Runner’s High- What’s The Science?

If you’re a keen runner or know some runners, then you may have heard of “runner’s high”. It’s an intense happy feeling accompanied with pain relief that strikes a runner right when their body should be screaming at them to slow down and stop. But what is this euphoric rush? What causes it and does it bring any long-lasting benefits or just a momentary thrill?


It’s a commonly held belief that endorphins are the main reason for runner’s high. The body is physically straining, the muscles are working to keep your legs going and as a consequence little feel-good molecules and endorphins are released that make you feel on top of the world. This theory was first put forward in the 1980s but has only fairly recently been revisited.

So what is it then?

According to more recent studies, it’s thought that much smaller molecules called endocannabinoids might be responsible, which are known to induce feelings of euphoria and well as relaxation.

So is “runner’s high” that true to its name? Are people you see jogging around the city actually getting naturally high?

Well, maybe…

A more recent study in 2015 has linked a different, better-known molecule to the phenomenon – leptin. Researchers had mice run and measured the distances and leptin, which is produced in the bodies of both mice and humans, to regulate how hungry we feel. The lower the levels of leptin, the hungrier we feel and the more we want to eat.

The researchers found that the mice that had lower levels of leptin were much more motivated and able to run further. “Ultimately, leptin is sending the brain a clear message: When food is scarce, it’s fun to run to chase some down,” said the lead author of the study, Maria Fernanda Fernandes.

It would certainly make sense from an evolutionary perspective as humans are not designed to be the fastest or the toughest, but to run very long distances. A human can outrun almost any living thing on Earth over distance. And for the longest time that was our ancestors’ great hunting strategy.

So maybe that’s all “runner’s high” is. An evolutionary trick of the body.

To do this, you need an instant reward, and that comes in the form of a big shot of “I’m feeling happy” as well as a double dose of “My blistered feet don’t hurt anymore” straight to the brain, just to keep you going.

But now I hear you ask, “Should I be pushing myself to my running limits to find temporary bliss?”

Well, not necessarily…

A recent German study found that experienced runners were more likely to enter a “runner’s high” when running at a moderate pace. Not so hard as to be at their max and not so easy as to be leisurely, but a mid-range sweet spot.

But who says you need it at all? The research is clear, if you want to be healthier and happier naturally, then the best way to do it is exercise. Whether your exercise is running or not, that is up to you. And if you can’t run, then walk. All that is important is that you get up and moving. It will be beneficial in the long run.

And it’s the right time of the year too. The London Marathon’s over and now we’re into May which just so happens to be National Walking Month.

If you need some inspiration, check out our recent blog post on overcoming the barriers to exercise success.

So get out there and get into it.

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