Is Runner’s High Even Real?

Getty / Klaus Vedfelt

I was a competitive distance runner for years, and my teammates had a saying to help motivate us on days when we weren’t feeling it: You never regret going for a run. It was true – we all felt happier, peppier…and just better after going on runs. In college, I regularly logged 90 miles a week in training, and I credit running with helping me cope with stress and having a pretty mellow personality.

Runner’s high, or the feel-good emotions you experience after a run, has been talked about for decades. And I, for one, feel like I’ve reaped the benefits. But there’s still a lot of mystery around the phenomenon. After all, some people experience it while others never do. So, is runner’s high even real? If so, why can’t everyone tap into it?

Is Runner’s High Legit?

The exact definition of runner’s high is a little vague – some say it’s just feeling good during or after you run, while others describe it more like a euphoria. Overall, “it is an improved mood associated with exercise,” says Bryant Walrod, MD, family medicine physician with a focus on sports medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and head team physician for the Ohio State Buckeyes football team.

But David Merrill, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., describes it a little more intensely. “If you’re lucky enough to have felt it, you know what it is,” he says. “It’s this euphoric feeling of a high, of not feeling pain, of a sense of well-being and being light on your feet. You’re not exhausted or worn out the way you would expect after having a hard workout.”

Runner’s high has been researched, although it’s not totally clear what’s behind it. Previous studies have suggested that opioids naturally produced by the body cause the release of endorphins, creating a runner’s high, Dr. Walrod says. But a 2021 study of 63 people on treadmills used the medication naltrexone to block opioid receptors in the body and found that people still had a feeling of euphoria and decreased anxiety after 45 minutes of running, even though they weren’t producing endorphins.

“Now we think that runner’s high could be due to endocannabinoids,” Dr. Merrill says. These biochemical substances are similar to THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, and are produced in the body, he explains.

“Your body has receptors for endocannabinoids in nerve endings and in the brain, including the frontal lobe where mood regulation occurs,” Dr. Merrill explains. “This is literally mimicking a different kind of high.”

How Long Does Runner’s High Last?

It’s hard to say how long runner’s high will last for any one person, says Dr. Walrod. But it’s “relatively short-lived,” Dr. Merill says, adding that it can be anywhere from minutes to hours, depending on the person.

Overall, he says one thing is consistent: “There’s an antidepressant effect to running.” In fact, research suggests that running may treat depression as well as antidepressants, and in some case better.

Are Some People Immune to Runner’s High?

Some people will just feel wiped out at the end of a run, not euphoric or happy. Merrill says it’s “unclear” why this can happen. But all bodies are different. “There are plenty of people who say, ‘[runner’s high] is great in theory, but I’ve never felt that,'” he says.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been studied enough to know why some people can tap into that feeling and others can’t, per Dr. Merrill. It could have something to do with fitness levels, intensity, or something else entirely, he adds.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Runs

Again, every body is different – and if runner’s high doesn’t happen for you, that’s OK, too. But if you want to try to tap into the feeling, there are a few things you can try.

For starters, try upping your intensity. In general, people tend to experience runner’s high more when they work out at a higher intensity, Dr. Walrod says. He recommends doing at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at 70 to 80% of your maximum heart rate.

“Mild exertion has not been shown to produce a runner’s high and too intense can also mitigate this response,” he says. Dr. Merrill agrees. “To hedge your bets, longer and more intense bouts are more likely to produce runner’s high,” he says. Basically, you need to find the sweet spot where you’re pushing yourself, but not gasping for air.

You might also try adjusting your sleep schedule and the time of your run, given that sleep has been directly linked to better athletic performance (including improved endurance) and endocannabinoids are three times higher when you first wake up than they are at night.

If you try these swaps and find that you’re still not experiencing runner’s high, don’t be discouraged. There are still plenty of other worthwhile benefits of running and moving your body.

Related: How to Start Running If You’re a Total Beginner

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