You’ve probably heard of the famous “runner’s high” and if not, then we are here to shed some light on the topic and inspire you to put your trainers and go for a run!
Some believe it is a myth while others swear by it and can’t get enough of it! Acting as a natural mood enhancer, running can be that free therapy session you so desperately need after another hard week at work.
A runner’s high is defined as an intense feeling of euphoria and pleasure after a prolonged period of exercise. It is exhilarating and can boost levels of happiness. Some people even report a decrease in the way they feel pain and stress.
Timing is different for everyone with some people experiencing it 30 min after the start of exercise while others 1 hour later. It hugely depends on how regularly you exercise and what level of endurance you have. Despite being known as a runner’s high, you can also achieve this euphoric state by engaging in other aerobic activities such as swimming or cycling.
Benefits of running:
“If exercise was a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed, beneficial and cost-effective medicine in the world”. Running is exactly that – free medicine and therapy. You can take as many doses as your heart desires. Some of the health benefits are:
It increases overall lifespan by reducing all-cause mortality
It reduces the likelihood of having cancer
It regulates blood glucose levels and reduces diabetes risk
It protects the cardiovascular system and lowers blood pressure
It lowers inflammation and boosts the immune system
It supports the skeletal system and protects the knees and the back
It aids healthy weight loss and maintenance
It supports brain health and reduces age-related cognitive decline
It improves mental health and manages symptoms of depression and anxiety
It improves the quality of sleep and can fight insomnia
The direct reason for experiencing a runner’s high is still unknown, but many scientists from leading universities in the world have tried solving the mystery around it. Most of them think that we should look back in history when running was much more than a pleasurable activity that keeps people healthy.
Back in the day, our ancestors’ survival depended hugely on their ability to chase down their food. They had to run fast and be strong enough in order to live another day. Some researchers speculate that runner’s high was the way the brain was rewarding our ancestors for not giving up and enduring great distances. It acted as a natural painkiller that prevented sore muscles, blistered feet, and exhaustion.
Endorphins are chemicals released by the brain that act as opioid receptors. They are very similar to morphine which is a medically engineered substance that is a potent painkiller. The effects of endorphins were first described by German scientists who used brain scans on runners and discovered the brain areas responsible for their production – prefrontal cortex and limbic region.
Endorphins are produced as a response to physical discomfort and the key here is to push yourself but not to the point of maximum exhaustion. You need to find the sweet spot where runs are both challenging and pleasurable.
Running is known to activate the brain’s endocannabinoid system which also occurs when people use cannabis. The famous “high” that people experience is due to a component in the plant called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC activates the endocannabinoid system and leads to the happy relaxed buzz.
Endocannabinoids are produced as a response to stress which means again that you need a challenging but not killing run to reap the benefits. Research also shows that levels are highest in the morning and a little bit of mental stress can also boost production. Those prerace jitters might prove to be helpful!
Leptin is a hormone that is responsible for regulating, energy balance, hunger, and satiety. Some researchers hypothesize that it can also have a role in the runner’s high experience. Studies, examining mice, discovered that those with lower leptin levels were able to run more miles that their counterparts with average levels.
The explanation is based on evolutionary biology theories. Researchers think that mice or people with low leptin levels have an increased motivation to look for and pursue food. This helps them experience a runner’s high.
Nowadays we no longer need to chase our food or run away from predators, but running is still a huge part of our lives. It is useful to know how your body reacts to it and what benefits you can experience by simply going for a short jog.