Do You Get a Runner’s High? And Is It a Real Thing? [New Research Answers All Your Q's!]

by Charlotte on April 19, 2012 · 25 comments

Ranked right up there with the Loch Ness Monster and Shangri-La, the “runner’s high” is one of the most elusive yet sought-after myths in modern lore. But is it a real biochemical response or just marathoners trying to justify spending their whole Saturday running? The anecdotal evidence is mixed: for people who get a runner’s high it’s not only real but amazing; but for people who’ve never had one it can seem like a whole lot of hooey. Fortunately a new study in The Journal of Experimental Biology┬átests this out and the results are very interesting!

Q: Is the runner’s high real?

A: Researchers measured endocannabinoids (a brain chemical that indicates increased pleasure) in humans, dogs and ferrets both before and after a run. What they found was that humans and dogs both experience a large increase in the endocannabinoids after a 30-minute treadmill run. The ferrets on the other hand experienced no increase which the researchers postulate is because ferrets as a species aren’t runners while humans and dogs are.

Q: Can everyone get a runner’s high?

A: Unless you are ferret, yes. It may just not be immediately. While we all have the same brain chemicals, the researchers found that there is a tipping point for achieving the pleasure response and that point has everything to do with the intensity of your exercise. David Raichlen, the lead author, explains, “Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to this sort of rewarding sensation.”

Q: Does this mean less fit runners just lose out?

A: Raichlen says that he is confident “that inactive individuals can be helped to build up their exercise tolerance until they cross the threshold where they become motivated to exercise by endocannabinoids.”

Q: How do you train to get a runner’s high?

A: Two factors influence the release of the endocannabinoids: intensity and duration. It appears that for most people they need to run a minimum of 20 minutes before they start to feel the party start. If extending your run alone isn’t helping you achieve a high then increase the intensity of your run by mixing in short sprints or tempo runs.

Q: How exactly do they make ferrets run on treadmills? Are there teeny tiny ferret treadmills? Do they tie them on? Do the ferrets complain about the TV only showing CNN too?

A: No seriously, I really wish I knew.

For myself, I do get a high when I workout, particularly when I do cardio. But it does take me about 20 minutes of running (or kickboxing or spinning) before I stop thinking about how much pain I’m in and start feeling good. Back when I first started running I would force myself to go for at least 20 minutes because I knew that even though I hated every step at the beginning, if I could hold out I’d feel aMAYzing by the end!

Do you get a runner’s high? Did you have to train yourself to get one or has it always come naturally?

Excerpted from my article for Shape.com

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomi/Dragonmamma April 19, 2012 at 6:38 am

The fastest/most I ever ran was a 5K in 29:01; apparently that’s nowhere near enough to get a runner’s high.
Sometimes, though, I feel drunk after doing interval strength training. I lose my inhibitions and act goofy and say stupid things, but I feel fantastic while doing them.

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Kylie April 19, 2012 at 8:02 am

I’ve totally got a runner’s high before! Not so much when I run because I hate running (although I do Tabatas a couple times a week) but when I exercise I always feel amazing afterward unless I’m sick or something, but other than that I feel super full of energy and I’m usually bouncing around after I exercise cause I feel so active and awesome! Maybe I’ll have to make my self run for at least twenty minutes and see if that changes anything. . .
Loved this post!!

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Sable@SquatLikeALady April 19, 2012 at 8:10 am

I have never experienced a runner’s high =( Possibly because I SUCK at running. I always thought that meant there was something wrong with me but maybe it’s because *if* I run, I quit at about the 20 minute mark!

I do get a cardio high from HIIT that lasts 20-30 mins though. Iiinteresting!

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malevolent andrea April 19, 2012 at 9:28 am

When I was doing c25k back in 2010, an online acquaintance who was a serious runner said something that really stuck with me. She said, the first mile pretty much always sucks for everyone. So as your runs get longer, they get better. If you can only run 1.5 miles and the first mile sucks, then 2/3rds of your run was torture. Once you can run 5 miles, the torturous portion is down to 20%.

I’ve never become enough of a runner to fully test this out, but the thought of it has helped me through any sort of cardio, past`the portion where it’s all “oh, when is this gonna be OVER?” into “wait…now I feel great.” I assume the “wait…now I feel great” is the mythical runner’s high :-)

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Cammy April 19, 2012 at 9:32 am

I absolutely get a runner’s high, and it only takes 10ish minutes of running for me to get my hit. It’s interesting how much variation there can be between people, though, as I know some pretty active/fit people who swear they never get that feeling.

The runner’s high effect is actually something my therapists and I have talked about in the context of my overexercise problem. About 3 years ago I had accumulated so much damage in my legs (knees, shins, ankles, you name it and I abused it) that I had to quit running, after years and years of never missing a single day of it. I immediately switched to other forms of cardio (bike, elliptical, Jillian Michaels DVDs, etc), but nothing could replicate that endorphin surge from running. So I did more. And more. And more, until I was exercising for hours and hours a day, endlessly trying to achieve the relief and boost and stress-reduction I used to get from running but could never find anymore. Thus my exercise issues morphed from being extremely rigid and energy intensive to being both extremely rigid and extremely time intensive, something I’m still working on today.

The good news: after about 3 years off, I’ve started running again 2-3 times a week, using front-strike shoes and really careful attention to my form, and it’s been fantastic! I get my endorphin shot, and it has really taken the edge off my anxiety for reducing other forms of exercise.

That is a loooong way of answering your question. CliffsNotes version: Yes, I get a runner’s high and totally believe in the phenomenon.

