Welcome back to the AMR Aid Station, where we answer and explain your burning + interesting #motherrunner questions. iI you have any, feel free to tweet us @themotherrunner with your question and use #AMRAidstation; you can also comment below or email us.
WILL I EVER GET A RUNNER’S HIGH, OR DOES IT JUST SKIP SOME PEOPLE?
Does a runner’s high even really exist?
According to copious research conducted over a number of years by multiple experts from a variety of prestigious academic institutions around the world, the official scientific answer is: Maybe.
During the first running boom of the 1970s, endorphins were discovered as the body’s natural painkillers, and runners quickly claimed them as their reward for all their hard work, as Amby Burfoot explained in his Enduring Questions column about the runner’s high.
The theory went like this: When our ancestors had to chase down food, survival depended on an ability to run fast and long, and our brain released feel-good chemicals to mask the pain of our efforts.
Only one thing.
“The endorphin theory had several problems,” as Amby wrote, “the most serious being that endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier that border-patrols your gray matter. And if something can't get into your brain, it can't make you high. Too bad.”
Gina Kolata, long-time medical reporter and writer for the New York Times, debunked the endorphin theory in her book Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for the Truth About Exercise and Health. One of the experts she cited said, “I believe this endorphin in runners is a total fantasy.”
Maybe. But what about those days when you DON’T get to run, because life got in the way, and you are crabby, irritable and snappish with your children, significant other, and/or small dogs?
Personally, I feel very comfortable blaming endorphin withdrawal.
Luckily, a group of German researchers got on the case and discovered that endorphins flood the pre-fontal and limbic regions of the brain during “comfortably hard” runs. Ah ha!
And other researchers found this: During a moderately stressful workout—say a tempo run—your body pumps out endocannabinoids. Yes, that's the natural version of THC—aka the chemical that gives weed its potency.
“Scientists believe the endocannabinoid anandamide has an especially potent ability to lift mood, dull pain, and dilate the blood vessels and bronchial tubes in the lungs,” Dr. Jeff Brown writes in The Runner’s Brain. “When your brain and body cells release enough of these happiness molecules, you get the rush of good feelings that lead to the runner’s high.”
Now we’re talking!
Okay, but HOW, you ask?
HOW do you get the elusive runner’s high?
1. Run Faster
The “easiest” way to trigger feelings of euphoria and invincibility is to run faster. Don’t kill yourself. Researchers say 75% of maximal effort does the trick. One simple workout is to go to a track and run 8 laps, doing the straightaways faster and recovering on the curves. You can also do this on the road, running fast between telephone poles, say, and recovering an equal distance. Bonus: You will feel like SUCH a BAMR afterward, I promise that counts as “high.”
2. Run with your BRF (Best Running Friend)
You already know this from your last good run with your BRF, when you laughed so hard you gasped and went home feeling like all was right with the world. A study out of Oxford showed that athletes who exercised together produced significantly more endorphins than those who worked out solo.
3. Run Longer
When you first started running, going a half-mile without stopping felt like a major accomplishment. It was! It is! Likewise the first mile, the first 5K, etc. I realize it isn’t practical, or even wise, to just keep adding miles upon miles. You are not ultramarathoning champ and former Olympian Magdalena Boulet. Neither am I! But adding an extra mile to your long run every other week or so does trigger that awesome feeling of empowerment. The German study found the sweet spot to be two-hour runs at a moderate intensity.
It also might make you tired and hungry, needing a meal and a nap. Which, if you’re lucky enough to have the time for both, definitely makes you feel good.
4. Just Run
Not every run is going to be fantastic. But the more consistently you run (with recovery days, of course), the better your chances of finding what makes you happy with your running.
In her book on the power of positivity, Let Your Mind Run, Deena Kastor advises finding something to feel grateful for on every run: if not your Olympic speed, then maybe the smell of honeysuckle, the hawk that landed on the telephone wire, the knowledge that all that humidity-induced sweat will make you a stronger runner come fall.
That’s what I’ve been telling myself lately, anyway--and it's working. I'm calling it a runner’s high.
(After all, you know what the T-shirt says: It's all good. I ran today.)