How to get runners high (without even running!)
Updated: May 5
It's that buzz, that euphoria, minus the comedown of a drug.
It's in large part what encourages and rewards those distance running devotees for their efforts.
If you've experienced it you'll know what a pleasureable, pleasant, positive and healthy state it is.
Clearly it's worthwhile trying to regularly get that high so exercise becomes more enjoyable and hence easier to get motivated for, in addition to the to the positive effects on mood and thus mental health. What actually is it?
It is the body's response to repeated, continuous physical activity. Previously believed to result from the release of endorphins creating a reduced state of discomfort and pain, an effect thought to be akin to taking morphine. However more recent studies (as referred to in this article) have revealed that endoprhins are probably not as responsible for the feeling as had been believed. This has been shown through blocking the effects of endorphins yet the runner's high state is still experienced.
This study suggests that a substance called anandamide which is an endocannabinoid, is found to be at high levels post vigorous exercise. This is a substance associated with the high from Marijuana and believed to result in a greater sense of calm and higher pain tolerance.
However I don't think it can be reduced to simply that as other hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are released at higher levels during exercise and they too have a positive effect on mood. I should add that there is also a suggestion that the pleasant feelings result from an increase in body temperature and I have to say I notice if I've got my body temperature up nice and high through exercising on a winter's morning it does simply feel fantastic to me.
While there is debate as to what actually causes runners high physiologicaly, I tend to think it's a combination of many of the things mentioned above. The contention actually extends to many believing there isn't enough evidence to say it even exists, but like many others I've experienced it too many times to share that view.
I subscribe to the idea that it's evolutionary and like the fight/flight stress response happens to allow us to survive through running from a woolly mammoth or hunting prey for extended periods. It kicks in to enable us to carry on fleeing or pursuing in spite of any pain, injury or discomfort. Plus of course to fight if needed.
How to get the high There are some common suggestions around what best makes it work, which include: * 20 minutes or more of exercise * Continuous, repetitive activity * Vigorous activity but not quite maximal. This is probably the most important and tricky part. If it's too hard the degree of discomfort can override the degree of pleasure, plus it can mean you can't go for long enough.
Other tips from professional and personal experience
* It's broadly agreed that it isn't just running that triggers it but I think that evolutionary survival idea means that running is more likely to do the trick as our distant ancestors clearly were more likely to have 'run for their lives' than cycled or rowed. Similarly I have a personal view that intense boxing can give a good chance of getting that high, as it can replicate a 'fight for your life'. That said I've definitely experienced it cycling and doing weight training, so don't despair if you can't run. I should add that the weight training needs to be close to continuous to get the effect.
* I've found the High Intensity Interval Training methods aren't as reliable for it as they just aren't long enough and that 20 minutes + is really what's needed. HIIT probably isn't quite continuous enough either. The exception might be if you do several HIIT sessions close to consecutively over a workout spanning 20 min or more, but then it is questionable as to whether you're actually training at the required intensity to constitute HIIT if you can repeat it. (Fire at will all you HIIT devotees!)
* A pre-existing level of fitness enhances the chances of getting the euphoria as lack of cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance can prevent you going hard enough for long enough. This difficulty for the novice exerciser to get the high can partly explain why those who've never established a real exercise habit just can't understand how the 'gym junkies' can claim to enjoy exercise so much.
* I've also read that a degree of acute stress helps trigger the release of the endocannabinoid anandamine. So in practice if you can make exercise challenging enough to be a stressful prospect it can help get you the high as well. I can relate to that with many of the fun runs and obstacle course race's I've done- the usually unwelcome pre-race nerves do seem to heighten the inner chemical response. If you perform as hoped, it'll inevitably mean there's also quite a sense of achievement, further adding to feelings of euphoria and exhilaration. So an event or some form of external challenge will probably help.
* In Matt Fitzgerald's book 'How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle' it's explained when training in a group there is a behavioural synchronicity resulting in reduced perceived effort and greater release of many of the mood-boosting & discomfort suppressing hormones & neurotransmitters associated with Runners High. Obviously then training with others is another thing to consider.
* I'm really curious around the idea that an increase in body temperature is part of it. While it's not pleasant or practical to make yourself cold in order to create the contrasting feeling of warming up, I reckon it is worth bearing in mind that a cold morning might be a good chance to go for it. If nothing else I highly recommend the wonderful feeling of warmth from elevated body temperature that can last several hours through a chilly morning. * It has been suggested that the 'flow state' often referred to in positive psychology could have something to do with it. Getting into flow generally involves doing an activity you have a level of competency, at a degree of difficulty, which results in an immersion, a level of mindfulness. It's been said the rhythm of running could assist with this. Combine it with some upbeat music and you could be creating a recipe for an uplifted state. Although Runners High may appear to simply result from vigorous repeated effort, it's important to give it some thought and even planning to give yourself the best chance of experiencing it. Now you can try a few tricks to get that feel-good effect and it may just be the reward and encouragement you need to engrain exercise as a habit.
Need help getting fit or exercising consistently & in a way which can give you that high? With over 20 years of Personal Training experience, I'm sure I've plenty to offer you. Why not get in touch...
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