The Neuroscience Behind Runner’s High

BreakingModern — If you’re not a runner, you may wonder why so many people pay upwards of $100 to participate in grueling marathons. After all, running on pavement can have a detrimental effect on a person’s joints and bones.

One of the reasons people love to run is the ecstatic feeling of “runner’s high.” It’s a colloquial term used to describe the psychological wellbeing felt after participating in long-duration, rhythmic-type exercise such as running. It’s the reason why people often say they are addicted to running – very similar in theory to a drug addict.

“Oh, (runner’s high) is really like an empowerment. And Zen at the same time. You feel strong and light, and you feel relaxed,” said Christina Morganti, a surgeon and competitive runner, during an interview with National Public Radio.

runners high imageWhen Does Runners High Occur?

Runner’s high doesn’t happen when a person simply runs around the block for 20 minutes. It usually occurs when a person runs at a tempo that isn’t excruciating, but still challenging. It’s not necessarily the distance that matters, but rather the amount of time a person runs. Studies have found that the minimum time is 30 minutes of moderate intensity, but it could take much longer depending on a person’s stamina, weight, fitness and more.

“Most runners I have worked with experience endorphins when they are pushing their bodies, but not usually at max effort,” said Cindra S. Kamphoff, Ph.D., in a recent article in Runner’s World.

Kamphoff is the director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University.

What Happens During Runner’s High?

There have been numerous studies that sought to figure out the body’s response on a chemical level to runner’s high. Initially, researchers believed runner’s high was solely based on the body’s release of endorphins — the body’s home-brewed opiates — that produce morphine-like feelings of euphoria. While endorphins are released during strenuous exercise, researchers found that when they blocked endorphins from studied runners, the feeling of runner’s high still materialized.

Other studies have found that when a person participates in rigorous exercise, the body also releases cannabinoids, or the chemical found in marijuana, which has been known to reduce pain and anxiety while providing a free-form sense of wellbeing. (But without the paranoia users of marijuana sometimes experience.)

Why Does the Body Reward Runners?

The body has a virtual pharmacy of chemicals it releases to reward and punish us for certain behaviors. So, why does it reward runners? Runner’s high is believed to play a part in encouraging our very early ancestors with persistence hunting, where a hunter would hunt an animal on foot until the animal was completely exhausted.

But regardless of runner’s high and/or the feelings of discomfort and pain a person may feel from running long distances, running still has a host of other benefits.

“Your heart gets stronger. It gets bigger,” said Morganti during her NPR interview. “The amount of blood your heart can pump is more.”

That’s called stroke volume. Oxygen metabolism gets more efficient, as well. Morganti continues:

“That means your blood vessels and muscles absorb more oxygen. Running also builds new bone.”

For BMod, I’m .

Image credit:Male Runners” by Sheffield Tiger via Flickr Creative Commons

Feature/Header image: 長跑 Long Run (Marathon)” by Sing-me Lee via Flickr Creative Commons

Chandler Harris

Author: Chandler Harris

Chandler Harris is a veteran writer who has written for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and companies. His writing has appeared in InformationWeek, Entrepreneur, San Jose Magazine, the San Jose Business Journal, the Surfer's Journal, Adventure Sports Journal and much more.

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