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Runner’s High: Fact or Myth?

Last Updated on August 18, 2017 by Jeff

You have probably heard the term thrown around before — but is there really any solid scientific basis for the existence of the runner’s high? Or is the notion simply an urban legend? In this article, we will separate fact from fiction and explore the complex connection between mind and body. 

Your Brain on Running 

Exercise — especially cardiovascular workouts such as running — directly affects the brain in a number of ways. For example: 

  • Exercise increases brain metabolism and prevents the production of choline, a chemical that can damage brain cells. This may be one reason why people who maintain an active lifestyle are less likely to suffer from dementia and/or age-related cognitive decline.
  • Running is often touted as an effective strategy for recovering addicts, as the practice can help curb cravings by regulating the body’s pleasure/reward chemicals. (Ironically, this is part of the reason why running can help control cravings for more benign vices such as chocolate cake and potato chips, too!)
  • The regulating effects of exercise make it a viable option for managing other mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders, as well.
  • Because exercise increases the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, it helps create a nourishing environment for new memories to form and learning to occur: studies have shown that regular cardiovascular activity leads to better retention of information.

Long Term Versus Short Term Impact of Running 

As you can see, exercise clearly has a meaningful impact on our minds. However, you also probably noticed that these well-studied mind-body connections are all oriented toward a long-term perspective. The phrase runner’s high carries with it a different connotation, however — one of a short-term burst of contentedness and confidence. Does any such effect exist? The answer…is yes, but only for those who have developed consistency.  

For many years, scientists assumed that the feeling of elation that some runners described the feeling after hitting the track was related to the release of endorphins triggered by cardiovascular exercise. Endorphins such as enkephalins and dynorphins have effects such as increasing focus, triggering a sense of pleasure, reducing pain, boosting the mood, and even creating a feeling of euphoria, after all. Sounds like a closed case, right? Not so fast!  

The Runner’s High is About More than Endorphins!  

In some studies, frequent runners were asked to take a drug that chemically blocked endorphins from having any effect on the brain. Surprisingly, these test subjects still reported feeling the same sense of focus and well-being that scientists had previously attributed solely to the endorphins. 

Here is where that aforementioned consistency comes into play. People who run on a regular basis begin to develop a special ability for active relaxation — a process that is somewhat similar to meditation. By performing a familiar task that is associated with self-improvement and positivity, and by focusing on the rhythmic, repetitive motions of running, people are able to free their minds from their everyday worries and gain perspective. And this may be the true basis behind the famous runner’s high.