Is the Runner’s High Real—And How Do I Get It?
It sounds too good to be true, but science says it’s legit. Here’s how to tap into the feel-good effects of this running phenomenon.
To the uninitiated, the runner’s high has taken on an almost mythical status. A burst of euphoria that occurs when the miles rack up sounds like an oxymoron—after all, pain and exhaustion are the words most often associated with high mileage.
But if you run often enough and long enough, you’ll have a day when everything clicks. Your legs feel light, strides feel easy and pace drops without a huge increase in effort. In your mind, you feel bliss. It’s as close to a perfect run as you can get, and it’s what keeps so many runners coming back for more. This is the elusive runner’s high. But where it comes from, how to measure it and ways runners can get it more often is still a topic of debate. Here’s what science has discovered so far
A Sense of Ease
The runner’s high refers to a specific point during your run (typically a couple of miles in) when you begin to experience a wave of positive feelings. These feel-good vibes are matched by lessened anxiety and a reduction in pain. Together, the three factors give you an experience of euphoria, a sensation that makes you feel like you could slip into your favorite gear and keep running forever.
“For me, having the ‘runner’s high’ makes me feel like I can run for as long as I want,” says Denise Sauriol , a Chicago-based running coach and author of Me, You, and 26.2: Coach Denise’s Guide to Get You to Your First Marathon. “Also, my stress level has been mitigated, and clarity on handling that stress comes to me as I run.”
The Endorphin Effect
Scientifically, there’s more going on with a runner’s high than just good vibes. “Researchers have long attributed the feeling of a ‘runner’s high’ with an increased level of chemicals in your body called endorphins which are released when we exercise,” says Caleb Backe, a certified personal trainer and health counselor. “These endorphins contribute to the ‘high’ feeling.”
However, recent research suggests endorphins can’t get all the credit for a runner’s high. It turns out the molecules in endorphins are pretty large and unable to cross the blood-brain barrier quickly, meaning they’re unlikely to be totally responsible for the mental effects that lead to a runner’s high. Instead, endorphins’ biggest role is inhibiting pain signals in the muscles, so runners don’t feel the soreness of pounding pavement until hours after the run is over .
New Thoughts on Runner’s High
In recent years, scientists have begun exploring a different series of reactions in the body, known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that may help regulate mood and pain, and they bind to different receptors in your body. (When THC, one of the main cannabinoids found in cannabis, binds to endocannabinoid receptors, the user feels the typical effects of THC like pain reduction, appetite stimulation, improved mood and more.)
New research has suggested that the ECS plays a major role in the runner’s high, since endocannabinoids are lipid-soluble and can pass through the blood-brain barrier more easily, triggering that euphoric feeling. Most likely, the runner’s high is due to a combination of the two: the pain-blocking effects of endorphins and euphoric-triggering feelings of endocannabinoids.
So let move on to what you really want to know: How can you tap into these feel-good sensations more readily and more often on your runs?
Unlocking the Runner’s High
Despite the concept of the runner’s high being around forever, the research is far from definitive. One challenge to conducting studies on it is the experience itself has a large element of subjectivity: How do you quantify and compare one person’s feelings of euphoria against the next? Still, there are a handful of similarities in the conditions runners say have led to a runner’s high that you can take advantage of:
Run for at least one hour .
Like all good things, achieving the runner’s high takes a little bit of time. In one study, changes in brain chemicals were seen after about three miles of running. Other experts suggest at least one hour is necessary for the runner’s high to kick in, and maybe even up to two hours (good news if you’re training for a marathon) .
Aim for consistent, moderate intensity .
HIIT lovers, be warned. A runner’s high is most often achieved with a steady, moderate effort (think a tempo run rather than fartleks). Too low an effort, and you won’t wake up the endocannabinoid receptors; too much effort, and you might not make it to that recommended one-hour mark. Moderate intensity paired with longer distance appears to be the ideal recipe. “The key to obtaining a runner’s high is to push yourself hard, but not too hard,” says Backe. “Finding the perfect balance is achieved on an individual basis.”
Another way to think about moderate intensity: Aim for an effort level around six or seven on a 0-10 scale. It’s the kind of effort where you can speak a few words to your running partner as you exercise but you don’t have enough breath for full, drawn-out sentences.
A runner’s high isn’t likely to occur the very first time you lace up your running shoes . That’s because the runner’s high happens more readily when your body is relaxed; when you’re just starting the activity, your body is likely to be straining to find a groove. You’ll also start with smaller distances (a mile or two at a time) before building up your mileage and time to that target hour-long threshold. Combined, that means a runner’s high is a long shot when building a running base.
However, as new runners build up endurance and become more comfortable running for longer times and distances, the runner’s high becomes more and more attainable. And the first time a new runner experiences a runner’s high can be a huge motivator to keep training hard.
Leave your watch at home .
Running coach Sauriol has found that over her career (which spans 177 marathons and counting), she’s most likely to achieve a runner’s high if she’s completely present in the moment—and yes, that means no music and no pace tracking.
“I’m not thinking about my to do list for the day, my to do list for my run or even my to do list for my life. I’m just running to run,” she explains. “In life and in running, we are most present when the feedback from our senses outweighs the thoughts streaming through our head.”
Try adding more mindfulness to your next run. Leave the fitness tracker at home (or set it to quiet so you’re not distracted by notifications), and keep your phone turned off, without any music or podcasts to invade your thoughts. Instead, focus on your inhales and exhales, or how your legs feel with every stride. Take notice of your surroundings: what the sky looks like, what neighborhood landmarks you’re passing, how the wind is blowing. Turn around when you’re mentally and physically ready, and you just may surprise yourself with how quickly the miles go by. Simply run without any expectations.
“When you have expectations, you are essentially trying to take control,” says Sauriol. That’s not a bad thing, but it detracts from finding those feelings of euphoria. “Taking control takes energy. Instead of burning energy by controlling the run, spend that energy on moving forward and being aware of how you feel.”
Bottom line: Run long, run regularly, run medium-hard. For a better shot at that elusive feeling, try tuning out from all your devices and tuning into your breath and stride.
Chasing that runner’s high is a great way to motivate yourself to hit your latest running goals. Once you feel it for the first time, you’ll be even more driven to continue training. Just make sure you have a comfortable pair of shoes to carry you through the miles.