There is a well known phenomenon called the “runner’s high”. Ask any running junkie and they’ll probably tell you more than you ever could have imaged or even wanted to know about how good it feels to be on a long run. You may have found yourself looking at them incredulously as you remember the one time you decided to try jogging. After spending $150 at Dick’s Sporting goods on shoes and various Lycra containing garments (which should only be worn by people who are able to pass a strict fitness test), you hit the streets. You felt pretty good for the first 50 feet but then the pain hit. It was at that point that you experienced a sensation you were pretty sure was a heart attack: chest pain, check; profuse sweating, check; heavy breathing, double check. Needless to say the run did not last long and the Lycra shorts ended up in the back of the closet which is fine because you couldn’t fit into them anyhow.
That memory fills your head with a near PTSD experience. It is that moment that you become certain that your buddy with the oval 13.1 and 26.2 magnets peppering the back of his car may have a strong heart but has certainly lost his mind. There is no way the feeling you experienced could be referred to by any sane individual as a “high”. While he may be a bit over enthusiastic, crazy he is not. In fact, the phenomena behind the experience of the “runner’s high” is a well known fact of normal human physiology. It is even hypothesized to have roots in our evolutionary past.
A bit of background. Our bodies have a system called the endogenous opioid and endogenous cannabanoid system. Among other things, these two systems help us deal with pain. You may recognize the term opioid from the recent opioid drug epidemic and cannabanoid from all the talk about legalizing cannabis (aka marijuana). Don’t worry, nobody’s taking drugs, here. Endogenous means ‘produced inside’ – meaning they are substances produced by the body so there is no need to shop for clean needles or find a drug dealer, thank the Lord. The systems produce hormones called endorphins and endocannabinoids. These hormones are released in response to pain leading to a host of neurological responses.
I’ll use an example of how one of the most painful injuries a human being can endure activates the endogenous opioid pathway. I’m of course talking about stepping on a Lego brick on carpet in a dark room while walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night – and not one of those small ones, one of the big 6×2 blocks. I know, they should use this to get terrorists to talk at Guantanamo making water boarding unnecessary but that’s a discussion for a different blog and a different time.
The point here is that the minute that little blue weapon of mass destruction hits the bottom of your foot pain nerves are stimulated and send a signal to your spinal cord and then up to your brain. The signal is intense and the pain is severe (I mean, there should be laws against this, really).
The pain is not without purpose. The purpose of the pain is to get you to withdraw from the harmful stimulus and save your foot from having a permanent Lego addition. Once the foot is withdrawn the pain has served its purpose and does not need to be as intense. At same time that the pain starts, the body starts producing the endogenous opioids and cannabinoids which travel to the central nervous system. There they block the pain signal. As a bonus they can also trigger a sense of euphoria to counter all the bad feelings. This will help prevent you from yellowing oh so many inappropriate words after stepping on the Lego and waking up the kids (and expanding their vocabulary in an unfortunate way).
Side point: The opiate receptors are activated by opium (that’s how they got their name). It’s also activate by all the derivatives of opium such as heroin, morphine, oxycodone, etc. That is why these medications help with acute pain. They also produce euphoria and are highly addictive.
Another side point: This system is why hot baths make you feel so good. These activities activate the pain receptors throughout the body and lead to release of endorphins throughout the spinal cord.
Let’s get back to the runner’s high and a bit of anthropological theory. Back in our prehistoric days on the African savanna us humans were at a major disadvantage. Sure, we were smarter than the other animals and a bit better looking as well but we didn’t run particularly fast. We were not that strong, we couldn’t fly, climb well, or swing in trees. This made it hard to hunt for food. What we did have was the capacity for tremendous endurance. In our modern slothful state this seems surprising, but in fact we humans can run and hunt for very long periods of time. It is hypothesized that this is one of the benefits of the endogenous opiate system. The system is activated by the pain of exercise. After a certain amount of time the pain of the exercise triggers the production of endorphins and endocannabinoids that dull the pain and allow the runner to go longer and farther. These hormones also trigger a sense of euphoria. So, even though the antelopes can out sprint us. We will eventually catch up after they tire out.
The runner’s high is a vestige of this special ability. When we run, after a period of time, our brain is flooded with these euphoria producing, pain suppressing, all around yummy chemicals. The result is a high that is physiologically not unlike taking a narcotic medication – although it is a lot better for your health. That’s right, running (or any other exercise that produces sustained discomfort for a period of time) literally gets you high. Its also why some people develop an addiction to exercise (which is not the worst thing in the world to be addicted to).
The caveat is that you have to do a level of exercise that produces discomfort and it has to be sustained for a long enough period of time. Running short distances doesn’t seem to do the trick. I don’t think the amount of time is fixed for everyone but you’ll know the feeling when it hits. The discomfort of the exercise will lessen and you’ll be filled with many positive feelings. When that happens, thank your endocannabinoids and endorphins and go get that antelope but for goodness sake, avoid lycra shorts.
For more, watch this video from Men’s Health:
And listen to this clip from NPR: