How to Achieve a Runner’s High

Sometimes we understand, sometimes not. But we still want it – and more. It’s the runner’s high, and when we’re lucky enough to experience it, our runs are easy, exhilarating, even euphoric. But we don’t always have that chance, do we?

Recently, researchers studied the brain’s response to running and found that the ability to get “high” while running miles could be hard-wired. Years ago, the survival of our ancestors probably depended on hunting for food. The desire to live may have been their motivation to run, and the feel-good brain chemicals released when they did may have helped them achieve the required speed and distances, says David Raichlen, professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California. The runner’s high may have served (and serves today) as a natural pain reliever, masking tired legs and bloated feet, he says. Even if you don’t need to run after dinner anymore, learning how happy brain responses are triggered can help you hit that runner’s high more often.

The trigger: endorphins

Nature’s homemade opiate, endorphins are chemicals that act much like their medically engineered counterpart, morphine. Runners have credited them with their feel-good effects for decades, but it wasn’t until 2008 that German researchers used brain scans on runners and were able to pinpoint their origin. They found that during the two-hour runs, the subjects’ prefrontal and limbic regions (which light up in response to emotions like love) released endorphins. The greater the endorphin rush in these brain areas, the more runners reported feeling euphoric.

How to get it:

Push yourself hard, but not too hard. Endorphins are painkillers produced in response to physical discomfort, says Matthew Hill, associate professor at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary in Canada. But that doesn’t mean your runs have to be atrocious; you need to find a sweet spot where they’re comfortably provocative (think: tempo run).

In the German study, for example, the subjects were experienced runners for whom a two-hour run at a pace of 6 mph to 7 mph (between 8:34 and 10:00 a.m. per mile) was neither easy nor breathtaking. . “Most runners I’ve worked with experience endorphins when pushing their bodies, but usually not at maximum exertion,” says Cindra Kamphoff, director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University. A short, relaxed run probably won’t produce enough discomfort to trigger a run, but if you try too aggressive a pace or distance, you may be too overwhelmed with the effort to feel good. Powerful as they are, endorphins can’t replace injury or lack of training (which is why new runners probably won’t feel thrilled when they first start).

Connecting with others could also help: a study from Oxford University reported that rowers who train together significantly increased their endorphin release compared to rowers alone. And consider wearing headphones: research shows that listening to your favorite music can increase endorphins.

The trigger: endocannabinoids

Endorphins get all the attention, but your body also pumps out substances called endocannabinoids, which are a naturally synthesized version of THC, the chemical responsible for the buzz produced by marijuana. The most studied endocannabinoid produced in the body, anandamide, is believed to create a feeling of calm, says Dr. Hill. Endorphins can only be created by specialized neurons, but virtually every cell in the body is capable of making endocannabinoids, which means they have the potential to have a greater impact on your brain.

How to get it:

The production of endocannabinoids is thought to react more strongly in response to stress than to pain (the strongest endorphin activator). Differentiating between physical stress and discomfort during a run is nearly impossible, which means the same mechanism that triggers endorphins can also trigger endocannabinoids: a hard (non-killer) workout. Professor Raichlen says running at 70% to 85% of your age-adjusted maximum heart rate (you can determine yours with this equation: 211– (0.64 x your age) is optimal for increasing heart rate. cortisol, the stress hormone, and produce endocannabinoids (If you’re 30, you’d aim for 134 to 163 beats per minute.)

Dr. Hill’s research suggests that in small doses, mental stress can also increase endocannabinoid production, so pre-race jitters could pay off. But chronic stress can lessen this effect.

This may be one of the reasons why Cecilia Hillard, director of the Neuroscience Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, discovered that people need eight hours of sleep per night for optimal endocannabinoid production. Additionally, his research shows that endocannabinoid levels are three times higher in the morning than when hitting the hay. Although there is no concrete scientific evidence yet, this could suggest that a morning run is more likely to produce a high than an afternoon or evening run. So set your alarm; it’s worth experimenting.

We mentioned earlier that running with a partner can help. But just because your running buddy gets the coveted runner’s high doesn’t mean you necessarily will. Or at least you might have to keep tinkering.

Research shows endocannabinoid levels are three times higher first thing in the morning

In 2019, a study looked at 25 college runners and tested their saliva before and after a long-distance run. (They focused on saliva because it contains information about RNA, which is what your DNA uses to make feel-good proteins, like natural opioids and cannabinoids.) But everyone’s processes are not affected to the same degree, which means you may have
the high of a runner while your running partners are still in slog mode.

The study’s lead author, Steven Hicks, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at PennState University College of Medicine, suggests playing around with different conditions — like longer runs or more sprints, for example — to activate the appropriate pathways. .

5 steps to reach the top of a runner

Experiencing a runner’s high isn’t like flipping a switch, but research shows these things can boost your chances.

  1. Run tempo races

    Training at 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate is optimal. Think of the “comfortably difficult” level of a tempo race.

    2. Run longer

    An easier running time of one to two hours is the sweet spot for producing effects.

    3. Sleep more

    Eight hours of sleep per night is optimal for the production of endocannabinoids.

    4. Train with others

    Research on rowers has shown that those who train together significantly increase their endorphin release compared to solo athletes.

    5. Listen to music

    Hit pause on podcasts and run to your favorite running playlist for an endorphin hit.

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