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What is the "Runner's High"?

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

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 of the brain - those that otherwise light up in response to emotions such as love.


🧠 Endocannabinoids

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 allow scientists to constantly discover its many therapeutic uses.


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 the same way, and introducing external cannabinoids into the system triggers the same therapeutic benefits as internally produced endocannabinoids.


These endogenous neurotransmitters are also released into the blood in higher amounts than usual when running and cause a 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 shows a link to the cannabinoid receptors, showing less sensitivity to pain and fear after running. 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 with your country's anti-doping institutions or sports event organizers about the laws.


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 miles route that 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, 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.