Is Runner's High a Real Thing?

Date: July 17, 2021

If you asked Kile Putman how he felt at mile 7 of his first marathon 40 years ago, he would say he was on the verge of quitting. He'd completed six months of training and was in the best shape of his life. But nothing could have prepared him for the weight that descended on him just a quarter of the way through the race. As he sweated and panted with a pack of other singlet-clad men over the following 10 miles (16 kilometres), the weight tugged on him.

Then something happened. The weight that had been slowing him down and cramping his calves suddenly vanished. He felt lighter in certain ways, as if he was floating. His pace quickened. He began to separate himself from the rest of the pack. It was shaping up to be a fantastic run. Then he started crying. He couldn't control his deep passionate sobs. He didn't cry tears of despair, but tears of delight that he still can't put into words. Was it a case of runner's high?

Is Runner's High Just a Phrase?

I'm jogging through a well-kept Alabama suburban neighbourhood with Putman, a USA Track & Field-certified coach, dodging freshly cut grass blown into the air by three loud blowers. We're debating if there is such a thing as a "runner's high," which some runners describe as a feeling of exhilaration blended with a sense of tranquilly. And it's at this point that he tells me about the rollercoaster of emotions he felt throughout his first marathon.

He explains, "I'm not sure if that was a runner's high or some other joyful experience." "Perhaps it was all in my mind." Because Putman is a sceptic, I turned to Margaret Smith, Ph.D., a sports psychology practitioner and performance coach in Birmingham, Alabama, who knows more about the mental health components of the athlete's brain.

She says, "Oh, I fully believe it's true." "As a runner, I've definitely had those magical days when it happens, and it's the best feeling in the world."

When you ask most runners if they've ever experienced a runner's high, they'll likely look up at the clouds and begin talking about those enigmatic moments when their bodies began to perform as if on autopilot, effortlessly driving them forward.

Smith refers to this as the "flow state," a notion coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist who developed it after interviewing athletes, musicians, and artists about what makes them happy. He noticed that when those people were performing at their best, they went into a highly focused mental state in which their job or activity just flowed out of them without much effort.

Could this conscious immersion be the root of the runner's high for runners? Smith suggests that it's possible. Maybe it's only the fact that you believe you're on a runner's high that makes it real. "We know from social psychology that perception has a big influence on reality," she explains. "It influences my actions and my understanding of circumstances whether I feel something is true."

Runner's High Addiction

Why would people continue to put themselves through the hardships of pounding the pavement several times a week, or even every day, unless there is something to runner's high?

"It's possible that this is why people become addicted to jogging in some way," Hasson speculates. A runner's high, like an opiate or cannabis high, activates the brain's reward circuits. The brain is wired to repeat the activity in order to relive the sensation. However, just like with opiates, the second high is rarely as wonderful as the first, leading to addiction.

Reaching that state of consciousness during or after a run, whether it's due to marijuana-like endocannabinoids or opioid-like endorphins — or both — is a well-deserved reward for many, even if it's only experienced on rare occasions.

If my running pal Putman did experience runner's high during his first marathon four decades ago, it was a one-time occurrence. But he's never given up on that fantastic sensation. He explains, "It kept me in the marathon game."

But, as I already stated, Putman is a sceptic at heart. I remind him of the great day during marathon training when we ran the Vulcan 10K course in Birmingham three times in a row to complete an 18-plus-mile (29-kilometer) run under a cloudy sky with a lengthy, downhill stretch. "So you didn't get a rush?" I enquire. Because, to be honest, I did.

In my peripheral vision, I saw him shaking his head. He adds, "Nah, that was simply a solid run."

According to Hasson, an environmental phenomenon may have a role in runner's high. But he is sceptical that this is all there is to it.

"There are times when you have a flawless performance. Everything is wonderful. It's a beautiful day. And you're on a roll, and you're feeling great about it, "he declares "However, I don't believe this is the case the majority of the time [during a runner's high]. Because there are times when I run in horrible weather and it's a miserable day, yet I'm still able to run well. Then I finish, and I feel fantastic."

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