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Cammy April 19, 2012 at 9:33 am

Oh and I should have mentioned, I’ve never been much of a distance runner (I don’t think I’ve ever run more than 5 miles at a time in my life), but I am pretty damn fast and can clock consecutive miles at under 7 minutes each, which may be why I get the runner’s high after less running time than what the study suggested.

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Erin April 19, 2012 at 9:36 am

I almost always feel better after a strong workout or a run. But I can clearly remember the biggest runner’s high I ever got was after running a really strong 18 miler. I was on such a high for HOURS afterward, it was crazy.

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Dr. J April 19, 2012 at 10:20 am

Well there is no question that I feel good when I am finished running :-)

I’ve reached that second and third wind when running and that is somewhat of a high. Over all, I’d have to say I’ve been there done that, and am still doing it but not having as much a high as I once did.

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Lydia April 19, 2012 at 11:34 am

100% yes, but mines a cyclist high. when i was down and injured for over 2 months, you better believe I became pretty damn depressed.

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geosomin April 19, 2012 at 11:50 am

Yup -I get it, not just from running. It developed over time…once i was fit enough to not feel like I was dying :). Even when I had to lay off running I still get a happy buzz from heavy cardio. I LOVE it. One of the reasons I keep with it all :)
I have a few friends who do not tho. They are most annoyed :)

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Danielle April 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Damn! I must be a ferret :/

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brian January 7, 2013 at 1:27 am

Sorry Danielle, you are not a ferret, you are just not pushing yourself hard enough.

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denise:) April 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Yes., there is such a thing as runner’s high. Big decisions should not be made while under the influence. When i came down, I found I had signed up for a full marathon.

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Alyssa (azusmom) April 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I never experienced runner’s high. I think got stuck in runner’s grouchiness, because I never enjoyed running. I DO get Spinner’s high, however, because i LOVE Spin classes!

Why can’t gyms just put on Food Network instead of CNN?

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helene @healthyfrenchie April 19, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I do get a runner’s high. Lucky me :)
I usually get it when I do an interval run, because I push harder and go faster. On a long and steady run it doesn’t really happen :(
It’s funny that dog get it too, I was just writing today about how my dog inspires me to run because he looks so happy when he does lol

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Tami C. April 19, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I don’t run any more, but back when I did I got a few times. I also got it one time when I was doing CrossFit. Oddly enough, it was from doing “Fran” (21/15/9 reps of barbell thrusters and pull-ups.) The whole workout only takes from 5-7 minutes, but I had the most awesome buzz ever, and it lasted almost all day. Weird.

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Rebecca April 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Nope.

Never.

I got a Tabata high once,
but that might have been my body trying to keep me from puking.

:)

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Cort The Sport April 19, 2012 at 7:04 pm

ABSOLUTELY. But I get it primarily from running FAST, from speedwork. I don’t get it from long marathon-prep runs. The adrenaline high can literally last me the the rest of the day and be hard to come down from. When I can’t run, and don’t get that, my mood and outlook can suffer.

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Jody - Fit at 54 April 19, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Charlotte, I have been running since my 20′s. I even did 5K’s. I never got a runner’s high. I did & do it for the challenge & for the cardio because I like it better than other forms of cardio. Now ask me about a weight lifting high – A HUGE YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :-)

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Serena April 19, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Yes, I get a cardio-high as well. I have conducted a self-study and have actually concluded that it is most likely NOT from the actual cardio but from the build of the techno music I am listening to!! Determined this when running to awesome songs and getting goosebumps and feeling the adrenaline pumping increasingly through my body–and this truth is confirmed every time we do a finale in Turbo! ;-) Love the music motivation!!!

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Kelly April 19, 2012 at 10:09 pm

I definitely get a swimmer’s high and it does take about 20 minutes, or about 1000 yards into my swim, before it kicks in. Afterward, I feel like I could swim forever. I’ve also felt something similar after a HIIT session on the elliptical.

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Sam April 20, 2012 at 9:44 am

I never get a runner’s high from doing distance, and I’ve gone up to 2 hours/15 miles. Nada, just felt annoyed and grumpy.

However, I get a total high from sprints and HARD workouts, 5k pace and under (maybe half marathon pace depending on the day, but definitely not easy pace). Easy running or jogging just doesn’t do it for my mood.

Not that I can run at all right now due to gazillions of injuries. To say my mood is unstable is putting it mildly.

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Heather April 23, 2012 at 3:35 pm

I never paid attention, I just knew how great I feel afterward, but I do get that from any cardio. I will check it out on my run tonight. I do find also that the first mile or more do really suck, but after that I feel great. To all the people that say they hate running, I’m wondering if you followed a training plan and worked at that it would be something they could actually love. I thought I hated running until I started training for a 1/2 marathon, I have really suprised myself a lot since I started training, I wouldn’t be able to run more than a quarter mile without wanting to die, now I can run 10 miles without stopping. For once I have actually stuck with a plan and have really become more accountable. I feel great, and I honestly never thought I would LOVE running! Thanks for the great running post :)

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Kris April 24, 2012 at 8:19 am

I used to get the runner’s high. But now the high is just the enjoyment of running, being by myself, challenging myself, or just a slow relaxing run. It is a very interesting topic, but the joy of running is that you can make it as slow or fast, or competitive or not competitive, as you want.

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George Super BootCamps May 23, 2012 at 11:33 am

A sliding scale of ability to get a runners high would make sense to me.

I reckon I get a mini-high after doing a short, but very intense weight training session. This can take only 5 mins or so, but boy is it tough.

Similarly I also feel great after doing only 5-10 mins of Chi Kung, but I suspect that’s through a different set of mechanisms than the ones measured in the current study.

Thanks for the writeup!
George

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