Updated: Jul 6
Who does not seek that state of euphoria during a running session? Why has the Endocannabinoid System become the subject of much scientific research because of its positive effects on athletes? Our simplified point on scientific hypotheses.
Photo: Jack Lemon Unsplash
The "runner's high," or runner's euphoria, is often experienced and described in different ways by endurance athletes. All of them explain in their own words a state of joy that takes the pain away and makes the run so enjoyable it might never stop. The notion of time disappears, as do the fears, and a feeling of deep relaxation sets in after the race. Pretty cool. Is it possible to influence the occurrence of this condition? The intensity and duration of the race appear to play a role in producing endogenous neurotransmitters that trigger feelings of joy.
What causes the runner's euphoria? Endorphin or Endocannabinoid
Science offers two different approaches. A first and older guess is that the "runner's high" is generated by endorphins. A second hypothesis favors an intervention of the Endocannabinoid system. Let's take a closer look at these two neurotransmitters.
Endorphins are like opiates produced naturally by our bodies. A release of endorphins mainly results in suppressing pain in the muscles. Do these endorphins also have direct effects on the brain? Only indirectly. While running, the level of beta-endorphins in the blood increases, but they are too big to reach the brain through the blood.
However, according to recent research, enkephalin, a pain-relieving peptide, helps transport endorphins to the brain. Scans of the brain during two-hour runs showed secretion of endorphins in the prefrontal and limbic regions that otherwise light up in response to emotions such as love.
The Endocannabinoid system recently became the subject of much scientific research because of the positive effects on the body and the potential for using the system's stimulation to treat disease—a basic understanding of how the Endocannabinoid system functions allows scientists to discover its many therapeutic uses constantly.
When introduced into the body, plant cannabinoids such as hemp CBD* will stimulate the cannabinoid receptors the same way as the body's Endocannabinoid system does. The ECS system operates similarly, and introducing external cannabinoids into the system triggers the same therapeutic benefits as internally produced endocannabinoids.
When running, these endogenous neurotransmitters are also released into the blood in higher amounts than usual and cause similar joy.
Endocannabinoids can cross the blood-brain barrier more easily than endorphins, and besides euphoria, they also provide an anesthetic for pain. In a test, a runner's high links to the cannabinoid receptors, showing less sensitivity to pain and fear after running. The subject given Endocannabinoid blockers remained anxious and sensitive to pain despite running.
*CBD is considered a doping substance in many countries. You need to check the laws with your country's anti-doping institutions or sports event organizers.
The runner's euphoria in a nutshell
Accounts, laboratory tests, and studies attempt to explain a phenomenon that science has not yet fully explored. Whether endorphins, endocannabinoids, or both are causing this euphoric state, the critical thing is that you treat your body gently during a long, moderate-intensity run. You won't achieve this in your first run, as it takes time and patience; only experienced runners will reach that state of joy and stamina.
You should always start low and slow and increase slowly.
Pick a 2-mile route you know you will enjoy, and start by walking that same route every 2 or 3 days for a couple of weeks. After, increase your walking speed for another two weeks. After a month, you will start running slowly at first. Increase the distance gradually and gently raise the pace. After another few months of training, you will be on your way to becoming a much more experienced runner. You will already see a difference in your general well-being. Again, low and slow!
This story is for educational purposes only and not meant to substitute for medical advice. Seek the counsel of a qualified medical doctor before changing or adding anything to your health care regimen, like running.