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."
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 mood.
"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."
More High, Less Low
While runner's high might be more short-term, it's well-known that regular exercise also offers long-term benefits, on both the mind and the body.
"On average, you tend to see people who are runners and habitual exercisers having better moods, suffering from less depression and less anxiety, and more general feelings of well-being," says Bryant. "For people who are physically active on a regular basis, they have active relaxation -- kind of by moving the body and focusing on the sensation of moving your body and getting into the rhythmic activity and motion, it produces this relaxation response, and that I think contributes significantly to the feelings of psychological well-being."
While marathon running can take its toll on the body, it does offer significant benefits as well.
"Clearly, there are many health benefits of running at this level," says Rick Hall, MS, a registered dietitian and advisory board member of the Arizona Governor's Council on Health, Physical Fitness, and Sports. "A smart marathon runner has put in many hours of training for many weeks or months, before the event, and the health benefits of sustained aerobic exercise are well documented: improved circulation, reduced body fat, lowered blood cholesterol, and better self-esteem."
For many people, the thought of running 26.2 miles is simply out of the question. Does that mean they'll never get to experience the euphoric feeling of runner's high? Not necessarily.
"The research suggests that a wide variety of activities can produce this effect," says Bryant.
Whether it's swimming, cycling, or rowing, the key to the high is repetition.
"What these sports have in common is that they are things you can perform in a repetitive rhythmic fashion, and that seems to produce the same effect," says Bryant.
Whatever sport you choose, another piece of good news is that you don't have to push your limits to reap a reward.
"The other thing that is encouraging is that workouts don't have to be overly strenuous to produce this effect," says Bryant. "Most research has looked at running and cycling and so forth, but when you look at some of the studies that have been done in the clinical environment, the key is being active for 30 minutes or more at a moderate intensity level to see some of these beneficial psychological outcomes."
Beyond Runner's High
When a runner comes down off the high, many are left asking, "Why bother?" What sense is there in running a 26.2 mile race?
"I've completed three full marathons and two half-marathons in the past two years," Hall tells WebMD. "In the next year, I plan to complete two half-marathons and two full marathons -- one as a component of an Ironman competition."
While it sounds insane, for Hall, it's the epitome of accomplishment after months of training and hard work that drives him to compete in marathons over and over again.
"For me, the event itself isn't really about competition," says Hall. "The marathon is my reward for the months of training leading up to the event itself. You don't build a house in one day: You make a plan, wake up early every day, and work hard. Such as it is, for me, with a marathon."
And of course, there's more than runner's high -- there's finish-line high.
"There is no better feeling than raising your hands as you cross the finish line of a 26.2 mile course to the sound of hundreds of spectators cheering," says Hall. "The emotional high of completing an endurance event can last for days."