What is the Runner's High?

What is the Runner's High?

Lisa Jhung
Writer and Author of Running That Doesn't Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)
July 25, 2023

Runners crave it, and new runners wonder how long it’ll take to get it. The “runner’s high” is basically a state of euphoria that makes you feel less pain and like you could run forever. Okay, maybe not forever, but for longer than you planned on running. It’s a state that makes you want to keep running because you’re loving it so dang much and don’t feel the pain associated with it.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It also likely sounds impossible to achieve.

It’s not. The runner’s high has been scientifically studied and likened to everything from having the same effects as opioids (as painkillers) and marijuana (for its anxiety and pain-relieving properties).

A 2007 study published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal found the effects of exercise to be “just as effective as prescription anti-depressants in patients with a major depressive disorder.” The study wasn’t specific to running, but running was part of the exercise proven so beneficial.

How Does Runner’s High Work?

Basically, when we run, endorphins (natural chemicals released by the body) travel from our bodies to our brains. The more endorphins, the better we feel, as endorphins are natural painkillers.

Running coaches and experts have said that reaching the state of euphoria, where enough endorphins reach the brain, takes roughly 30 minutes or more of continuous running. That run doesn’t need to be ridiculously taxing, rather, it should be comfortably challenging. Everyone’s physiology is unique, so the amount of time, effort, and scenario in general will be different for when the runner’s high kicks in. And the effect of the high will be different, too. It might be wildly noticeable for some, and more mildly pleasant for others.

I remember the day I first experienced the runner’s high extremely clearly. I was 18 years old (and let’s just say I’m far from being 18, these days…it’s stuck with me.) I’d been forcing myself to run on the beach in San Diego, California in order to be able to walk on to my college volleyball team. I’d previously hating running so much that I hid behind the foam high jump mats during track practice. (I was a high jumper.) I knew we had to run a 7-minute mile for volleyball tryouts that fall, so I’d been suffering through run-walks, running painfully further and further down the beach for a few weeks. I’d tell myself: “Just make it to the next lifeguard tower before walking.” It was difficult.

One evening, I was running on the beach at dusk, and suddenly, everything clicked. I felt like I was running smoothly, not clunkily. My breath felt in rhythm with my feet. I was in a zone I hadn’t been in before—not a heart rate zone, but a rhythmic, feel-good, running zone. I felt great. I felt like I could keep running forever and ran a little farther than I intended because I didn’t want the feeling to stop. That was it, the runner’s high. I was hooked.

Do I get the runner’s high now, every time I go running? No. Do I feel better, in mind and body, after every run…even the runs that hurt? Yes, almost always. And when I get that runner’s high during a run, I savor it, for all the reasons proven by studies and more.

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