Runner's High

by Sarah Willett

Many runners have had the opportunity to experience a state of euphoria while running. While the actual state that they feel varies immensely for each individual there is a common feeling associated with the term "runner's high". When a person is asked about runner's high they typically will say that it a pleasant state that a runner might experience after a certain distance. This in fact may not be true for only runners though. Skiers, surfers, football players and wrestlers all have "highs" or moments when they feel they are working to their maximum potential and feeling on top of the world. Runner's are not the only types of athletes that experience intense emotional feelings. One must question exactly what is included in this feeling. Defining a "high" may not be all that easy, if there even is such a thing.

Many people have related runner's high to the feeling of an orgasm. At this time, the body and mind are both highly stimulated and seem to elevate a person's senses. Other people have responded to the question of "What is runner's high?" by saying that when the environmental stimuli around you is near perfect and you are feeling good you are actually feeling a type of "high". We must not overlook the facts though, which include physical and physiological details to back up feelings of runner's high. Throughout time, runner's high has been debated and there is still no general definition as to what it is, or even if it exists. Looking at different personal experiences and physical evidence one can generally conclude that runner's high is a state of euphoria caused by the environmental stimuli around the runner and the biological aspects of stress associated with running.

The most obvious aspects to address with runner's high are the biological and psychological aspects that can be associated with it. When the body is put under stress the mind reacts accordingly. This is why endorphins are commonly associated with runner's high. Endorphins are any of a group of opiate proteins with pain-relieving properties that are found naturally in the brain. The word "endorphine" comes from endogenous, meaning "produced within the body" and morphine, a chemical substance derived from opium that elevates mood and reduces pain. Endorphines in turn are neurotransmitters that are chemically similar to morphine.1 It has been realized that the brain responds to morphine and that morphine receptors are in the brain. Knowing that human cells have receptors for this drug suggests that the body produces its own morphine like substances. Endorphines and enkephalins are names given to these neurotransmitters.

Through studies with athletes it has been found that endorphine levels increase with exercise. Special interest arose in the possibility that elevated endorphin levels might explain the mood changes that occur during running, in particular the euphoria of the runner's high, and the increased resistance to pain that occurs during exercise.2 Pain can be described as a complex experience that involves a bodily response to a noxious stimulus followed by an emotional response to the event. In a sense, pain is a warning mechanism that helps the body protect itself from harmful stimuli. When a person is running they are putting their body under stress. When this happens, stress and pain occur, causing endorphin levels to rise in the brain. People's pain thresholds tend to increase directly following exercise such as a long-distance run and their moods are often elevated.3 An elevated endorphine level will then produce a mood change. Mood changes are not always positive though, and when some runners have an increase in endophines they experience negative mood changes. Overall, an increase in the brain's production of endorphines occurs when the body is put under stress such as long distance running, and the endorphines then cause a positive or negative mood change.

Endorphines appear to be involved in runner's high, the state of euphoria some runners report after a prolonged period of exercise, but what exactly is the state that these runners are feeling? There is a close connection between the mind and the body when a person is running. In fact it has been said that the mind takes over for the body because it can no longer function properly after certain time periods. When this happens and the endorphine levels increase, a unique experience is felt. Unfortunately, there is no accurate way to record what a person is feeling at this time. Personal experiences are all we have to go by to try to explain what the body is feeling. By examining numerous personal experiences we can conclude that there is a typical emotional feeling but not one definite one. In fact, many people still question whether or not they feel anything at all even when their endorphine levels rise.

