Ranked right up there with the perfect squat and the best blender for smoothies, the “runner’s high” is one of the most elusive yet sought-after myths in modern fitness 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 tests 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. Because ferrets. Have you seen their ugly little mugs? I don’t think they enjoy anything, frankly. Ferrets are the Joan Rivers of the animal world. Actually the researchers postulate it is because ferrets as a species are not adapted to run, especially at high speeds or for long distances. The researchers conclude that the neurobiological “reward” for endurance exercise may explain why humans continue to engage in aerobic exercise despite the extra work and injury risks.
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: Can I get a runner’s high from doing other stuff like dancing and weight lifting?
A: The study didn’t specifically address this question (I wish it did – can you imagine the cuteness of ferrets and pugs in tutus?!?) but I’d guess that any cardio activity that gets your heart rate over that pleasure threshold would work for “high” purposes. When it comes to weight lifting, I couldn’t find any research but there are definitely plenty of people who say that weight lifting makes them feel amazing, sometimes way more amazing than they do with cardio. While I don’t personally get the same “high” feeling pumping iron as I do dancing, I can believe that other people feel it!
Q: Do you get high?
A: For myself, I do get a high when I workout — and it has nothing to do with living in Colorado, the pot capital of America. I feel especially awesome doing any kind of cardio but it does take me about 20 minutes of running (or kickboxing or dancing) 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 amazing by the end!
Although I do feel compelled to point out that the high can be addicting and I think this played a part in my compulsive over exercising. I felt so great working out – and so crappy when I wasn’t – that I began to crave the high of exercise. I used it to mitigate my anxiety and avoid facing my real issues. So, you know, don’t be me.
Q: Have you ever done anything stupid while on a runner’s high?
A: Yep! Mostly I get super chatty – want to know anything about me ever? Ask me while we’re running together and I’ll spill my guts. There are not enough posts to describe how many completely idiotic things I have said on runs. My friends have learned to expect my obligatory “I’m so sorry please never repeat any of that” post-run text. Also, I swear race promoters take advantage of that finish line fever because suddenly I want to sign up for all the races and buy all the stuff (and steal all the salted nut rolls).
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 need to know.
Do you get a runner’s high? Does it come from running or from some other type of exercise? Have you ever done anything dumb on a runner’s high?