The Surprising Science Behind the Runner’s High


Picture this– it’s the end of a long, hard six-mile run, and you’re exhausted. Suddenly, you get a rush of energy and all your pain melts away. You’re experiencing what’s called the “runner’s high,” or the euphoria that comes near the end of a long exercise session. But how do you explain this sudden rush of happiness and pain relief? That is the million-dollar question that scientists have recently discovered the answer to through experiments conducted on mice.

The Evolutionary History of the High
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Many scientists theorize that the runner’s high is an evolutionary one– a sudden rush of energy combined with the feel-good qualities of the runner’s high would be necessary for the humans of old. This rush could keep a wounded human running from a predator or follow them on track after injured prey, both critical for their survival. The messengers in archaic societies, who were crucial in the social and cultural fabric of the pre-mail, telegraph, or phone days, also would rely heavily on the runner’s high to keep moving in the right direction.

Old Science Versus New Science

In the years before 2000, scientists believed that endorphins were responsible for the runner’s high. One article published in Sports Illustrated in 1980 discusses at length the idea of an addiction to running, and how the endorphins play a role in said addiction. Endorphins, which act similarly to opiates, cause a deadening of pain. Many scientists at the time believed that these were responsible for the high, and therefore the addiction. A 2008 German study reinforces the ideas of the 1980’s scientists, finding that after longer runs, humans exhibited higher levels of euphoria, like taking opiates.

However, another more recent camp of scientists believes that the runners high isn’t due to endorphins at all, but rather endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids, which are what they sound like, mirror the effects of THC on the brain. A 2015 study on mice found that both endocannabinoids and beta-endorphins were present in high quantities after a long exercise session.

Although scientists differ on which chemical is responsible, one thing that they can agree on is that the runner’s high happens through any anaerobic exercise! So, although your pushups or deadlifts won’t give you the rush, you can get running, swimming, or cycling if you want to feel it!

Have you ever had the runner’s high? What do you think is the best type of anaerobic exercise to experience it? Leave a comment below detailing your experiences!

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