Yiannis Kouros who could be classified as a legend in the world of Ultrarunning once explained what he was feeling when he was running. In an article he wrote published by Ultrarunning magazine in March of 1990 he stated,

"Some may ask why I am running such long distances. There are reasons. During the ultras I come to a point where my body is almost dead. My mind has to take leadership. When it is very hard there is a war going on between the body and the mind. If my body wins, I will have to give up; if my mind wins, I will continue. At that time I feel that I stay outside of my body. It is as if I see my body in front of me; my mind commands and my body follows. This is a very special feeling, which I like very much. . . It is a very beautiful feeling and the only time I experience my personality separate from my body, as two different things."4

What Yiannis Kouros says, is that when he is running for a long enough time his body and mind separate. Other runners have experienced this same type of thing. One English teacher stated that during the last one and a half miles of the Ice Age Trail run in 1994 he ,"found myself running far faster than I had all day; I wasn't even conscious of my feet touching the ground as I crested the knoll ahead of the finish line. I wasn't running; it was as if something much larger than I was running me." Generally, most people claim that a runner's high is when the mind takes over the body and the unconscious leads the mind. Yet, there are many more aspects that people attribute to runner's high.

Most people claim that runners high is a feeling of invincibility and superior performance that can be brought on by certain environmental surroundings. Environmental stimuli affects everybody in positive and negative ways. Divers swimming in clear, warm water seem to experience pleasant sensations, while those in dark, cold water seem to encounter panic, fear, anxiety, and depression.5 These feelings can also be associated with running. When running on a beautiful, sunny day in a place where the scenery pleases the runner, he or she is more likely to experience happiness or even a high, versus when running on a cold, rainy day, along dark, unknown scenery. When a runner is able to take in the scenery that is around them and almost become one with it, then the run will be enhanced. One runner, Jamie Hurley, wrote that "I feel wonderful and have no desire to hide it. I look around me and can breathe in the fullness of my natural surroundings - the trees, the dirt, the birds, the little critters, the sun, the terrain, the wind". When looking at the different aspects of runner's high, the environmental surroundings play an important role.

While their are many different feelings that are supposedly associated with runners high, there is still much controversy surrounding whether or not there is such a thing. We have looked at the medical aspects of runner's high which states that there is definitely a change in a person's physical state caused by the stress of running. These are the endorphins working to alleviate the body of as much stress as possible. After looking at the biological aspects of runner's high we looked at the environmental stimulus that may bring on a heightened feeling of happiness. This feeling may just be when you are at the right spot under ideal conditions that make a person want to run further. Yet there is still the possibility that there is no such thing as runner's high.

This question, about whether or not runner's high exists, is brought on mainly because there is not set definition for runner's high. Many people have never experienced it or say they have never had a "high" and yet do not know what one feels like. Some people have compared a "high" associated with running to a "high" from drugs. But again one must question even what a high from drugs feels like. Statistically, more people are doing drugs in which they can get a high than the number of people running 20 or 30 miles (the average at which people seem to get a high), therefore there are more cases of feelings associated with drug highs recorded. Knowing what a high feels like can vary for each individual, just as pain can for an individual. "The perception of pain may be exacerbated by nonphysical factors such as anxiety, and some pain has no physical cause whatsoever."6 This statement can also be applied to runner's high.

In conclusion, in can be stated that while running there is a point when a person's body undergoes some type of change. The cause of this change may be because of environmental aspects and/or because of the biological aspects surrounding it. The feelings that are associated with this change is what is still questionable. With no actual definition of what the runner is supposed to feel it is impossible to generalize as to what that feeling is. Everyone records their personal feelings differently and what may be a high for one person may only be a feeling of happiness for another person. Looking at the different aspects that are associated with runner's high, I personally, have determined that there are periods of contentment that one will feel whether it is from running or other types of physical or even mental activity. I feel that this report can be summed up from a statement I received over e-mail and what was the most common response to my question "What is runner's high?" , "I've been running for 25 years or so, and don't know for sure what runner's high is. On almost every run, and certainly the long ones, there are periods of contentment or reflection when one is on automatic pilot and the terrain goes past unnoticed. Runner's High? I don't know."

End Notes

  1. Drew Weston, Psychology: Mind, Brain, & Culture, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996), p. 83.
  2. Tim Noakes, MD, Lore of Running, (Champaign, Illinois: Leisure Press, 1991), p. 701.
  3. Weston, p. 83.
  4. "A War Is Going On Between My Body and My Mind," Ultrarunning, March 1990, p. 19.
  5. "Nitrogen Narcosis," Computer Software. Britannica Online.
  6. "Pain," Computer. Software. Britannica Online.