Chasing a Runner’s High? Here’s What To Know About the Exercise-Induced Bliss
Extreme bliss after a run? Sign us up! FInd out what the science says about achieving runner’s high.
By Dawn Yanek•
Running is a funny thing. Sometimes you feel amazing and energized after a run, while other times, you feel completely spent and even a little nauseous. And then there are the other times when you hit a sweet spot you never knew existed—an all-encompassing bliss that washes over you—something that can only be described as a runner’s high.
“I remember the first time I experienced it,” says Mariana Fernández, a Peloton Tread and yoga instructor. “I was finishing an 8K trail run in my 20s, and when I crossed the finish line, I felt like I was almost floating. I was smiling ear to ear, my cheeks were flushed, and I was in a state of ecstasy. I saw and felt running in a different way.”
If you’re lucky enough to experience this, you might spend the rest of your life chasing it. But what’s going on, exactly, in your body and brain when you get a runner’s high? According to new scientific research, it’s not what you may have heard. Here’s what we now know about this running phenomenon—including how you might be able to maximize your chances of achieving it.
What Is a Runner’s High?
A runner’s high is exactly what it sounds like: a “high” triggered by running or other high-intensity aerobic exercises like cycling, rowing, or swimming. But what does runner’s high feel like? People who’ve experienced it report feeling euphoric, as well as incredibly calm and relaxed. “You feel like you're on top of the world,” says Mariana. “You feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and love toward yourself.”
If this sounds like how people describe a high from drugs, you wouldn’t be too far off base. Of course, this is an all-natural high—a result of your brain and your body producing all sorts of feel-good chemicals, including ones that are very much like cannabis. (Yep, you read that right. More on that below.)
This feeling can also reduce pain and anxiety, as well as keep you running longer, notes Jeremy Frost, PhD, director of the Holbrook Exercise Physiology Center and an associate professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Runners he spoke with reported feeling in “a state of flow,” like their effort was actually “effortless” and they could keep running for a surprisingly long time at that pace, even when they didn’t experience full-on euphoria. Of course, when you feel that way, you can run for longer at a good clip, which can boost your workout and its health benefits. That extra brain boost makes you feel great, so you may also feel more motivated to work out again in the future.
What Causes Runner’s High?
The answer to this question is trickier than it appears. That’s because the chemistry of the body and particularly the brain is very complex, says Dr. Frost, and scientists are still figuring out how various neurotransmitters and hormones work both on their own and together.
Until recently, researchers believed that endorphins were responsible for producing runner’s high. And while these opiate-like hormones certainly contribute to how good you feel after a run, they may not put you over the top and into runner’s high territory. That may be the work of endocannabinoids, lipid-based neurotransmitters that produce effects similar to cannabis (aka marijuana). Or it could be an interplay between them and other chemicals released during exercise. Here’s what the latest research reveals.
Before we get to endocannabinoids, let’s talk about those endorphins for a minute. Even though they’re not solely responsible for producing a runner’s high, they’re still super important in your workout. As the body’s natural painkillers, they help relieve pain and improve your mood, as well as cause your body to produce more dopamine, the feel-good hormone that’s linked to your brain’s reward and pleasure center. Research in the ‘80s and even in the early 2000s explored the correlation between running and increased endorphin levels, finding that the latter did indeed rise after a run and seem to produce the telltale euphoria of a runner’s high.
But something wasn’t quite adding up. The issue? Because of endorphins’ size and structure, they can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning they can’t actually affect your brain or your mood. Their job focuses on making your muscles feel better and helping you push past pain—an important part of exercise, but not the thing that would necessarily lead to a runner’s high.
That’s where endocannabinoids come in. These tiny neurotransmitters are able to move freely through that blood-brain barrier, produce those feelings of a high and are elevated in your bloodstream after exercise. A 2021 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, which followed up on an earlier animal study with mice, sealed the deal.
Scientists from the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany tested out their endocannabinoid theory in 64 runners by blocking their opioid receptors with a drug called naloxone; this temporarily deactivated their bodies’ endorphin absorption. Despite the fact that the endorphins were blocked, the participants still reported feelings of euphoria and decreased anxiety, and the endocannabinoid levels in their blood were still going strong. The takeaway? Endorphins aren’t a significant component of runner’s high, but endocannabinoids are.
Why Do People Experience Runner’s High?
