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?
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
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
"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
"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."
With endorphins largely out of the picture, researchers have looked at other
types of neurotransmitters that might have a role in affecting a person's
"Norepinephrine secretion, dopamine, and serotonin have all been shown
to help to reduce depression," says Bryant. "These
neurotransmitters also tend to be released and produced in higher
concentrations during exercise, so people think that it may be some of these
other biochemical substances, aside from the endorphins, that might be
responsible for this effect."
Another theory that is tossed around in attempting to define runner's high
relates to body temperature.
"Some people think it just might be the elevation in body temperature
that is associated with these longer- duration activities, and it may be
through the hypothalamus, which is closely linked to temperature regulation
mechanisms," says Bryant. "The theory is that the increase in body
temperature might in some way indirectly affect mood."