Is the Runner's High Real or Just a Myth?

Runner's high is real
Runner's high is real. Photo (c) Tyler Stableford / Getty Images

The idea that running long distances can, for some people, cause a sense of euphoria that is similar to the high offered by some psychedelics is not a new concept. The runner's high doesn't happen in every runner, in fact, it doesn't happen in most runners. But for those who've experienced it, the reported sensations are unmistakable: feelings of extreme peace, floating sensation, euphoria, bliss, and even altered states of consciousness and increased pain tolerance. Up until now, it remained something of a mystery. Was this phenomenon a real byproduct of some physiological process, simply just the athlete's perception, or something in between? 

Endorphins Linked to "Runner's High"

The notion of a surge in endorphin levels in the brain as the cause of the "runner's high" has been talked about for decades, but until recently, there was no way to actually measure endorphin levels in the brain itself. That all changed in 2008, when German researchers, lead by Dr. Henning Boecker, used positron emission tomography, or PET Scans to look at the levels of endorphins in the brains of runners before and after long-distance runs.

Measuring Endorphins in Runner's Brains

For this study, ten runners had psychological testing and a PET scan before and after a two-hour distance run along. Then the researchers compared the PET scan images to determine which areas of the brain had the most endorphin activity. The also asked the runners to rate their mood, including their level of euphoria. The reported feelings of euphoria were then compared to the changes in the endorphin levels in certain areas of the brain.

Results of This Study

  1. Endorphins were produced in the brain during exercise.
  2. The endorphins attached to receptors in the parts of the brain commonly associated with emotions (the limbic system and prefrontal areas).
  3. The amount of endorphins produced in the brain matched the degree of the mood change reported by the runner. So, as a runner described a greater euphoria and positive mood change, more endorphins were seen on his PET scan.

This finding provided the missing evidence that helped understand exactly what was happening in the brains of athlete's who report euphoria and out-of-body experiences. It also opened the door to studying a variety of brain chemicals, including adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine, and others, that may also contribute to these feelings of euphoria in exercisers. This research is just getting underway.

Boecker and his colleagues are also studying pain perception in marathon runners and non-runners, comparing self-reported pain perception with actual brain scans to look for chemical activity related to pain perception and exercise intensity.

The biggest mystery researchers have yet to unravel is why some runners are more likely to experience high levels of these 'feel good' brain chemicals than others and how long and how hard an athlete must exercise in order to activate the production of endorphins. It's also unclear why runners seem far more likely to experience this high than other athletes. Sure, cyclists and swimmers get highs, but it's far less common than in runners.

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Article Sources
  • Boecker, H., Sprenger, T., Spilker, M.E., Henriksen, G., Koppenhoefer, M., Wagner, K.J., Valet, M., Berthele, A., Tolle, T.R. (2008). The Runner's High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral Cortex DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhn013