You don’t have to run marathons or be a particularly experienced runner to enjoy a regular high from exercise. In fact, you don’t have to run at all! We explore the latest research and talk to the sports experts on how to ensure we feel euphoric on the move.
The great thing about sport and fitness is that both tend to be grounded in facts. We can track how much more we’re able to lift or how much faster we’re able to run. Games are won on goals or points. But exercise also boasts benefits that aren’t so quantifiable, and ‘runners’ high’ is one of them.
I’ve been running since I was about 13 years old but only really started to experience the overwhelming elation that comes from the sport about 15 years after I first laced up. In my late 20s, I started to train for longer distance running events and almost out of nowhere came this rush of happiness that forced me to beam mid-stride. For me, the nearest thing that I can equate runners’ high with is the feeling you occasionally get on a night out when you’re mildly drunk and dancing with a group of friends. In that moment, nothing else matters — the music’s great, you’re full of energy and you can’t help but grin from ear to ear.
Once you experience it, you’ll want to have it again and again. In my case, that’s seen me running for two hours on a Saturday morning and training for umpteen marathon cycles — all to feel that sweet, sweet high. But I also know experienced runners who’ve never felt that and people for whom the high is nothing more than a myth.
So, what exactly is runners’ high and why do only some of us tend to experience it?
What is ‘runners’ high’?
“Runners’ high describes a euphoric state that results from long-distance running,” explains Professor Andy Lane, sports psychologist from University of Wolverhampton. While you’ll definitely have heard plenty of runners bang on about its existence, there’s been relatively little scientific research to prove that it actually exists or what it actually is. Earlier this year, however, proof emerged that the high wasn’t down to some huge endorphin release as previously believed, but is a result of endocannabinoid receptors in your body.
We have these receptors all over our bodies, including inthe lungs, kidneys and bone marrow, and they affect everything from your pain threshold to your reproductive health. These receptors do various things, including pain modulation. Cannabinoid (CBD) products, for example, target these receptors to help us feel less anxious and in pain (or so advocates claim). This new study, published earlier this year in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, has concluded that when we run, these receptors are triggered and we’re flooded with feelings of calm and happiness.
Why don’t some people experience runners’ high?
This new research would suggest that we’re all capable of experiencing euphoria while running because we all possess those receptors. The issue, Professor Lane explains, is that experiencing a runners’ high involves “getting a number of things right”. You need to balance the challenge of the run with your own capabilities, he says, “so that it’s challenging but attainable”. “You also need to be focused on the present, concentrating on the task at hand,” which will give you a “sense of control”. Lastly, having clear goals and a strategy for achieving those goals is key.
Professor Lane explains: “Many people set goals that are too hard and they stress themselves out over their inability to achieve them — focusing on the outcome of the goal and not the process. Running, therefore, becomes difficult,” and the opportunity to get lost in the joy of movement is lost.
Scientific reasoning aside, runners’ high is about focusing to the point that you lose track of time and running feels effortless. It’s a bit like musicians who surrender themselves to playing a piece of music to such a degree that they forget about the things around them; they become the notes they play.
Different kinds of highs
If runners’ high sounds like a kind of nebulous entity, it’s because it is; the feeling is totally individualistic and as such, it’s important to note that everyone will experience it differently. “You shouldn’t underestimate those good feelings you get when you are making huge strides with your running,” stressed Emmie Kay, head run coach at Start Running Stay Running. “It’s important to embrace those good feels at every stage of your run.”
That means not holding out for an all-consuming wave of euphoria but enjoying small periods of relief or enjoyment as and when they crop up. “Perhaps it’s the feeling you get when you put your shoes without procrastinating and making up excuses not to go out, or the moment you complete a run session,” Emmie suggests. You might feel amazing when you do the same route that felt hard last time and which you’ve tackled regardless. “That’s a double win because you went back out again and you proved to yourself that you’ve got what it takes to be a runner,” Emmie explains.
As such, Emmie believes that a runners’ high can happen at varying levels on every run — if you know where to look for it. It might not even happen on the run itself, she claims, but when you’re back and resting.
The thing that won’t help is chasing that feeling. If you don’t appreciate your hard work or keep piling the pressure on, you won’t get any closer to it.
Can you experience this feeling with other activities?
It may be called ‘runners’ high’ but this endocannabinoid receptor reaction isn’t actually exclusive to runners. You can experience a similar state in sports like cycling and rowing, Professor Lane says.
Having come relatively late to rowing himself, he explains that it has taken him longer to hone these skills enough to experience a high. “My attitude towards sport has shifted from having to run as exercise to rowing for enjoyment — last year rowing over 7,000,000 metres! So yes, I believe that you can get the high experience from taking part in other sports, but you need to be positive and you need to work on your mental game.”
How to train yourself to experience runners’ high
The good news is that if you can train yourself to “have a good possibility” of experiencing runners’ high. While there’s no scientific way of guaranteeing moving euphoria (“it’s not a button that you can switch off and on,” Professor Lane stresses), adjusting your mindset when you run can make all the difference.
A positive attitude can make just about everything in life better and running’s no different. When you plan your runs or lace up for a jog, focus on how you’re going to achieve your goal and on actually wanting to enjoy the process. That might mean saying to yourself that you want to go running to expend excess energy before bed or because you’re training for an event. The run itself is something that you want to do and that you know you’ll enjoy because it’ll make you feel good and push you further towards your goal.
Self-talk, rehearse and focus
Cringe though it may sound, using mantras to talk to yourself while you run really can make a difference. Professor Lane says that developing self-talk and an inner narrative to play while you run is often helpful. “Mentally rehearsing yourself performing and learning to set goals that focus on the process rather than the result increase the likelihood of experiencing runners’ high,” Professor Lane explains.
We know that running outside can have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing so get out and take in all the sights and sounds. According to the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Japan, simply being outside can reduce our stress hormone cortisol by as much as 15%, and the positive effects of being around nature increase when we combine that with the endorphin-boosting act of movement.
Adapt but be consistent
Running feels a lot harder if you only do it now and again. Train consistently and regularly to get into the groove. Saying that, be sure to run at different intensities so that you’re not always flogging yourself. “Go at 85% of your maximum heart rate for a short period to put yourself under stress. Your body will adjust to feeling uncomfortable, and that’s when those feel-good chemicals kick in. You may also find that slowing down and going longer might also do the trick,” Emmie suggests.
Eat and sleep well
How you fuel and recover is so important in terms of how you perform and feel while running. Eat a varied, balanced diet that’s rich in carbs and protein and make sure that you really prioritise getting a good sleep. “When you’re tired and lacking in energy, it’s hard to push a little harder,” says Emmie, “so make sure that you’re getting in those seven to nine hours a night.”
To feel stronger and more confident on your runs, try the four-week Strength Training for Runners programme on Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.