Like so many other things, we may be hardwired to experience this sensation because of our all-important survival instinct. After all, long before grocery stores and cars, humans had to chase their food if they wanted to eat. They were essentially long-distance endurance athletes out of sheer necessity, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. After all, running can be exhausting, so their brains may have provided a little extra oomph to keep them going and get that meal!
The study, conducted by the University of Arizona’s David Raichlen, looked at the effects of high-intensity exercise on humans, dogs, and ferrets and their resulting endocannabinoid production. Humans and dogs showed increased levels of endocannabinoids in their blood, while the ferrets did not, making a case for the natural selection of running in certain mammals.
Subsequent research has corroborated the endocannabinoid portion of this study, and “most of it focuses on one type of endocannabinoid called anandamide or arachidonoyl ethanolamide (AEA),” says Dr. Frost. “A recent review indicates an increase in AEA was found in many studies using animal and human participants who exercised at moderate intensity while running or cycling.”
Is There a Way to Guarantee a Runner’s High?
Unfortunately, no, and a true runner’s high is a relatively rare phenomenon, even though you can certainly feel great, accomplished, and less stressed after any workout. “I’ve found that a runner’s high cannot be contrived or planned,” says Mariana. “It can come from an enjoyable workout where you find a deep release to hitting miles you didn't know you could accomplish. But overall, I’ve found there’s an element of surprising yourself that helps you get to that feeling of floating and of everything coming together.” That said, there are a few things that may increase your chances of feeling like you’re in the zone.
The Right Intensity
For starters, run at a high—but not too high—intensity. While walking does not lead to a runner’s high, neither does a too-difficult workout, since endocannabinoid production is likely triggered by physical stress, as opposed to pain. (The latter would trigger more of those pain-killing endorphins instead.) “The research seems to indicate a moderate intensity and moderate duration endurance exercise can maximize the release of endocannabinoids—specifically, an intensity in the range of 70% to 85% of age-adjusted maximal heart rate,” says Dr. Frost. “A tempo, or threshold, run is likely to fall into this range, so this type of training might create the greatest likelihood of feeling these sensations.”
Cardiovascular endurance goes hand in hand with this. After all, you’ll need to increase your stamina and the length of your runs in order to prime yourself for a possible runner’s high. Current research indicates that you’ll need at least 30 minutes of relatively intense cardiovascular exercise to get to this point, though some experts believe longer may be better, with the sweet spot being between an hour and two hours.
Runner’s World also theorizes that morning runs might be your best bet for achieving a runner’s high. Research shows that endocannabinoid levels are three times higher when you first wake up than they are at night and that you need at least eight hours of sleep per night for “optimal” endocannabinoid production. While this hasn’t yet been studied in relation to a runner’s high, there’s certainly no harm in testing out this theory for yourself!
When Does Runner’s High Kick In?
You can experience a runner’s high either during or right after an aerobic workout, but it will take some time for you to achieve it—at least 30 minutes, if not an hour or more, which translates to a few miles. According to Medical News Today, the time frame will also likely depend on how often you run and on your endurance level. More experienced runners, for example, will likely take longer to get there.
But don’t force it. “It is normal to not experience the feelings associated with runner’s high during or after most workouts,” says Dr. Frost, noting that chasing that euphoric feeling could result in exercising at higher intensities than is appropriate for your current fitness level. “It is important to listen to your body and to lower the intensity when your body is fatigued. The key is to create a lifestyle of daily movement. Benefits come over time from repeated bouts of physical activity, even if there are no immediate positive signs.”
How Long Does Runner’s High Last?
The bliss is brief! It can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. But its side effects can last much, much longer. “Sometimes a runner’s high [of sorts] can happen later, after you’ve digested what you just accomplished. The high becomes ‘the bug,’” Mariana explains. “The bug is what happens when you can't wait to sign up for the next race, and eventually your newest schedule revolves around what your future races are!”
There’s nothing quite like a runner’s high to motivate you toward the finish line—whether it’s an actual finish line during a marathon or your own personal best during a less formal run. While there’s no surefire recipe for that perfect cocktail of endocannabinoids and other brain chemicals, there are a few things you can do to maximize the chances you’ll experience this phenomenon, including running for longer spurts at a greater intensity.
But regardless of whether you get there or not, you’ll still reap all the amazing benefits of running or other aerobic exercise, including improved heart health, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, mental health and even sleep. “Though if you do get to that bliss,” says Mariana, “feel it and relish it. It's one of the few moments where the body and the mind will be in complete synchronicity.”