Why do people enjoy extreme and sometimes dangerous activities? Most people will say, it's because of the feeling an adrenaline rush gives. This is definitely a factual statement and the reason for this phenomenon has been substantially explained. But, what about those who run or jog every day and enjoy marathons?

According to various opinions and observations, running or jogging can bring forth a euphoric feeling. Most people may perceive this as quite enigmatic and unrealistic. Nonetheless, there are experiments done to explore the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. So, is runner's high, a fact or fallacy? As you read further you will discover what experts have deduced about this intriguing experience or state of mind. 

A Brief Description of the Runner's High

MarathonCredit: Image credit: KJohansson - wikimedia commons (public domain image)

When we hear the term “euphoria,” several descriptions come into mind. This is mostly because we all have different views when it comes to a blissful state of mind or well-being. Nonetheless, for the purpose of this article, let's enumerate a list of experiences that would strongly describe a euphoric feeling. Through this, we can have a definite description about this natural sensation of high. So, what are the most common sensations people have reported in correlation to the runner's high?

  • Extreme feeling of happiness, enlightenment or excitement
  • A tranquil state of mind
  • Fully energized
  • A sense of being in sync with yourself and your surroundings

Theories Behind

The news about the extraordinary feeling that several people experience after long distance running has long been circulating around the world. For years, this has been a debatable topic. Some perceive this as a myth while others can attest its validity and that they've definitely felt an unexplainable feeling of delight.

Regardless of these varying views, scientists have done their own investigative work. Through their dedication and hard work, we can now conceptualize if the runner's high is a fact or fallacy. So, what exactly are the theories formulated to explain this phenomenon?

Endogenous opioid hypothesis and the Runner's High

During the 1980's, the "endogenous opioid hypothesis" was first introduced to explain the mechanism behind the runner's high. This hypothesis states that our body produces opioids when we perform any intense activities. According to studies, substances under this category are the key ingredients in creating a euphoric state or a natural feeling of "high". But, what exactly are these substances and how are they related to this phenomenon?

As I have mentioned in one of my articles entitled "How does Exercise Help Relive Stress?," exercises stimulates your body to release mood-elevating brain chemicals namely serotonin and endorphins. As noted in that article, endorphins can bring forth a natural analgesic effect while serotonins are medically considered as your natural mood-enhancers. But, that doesn't end there. When your body releases these so-called brain chemicals, pain and stress relief are not the only experiences you may feel. 

The human brainCredit: Image credit: National Cancer Institute - wikimedia commons (public domain)

According to a book entitled "Hormones Muscular Activity: Hormonal Ensemble in Exercise, Volume 1;" long distance running, sprinting or jogging for a certain period of time can bring forth a transcendence or euphoric feeling. This is not a peculiar observation since serotonin is capable of improving your current mood. However, as noted in this book, epinephrine is another key player that can upgrade your feeling of lightness to a further level.

To expound that concept, our body produces four neurochemicals that can affect our emotional state. These substances namely serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and adrenaline (epinephrine) are typically secreted when a person exercises. However, not all physical activities can bring forth a natural high or euphoric feeling. To be precise, only intense activities performed for at least 30 or 40 minutes can elevate your adrenaline levels. Remember, adrenaline is the primary compound that activates our "fight or flight" response during nerve-racking situations. This is where the interesting part starts. Since, the four aforementioned brain chemicals are usually interlinked with one another. Any fluctuation in your adrenaline levels will inevitably affect the production of other substances. But, for now, let's skip the tedious processes and focus our attention to a brain chemical known as dopamine.

ExerciseCredit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

According to several neurological studies on drug-induced high, the primary reason a person experiences euphoria when he or she takes drugs such as ecstasy and methamphetamine is because these substances can greatly affect and increase one's dopamine production. Although serotonin is also secreted during the process, it is actually the brain chemical dopamine combined with adrenaline that enables people to experience a state of mind similar to the effects produced by several prohibited drugs.

