As far back as runners can remember, they have always known that running is both physically and psychologically rewarding. The more you run, the greater your anticipation of the next runners high will be.
You find yourself looking forward to that feeling at all times during a run. Sometimes it’s hard to hold back. But why? What makes runners feel this way? What makes doing something so tough at times, yet so pleasurable?
This druglike high is known in the running community as “runners high”, which leaves non-runners to wonder if it’s even real or just some myth created by die-hard runners who keep lacing up their sneakers despite physical pain.
But feel good chemicals in the brain and the science behind runners high is real.
Everything we do, including running, gives us a sense of pleasure thanks to chemicals called endorphins—which are nothing more than hormones that activate opiate receptors in the brain.
The thing about these feel-good hormones is that they don’t just make us feel happy when exercising–they make us feel good when we are stressed, frightened, or even in pain.
This is known as the “endorphin rush”, which can begin during intense exercise, like sprinting to catch a bus, and may last up to several minutes after. It’s these chemicals that propel us through tough runs on cold winter days—and what runners experience as runners high.
Making us feel even better are neurotransmitters called enkephalins, which also activate the opiate receptors in the brain to block transmission of pain signals during exercise.
Like endorphin, these chemicals are released during intense exercise and make us feel euphoric after a tough workout has ended.
Yes, you may experience this post-workout euphoria after a light jog around the neighborhood or mile repeats on your home track, but it’s during intense exercise that you may go into full blown runners high.
Scientists are not exactly sure how many endorphins are released when we run, nor do they know why some of us feel the effects more than others.
The best we can figure is that runners high is a product of several factors including genetics, fitness level, and training intensity.
One thing is for sure: the more intense the better. While these feel-good chemicals are released during any type of exercise, it’s during intense runs on either a treadmill or track where endorphin release is most likely to occur.
Aerobic running can also release enkephalins and dopamine, which is another chemical that stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain.
This explains why we often feel high after a long run. Endorphins, enkephalins, and dopamine are all chemicals your brain releases when you exercise to make it easier for you to tolerate pain and stress.
When dopamine is released, it also reduces the desire for food; this may be why runners don’t always want to pig out after a long run.
So now that you know what can happen in your brain during a strenuous workout, does anyone think you should go out and try to get high? Good question—and one you should ask your doctor before attempting to go for the runners high.
While getting high may make you forget about that exercise induced pain, it could also put you at risk of injury.
Hitting the pavement or treadmill too hard is never a good idea and neither is trying to chase down that runner’s high.
But whether the chemical reaction running creates in your brain is enough to make you hungrier, sleepier, and simply more relaxed is entirely up to the individual.
Many runners claim this feeling allows them to push harder during races and tough workouts while others say it makes them feel like stopping. So does running give you a drug-like euphoria? According to science—it just might.
A runner’s high is the euphoric feeling one gets after exercising, often in activities such as running and yoga.
The cause of this feeling is still not entirely understood by science; however, it is believed to be a combination of the release of various chemicals in the brain such as endorphins and enkephalins.
These chemicals are similar to those produced by the human body during times of stress and can make one feel relaxed, less stressed, pain-free and even euphoric.
The name for this phenomenon originated from a 1973 New York Times article written by George Sheehan, a cardiologist and longtime runner.
Early research in the 1980s found that naloxone, a drug that blocks the action of opiate drugs such as heroin and morphine, also blocked the effects of running.
When tests were done on lab rats to see how they reacted to running, rats that were given naloxone didn’t show as much pleasure as those that weren’t.
This was believed to be due to the opiate receptors in their brains which needed to be activated by chemicals such as endorphins and enkephalins; since naloxone blocked the action of these peptides, it also blocked the positive feeling that comes after exercising.
Researchers were then able to see what was happening in the brain during this time, and it turns out that endorphins are only one of many chemicals involved in runners’ high; other chemicals such as dopamine (found naturally in your body) are also thought to contribute to the euphoric feeling after exercise.
Although it is still not known exactly what chemicals contribute to the feeling, it is believed that they are released during strenuous exercise and they send an overwhelming amount of signals to the reward center in your brain, causing one’s positive feelings.
However, just because something can activate this area does not automatically mean you will experience runners high; how you feel emotionally during exercise is just as important, if not more important than how you physically feel after exercising.
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