? By focusing on achieving a runner's high, you create a goal for yourself: I'm going to run until I feel that oh-so-sweet euphoric feeling I usually get after mile 4, for instance. While this can be a great way to get out of bed and start pounding the pavement, remember to take it easy on yourself; you might not hit that runner's high every time, and that's okay.

Can I Get a Runner's High if I Don't Like to Run?

I get why a non-runner would want to go after a runner's high—that feeling is unbeatable. If you're not a fan of running, don't worry—you're in luck.

Any intensive cardio exercise can provoke a runner's high (even for non-runners!) Whether biking, swimming, or rowing, endurance exercise is the common denominator in stimulating those excellent brain chemicals. Keep the intensity high, the routine varied, and your mind relaxed!

Okay, before you go, here's your crash course: 

  • A runner's high is a feeling of euphoria and diminished anxiety and pain.
  • It has fantastic benefits, like motivating you to run more often and sharpening mental clarity and memory. 
  • Achieving a runner's high can be difficult, but here are some tricks that help people get there:
    • Run consistently
    • Add high-intensity intervals 
    • Get enough sleep and schedule rest days
    • Go with the flow and zone out

Not convinced? There are tons of reasons to go after a runner's high:

  • Improved mood
  • It makes training easier — and adds motivation
  • It can help with weight loss
  • You can still achieve a runner's high even if you don't like running by engaging in other cardio forms. 
  • If you're new to running and are looking for more tips, check out the rest of the Road Runner Sports Blog. You'll find articles that will help you stay in the know while running on the streets. 

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