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Runner's High: Is It for Real?

Is this feeling of euphoria the real deal? More importantly, is it enough to get you across the finish line?
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WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

When you're running a marathon, whether it's in New York City, Washington, or Chicago, you need every trick in the book to get through not only months of grueling training, but the grand finale as well: 26.2 miles of road that you cross step by agonizing step.

Through the blood, sweat, and tears, many runners report that their favorite trick -- and part of the reason they wake morning after morning to pound the pavement -- is what is referred to as runner's high.

"Psychologically, runners may experience euphoria, a feeling of being invincible, a reduced state of discomfort or pain, and even a loss in sense of time while running," says Jesse Pittsley, PhD, president of the American Society for Exercise Physiologists.

Where does runner's high come from, and what makes athletes push themselves 26.2 miles? Do you need to run to feel that sense of euphoria, or can you find those positive emotions through other types of exercise, too? Experts explain the theories behind the high, the physical and psychological benefits of running, and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with crossing the finish line.

The Science Behind the High

"'Runner's high' is a phrase that we use to describe the feelings of psychological well-being that are associated quite often with long-duration, rhythmic-type exercise, and marathon running certainly falls into that category," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise.

Why runner's high makes an athlete feel good, and what's happening in the body when those positive feelings wash over a person, however, is anyone's guess.

"For a long time, people believed the answer lay within the whole endorphin argument -- with long-duration exercise you release endorphins, which have a morphine-like effect on the body and therefore may be responsible for the feelings of well-being," Bryant tells WebMD.

While it's a good theory, Bryant explains, it doesn't necessarily hold water.

"While our circular levels of endorphins might be up, whether that impacts a person's psychological outlook output directly is probably not that likely," says Bryant. "In some studies, when the effects of endorphins have been blocked chemically, people have still experienced this high, so the whole endorphin argument has been called into question."

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