Runner’s High: What is the Post Run Feeling?

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC
12/22/2023

For some of us, the runner’s high may seem like a myth. Hard exercise never feels good while you're doing it. For others, a runner's high is a familiar experience people continue to chase after again and again. 

So, what is the runner’s high and how does it happen?

What is a Runner’s High?

Runner’s high is a feeling of euphoria or bliss that follows intense exercise. It is referred to as a runner’s high because a person experiencing it is overcome with extreme joy, calm, and elation after completing a long run or intense workout.

People often feel relaxed, mentally at ease, and in less physical pain when experiencing a runner’s high, despite the physical challenge they just completed. It is a brief, but deeply relaxing, “high” directly linked to exercise.

Scientifically, What’s Happening?

Runner’s high is a real phenomena that changes both body and brain chemistry. Unfortunately, research on the runner’s high is limited and scientists are still trying to figure it out. 

What we do know is when we exercise, especially at an intense level or for a long time, a medley of chemicals and hormones is released throughout our bodies and brains. In the past, researchers believed the high some people experience came from endorphins, but more recent research suggests it is caused by the release of endocannabinoids

a runner leaping between two rocks.

Endorphins

Endorphins are neurochemicals that get released into the bloodstream during exercise. They bind to and activate the brain’s opioid receptors. 

They are often referred to as the “feel good” chemicals because they are released in times of stress or pain to alleviate those sensations. They are also released in times of pleasure such as eating or sex. 

These natural pain relievers are released during exercise. They may contribute to the pleasurable body high, but endorphin molecules are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier. Therefore, they aren’t directly responsible for the euphoric feeling. 

Endocannabinoids 

Research now suggests the runner’s high comes from the release of endocannabinoids. These are biochemicals that are naturally released into the bloodstream when exercising.

Endocannabinoids have short-term psychoactive effects such as feelings of calmness and lowered anxiety. They’ve even been shown to have pain-relieving effects.

Yes, they are related to cannabis. Cannabis (marijuana) activates our body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the same way our natural endocannabinoids do. This can account for the “high” feeling of after exercising that some people experience.

Do You Have to Run to Experience Runner’s High?

Despite its name, running is not the only activity capable of evoking a runner’s high. The runner’s high can happen with any aerobic exercise performed for long bouts of time or at high levels of intensity. 

Activities such as:

  • Cycling
  • Swimming
  • Rowing
  • rock climbing

Really any continuous movement fueled by the oxygen you breathe can result in a runner’s high.

Moderate to high intensity exercises reaching over 50% heart rate are more likely to release endocannabinoids, and thus lead to a runner’s high. 

a road cyclist riding in front of a pine forest

Can Anyone Get a Runner’s High?

That post-run feeling is a relatively rare experience and not everyone seems to get it. It is possible some people are predisposed to it, while others are not. 

There are no instructions to get the runner’s high. Extended workouts or high-intensity workouts seem to be the only things affecting whether it happens. 

Switching up your workout routine can also help get you there. Rather than running the same distance and same route every time, increase your distance or pace each time.

Can Runner’s High be Addictive?

Despite its name, the effects of a runner’s high is more subtle than the high someone would get from a drug. It is a natural experience and typically not a bad thing, but some cases of chasing that post-run feeling can develop into an unhealthy exercise addiction

Even things that are healthy for us can become unhealthy when done in excess. Exercise addiction can be difficult to identify as there is no formal diagnosis and pushing your limits and challenging yourself is a big part of athletics and physical activity. 

It is rare, but exercise can become addicting. If someone is consumed by it, constantly thinking about running, planning their next run, working out while injured, or experiencing other obsessive behaviors surrounding exercise, it may be a problem. It should be noted that a "high" isn't usually the only reason someone becomes addicted to exercise. It can be linked to body dysmorphia and disordered eating.

A man doing bicep curls

The Post-Run Feeling Shouldn’t Be The Only Reason You Workout

You may be able to boost the likelihood of reaching a runner’s high, but just remember the numerous benefits exercise can provide. Think of this feeling as a the occasional bonus to your workout routine.

The runner’s high is different from the joy, satisfaction, and accomplishment you can get from working out and reaching your fitness goals. Whether or not you experience the runner’s high, exercising is a gratifying behavior with healthy rewards. 

Just Get Moving

Don’t give up on running, or exercise, simply because you don’t get a runner’s high. There are a myriad of benefits to exercise aside from a “high.” 

Regular physical activity can lead to  

  • Improved learning, memory and focus
  • Improved mental health and decreased levels of anxiety and depression 
  • Increased mood
  • Improved sleep
  • New blood vessel and brain cell growth
  • Improved bone health, cardiovascular health, and lowered cholesterol
  • Weight loss

The benefits of running and exercise leads to a plethora of positive cognitive and physical benefits that make it worth doing—with or without the “high.”

Sort it Out with IBC

If you or someone you know is excessively thinking about their sport, overexerting themselves past reasonable limits, or feeling stressed about missing a workout session, it may be time to seek help.  

Running, and physical activity in general, are healthy activities to participate in, but too much of a good thing can be bad. It is all about balance. 

The caring and experienced team at Inner Balance Counseling can help you rebuild a healthy relationship with running and exercise through therapy. 

Reach out today to find a balance that fits you.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC
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