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You may have experienced it firsthand, or heard other runners talk about the elusive “runner’s high.” Many runners describe it as both a state of elation and a deeply relaxed sense of calm after some runs. Many runners also report that their high is often followed by a downward spiral into a low mood. Many new and seasoned runners alike though, are still waiting for this legendary euphoric moment to happen to them. The reason? It’s not so easy to come by. Exercise scientists tell us that reaching this high involves both the body and the brain. External conditions also play a role. As both a coach and sport psychologist, I work often with runners on the nitty gritty of the runner’s high. It’s pretty cool stuff. You in? Let’s go…

What Causes the Legendary Runner’s High:

Research has credited endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in the brain that our bodies release during physical activity as the primary hormone involved with creating this high. Newer research has found that endocannabinoids, another type of chemical our bodies release during exercise, have an impact similar to cannabis (yes, marijuana), deserve most of the credit.

Scientists point out that although endorphins act as a natural pain reliever to prevent muscles from feeling pain, it’s unlikely that endorphins in the blood contribute to a euphoric feeling, or any mood change at all. Endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier. Exercise increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream as well. But unlike endorphins, endocannabinoids can move easily through the blood-brain barrier. These mood-improving neuromodulators promote short-term psychoactive effects such as reduced anxiety, feelings of calm and euphoria.

How to Hit the Sweet Spot to Possibly Experience a “Runner’s High”:

If you’re looking to set yourself up for your best chance of triggering this feeling of elation there are a few things you can do. Research shows that we’re most apt to experiencing it if we do a longer (one hour or more) continuous run, at moderate intensity.

Moderate intensity seems to be best. It’s likely to trigger an environment in the brain where blood flow is maximized. Those endocannabinoid receptors seem to be the most stimulated and most receptive. Too intense, and the brain’s self-protecting mechanism may kick in and reduce blood flow and stimulation; Go too low on effort, and it’s not enough to stimulate the receptors. A steady-state run with an elevated but sustainable heart rate (exertion level around 6 on a scale of 1 to 10) helps the process.

Level of experience also makes a difference.

New runners aren’t likely to run non-stop for an hour or more. Also, a new runner is using most of his/her mental focus and energy to keep moving efficiently. So there may be a reduction in the amount of feel-good chemicals being released.

You may have heard the terms ‘in the zone’ or ‘flow’ applied to elite athletes when they’re essentially both on automatic pilot and very focused when performing. This state of flow, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi can also be explored by regular mortals like us though, and may provide a transition to the runner’s high. The underlying premise is that when a balance between external demands and internal skills, or a one-to-one relationship exists between difficulty and ability the door is open for athletes to get into flow. When challenges exceed aptitude however, anxiety is typically the result. At the other end of the spectrum, when ability outpaces one’s performance load, boredom ensues.

Maximize your chances of a runner’s high:

To maximize the chances of a runner’s high occurrence among runners, I’ve found the following elements to be helpful:

  • Balance physical training challenges with current skills and fitness level.

  • Concentrate only on the aspects of performance that are controllable.

  • Have a well-thought-out game plan so decision making during performance is simplified.

  • Enjoy the rhythm and feel of performance rather than focusing on technical aspects of the sport.

What You can Do to Battle/Prevent a Mood Crash after a “Runner’s High”:

Once you’ve experienced a runner’s high, how can you modulate the possible mood crash after the high? The key is to both anticipate that a low mood may happen for a variety of reasons, and to be armed with simple tools to address the potential feelings of depressive-like symptoms, such as lethargy, lack of purpose, wanting to sleep excessively, or irritability.

Psychologically, after a race or even a hard workout, you likely had spent some time looking forward to a challenge (even if you were dreading it), and had focused parts of your life around it. This may have dictated many of your life choices while also giving you motivation and structure. Once removed, there may be a loss of purpose and goals, and things can become to feel anti-climactic, leading to a low mood that can hang around for a bit. If you’ve also achieved a major goal, you likely enjoyed a hit of accomplishment (and perhaps relief), which can die down more quickly than expected. When the post-run high subsides, a void exists and you may wonder if you can ever replicate your milestone effort again.

Physiologically, your body and brain often adapt to higher endorphin and other brain chemical levels that accompany a runner’s high through the process of tolerance, so when you return to your normal levels, you may feel like you’re in a deficit, as your receptors have downregulated a bit.

Bottom Line:

Know that the downward mood may be coming and get ahead of it by taking action. Arrange fun stuff in the days after your race or workouts and give yourself some treats or rest and relax. Avoid rushing into a new challenge to try to hop back on that high. You need recovery to stabilize, so instead fill your days with things that make you feel good to help offset any lingering negative thoughts. This ‘down’ is entirely normal and temporary after a runner’s high…Prepare for it, treat yourself kindly in its wake and it’s all good!

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