To wrap this all up, this theory simply implies that long distance running, jogging, brisk walking or other types of intense activities can trigger one's production of mood-enhancing brain chemicals. If you combine these effects, the result is a peculiar feeling of bliss.However, some experts find this theory inconclusive. Thus, another theory was systematically formulated, presented and used to further explain the rationale or mechanism behind the so-called runner's high.

Endocannabinoid hypothesis and the Runner's High

treadmill testCredit: Image courtesy of Cpl. William Smith of the Department of Defense - wikimedia commons (public domain image)

Another interesting theory that can explain the mechanism behind the enigmatic phenomenon one may experience during running is the "endocannabinoid hypothesis." Does this term ring any bells? Well, this theory is somewhat related to the infamous foliage scientifically known as Cannabis sativa and more commonly called as marijuana. How so?

A 2004 study conducted by Georgia Institute of Technology shows that a person who runs for approximately an hour was observed to have high levels of anandamide in their blood. So, what is the relationship between anandamide, marijuana and the runner's high?

Basically, this specific lipid or cannabinoid known as anandamide is actually considered as your brain's very own version of marijuana. Primarily because this substance produces effects that are comparable to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). As you know, THC is the active ingredient found in marijuana that is responsible for its psychoactive effects. But, how is this possible?

Anandamide and THC's chemical structure allows them to react and perfectly fit into the same receptor known as CB1 receptor. Because of this, they both produce similar effects, albeit they are chemically considered as two different compounds. But, of course, both have some distinctive effects. Unlike its counterpart, anandamide is naturally produced by your body during certain endurance activities like running or jogging. Furthermore, this compound is easily broken down or metabolized. Because of that, its effects may only last for a short period of time. On certain occasions; the intense feelings of high, sedation or euphoria may not take place.

TreadmillsCredit: Image courtesy of Staff Sgt Araceli Alarcon US Air Force - wikimedia commons (public domain image)

Compared to the first hypothesis, the "endocannabinoid hypothesis" has garnered less skepticism. Based on several studies exploring the effects of cannabinoids in one's Central Nervous System (CNS), it is possible that the runner's high is the byproduct of an increase production of anandamide during long distance running, jogging or brisk walking. However, identifying the exact condition that would trigger the release of this specific substance is still a mystery.

Nonetheless, there are evidences presented that would support and ascertain the claim that runners or endurance athletes have high concentrations of anandamide in their blood.

A Man's Personal Description of a Runner's High

To give you a better view about runner's high, here is a video made by a runner describing his personal experience regarding this natural high or euphoric state. 

Final Thoughts - Is Runner's High a Fact or a Fallacy?

Runner's HighCredit: Image courtesy of skeeze - pixabay.com

While it is a given fact that science cannot completely explain everything that is happening around us, those two hypotheses mentioned above can certainly support the possibility that one may experience the so-called runner's high. However, since this phenomenon is subjective or can only be based from your personal experience, the answer to the question whether it is a fact or a fallacy is indefinite.

Studies have also deduced that this extraordinary feeling of bliss while running or jogging will not consistently occur in everyone. You may feel it today and not tomorrow or the other way around. So, every time you do some long distance running, try to observe if you're experiencing a change in your mood or state of mind.

If you think this phenomenon is just a fallacy, don't stop, continue doing this type of exercise on a regular basis. Remember, a natural high is only one of the many health benefits of jogging. Cardiovascular exercises offer several benefits that can greatly improve your health and well-being

Running Tips - The Proper Form to Run Faster

For individuals who want to start a jogging or running routine, the video below offers various tips on proper running techniques to make your work-out sessions enjoyable and to avoid injuries. 

Kindle for Runners

5K Training For Beginners: From Couch To 5K Runner In 8 Weeks Or Less
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You CAN Go the Distance! Marathon Training Guide: Advice, Plans & Motivation for All Runners
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Are you planning on joining a marathon? These authors offer great tips and guides for your journey to completing a long distance run.