Can we really get HIGH from running?


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When my hometown gym shut down at the beginning of this past June, I vowed not to allow myself to fall out of shape.  Instead of driving 25 minutes downtown and back home every day to the next closest gym, I developed a passion for running over the course of the summer.  What started in June as simple 20 minute runs around my neighborhood transpired into an hour and fifteen minute (or more) run each day by the beginning of August.

My parents and friends warned me that there is a thing as TOO much running - it's actually been suggested that it can result in adverse cardiovascular effects such as atrial  and ventricular arrhythmias, coronary artery calcification, and diastolic dysfunction (I obtained this information here).  My mom also frequently reminded me that slamming my legs off solid pavement for so much time each day would result in bad knees at an early age.

Despite these potential horrors I was being warned about, I simply could NOT skip a run or bring myself to lessen the length of the run.  During the run I felt free and at peace, but the sensation I felt after was what truly kept me sprinting day after day.  Post-run, my mood would be wonderful and accelerated -- the slightest things brought me extreme joy.  It is most likely that I was experiencing "runner's high," a term most have heard of, and probably wonder if it actually exists.  Can running actually so positively affect one's mood to the point where it may be equivalent to mood-altering drugs? 

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After reading several online articles on the topic, I gathered that "runner's high" is, in fact, a legitimate sensation.  It all has to do with those "natural pain killers" that are present in our brain called endorphins (I'm sure many of you have heard of them).  The endorphin is (or atleast should be) everyone's favorite neurotransmitter: responsible for pain relief, stress reduction, feelings of euphoria, and their release during sex is also what triggers the orgasm sensation! 

After reading those few online articles and some research on it, here's my theory on the situation:

When one runs, the body is put under obvious stress and experiences pain (even if only a very minimal amount), thus triggering the release of endorphins in the brain (the pituitary gland to be location-specific).  Not only does this provide bodily relief for the natural stress and pain associated with running, but also begins to create feelings of euphoria, or a "high", for the runner as he or she continues on his or her trail.  I would assume this feeling of euphoria is a result of excessive endorphin release because the brain is pumping out a large amount of these pain killers to keep up with the continuous stress and pain as the runner goes on. 

As I said earlier, the sensation would occur for me when I was finished running.  I would assume this is because the continuous endorphin release extends for a period of time even after a runner has finished their trek.

Of course, not everyone experiences this "high" feeling during or after running.  This is what sparks the debate over whether this claimed euphoria really exists.  Maybe it has to do with a runner's surroundings, or their initial attitude about running.

All I know is that my change in mood from the time I begin running to the time I sprint that last stretch makes me a firm believer in "runner's high."

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If this picture confuses you, the flowers emerging from his head reminded me of endorphins being released within the brain!

1 Comment

Hi Megan! Weird that we have the same name and both love to run! I am not as intense as you are though! I can't do more than 3 or 4 miles per day. I was on my high school's cross country team but never got into running / enjoyed it until after the season ended! http://westfieldtrack.com
I also experience this "runner's high" after every run. I agree with you that during the run I am happy and at peace, but after it is even better! I never thought about the science aspect of it though! (Like how it has to do with neurotransmitters and natural painkillers). Very interesting and good to know!

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