The famed ‘runner’s high’ can create a variety of feelings – euphoria, happiness, relaxation, the list goes on. It is thought to occur when you engage in strenuous activity that takes you over a threshold that stimulates production of certain chemicals in your brain.
What’s the point of the runner’s high? Well, there are varying opinions…
- Some believe it is a protective mechanism – when you engage in strenuous activity you will eventually feel pain, and the runner’s high means you can keep going despite the pain. Think being able to keep running away from axe-wielding murderer even though he’s already chased you down the street for some time;
- Others have suggested that it is necessary for survival – for instance present day African tribes allegedly make use of runner’s high when they perform ‘persistence hunting’ (where the track and hunt an animal for aaaages, eventually killing the animal from pure exhaustion).
What neurochemicals are involved in runner’s high?
- Early studies proposed that that runner’s high was mediated by increased endorphin release;
- This has been shown on brain imaging that compared runners’ brains pre- and post-run;
- The idea of endorphins as the cause of runner’s high started being challenged due to a variety of findings, one being that it was found that athletes still experienced a runner’s high when they were administered drugs that block the effect of endorphins. Another was that endorphin molecules were found to be too large to cross the blood-brain barrier;
- It is a currently held view that endocannabinoids are the most likely causative agent in runner’s high. One study hypothesised that the runner’s high may function to encourage habitual aerobic exercise. They found evidence that variations in neurotransmitter signalling may explain differences in locomotor behaviour among mammals. Essentially it was proposed that a neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals (mammals adapted specifically to run) habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks, and why non-cursorial mammals avoid such locomotor behaviors.
- I don’t have a problem with the whole endocannabinoid system. The only problem I have with the above explanation is that cheetahs and wolves may run not to get a runner’s high, but to actually get some food so they don’t die. Correspondingly, if there is such a neurobiological reward for exercise, then why aren’t more humans doing it, instead of sitting on their sofas and contributing to the rising obesity rate? Hmmm, questions questions…
- Another study looked at endocannabinoids and voluntary activity in mice and found that ‘endocannabinoids seem to contribute to the motivational aspects of voluntary running in rodents, influencing the total distance covered, and are less involved in the long-term changes of emotional behavior induced by voluntary exercise.’
- How do we know the rodents were running voluntarily? Maybe they see the wheel and hop on because they don’t know better? Maybe they were promised cheese? According to Wikipedia ‘motivation is a psychological features that arouses an organism to act towards a desired goal, and has roots in physiological, behavioral, cognitive, and social areas. Motivation may be rooted in a basic impulse to optimize well-being, minimize physical pain and maximize pleasure’. You’re telling me that rodents run to maximise pleasure… No, I’m pretty sure if they wanted to do that they’d get off the wheel and hump in the corner.
Is it only running that causes a runner’s high?
- Although it is called runner’s high, the effect occurs to strenuous exercise in general, and not just running. The ‘pump’ from lifting has been compared to sexual pleasure by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie ‘Pumping Iron.’
- According to Dr Fred Hatfield, a champion powerlifter and exercise physiology expert, ‘quantities of blood flooding a muscle stimulate any number of proprioceptive sensors. Exercise and the resulting pump create a cascade of hormonal responses, including the endorphins and enkephalins, nature’s painkillers.’
- Effectively, this is the bodybuilder’s version of the runners high.
Totally unrelated but hilarious…
- While doing literature searches, found this article looking at the effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the performance of male athletes
- Seriously, wouldn’t you be kicking yourself if you were in a lab researching rodents running on a wheel, when instead you could be ‘researching’ male athletes in a sauna?
- Just FYI, the researchers found that 3 weeks of post-exercise sauna bathing produced a worthwhile enhancement of endurance running performance, probably by increasing blood volume.
- Interestingly this study was carried out in NZ… perhaps that’s why NZ can kick Australia’s ass in sport despite only having 1/5th the population size. It’s all down to saunas.
Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, Tolle TR (February 2008). “The Runner’s High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain”. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991) 18 (11): 2523–31.
Raichlen DA, Foster AD, Gerdeman GL, Seillier A, Giuffrida A. Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’. J Exp Biol. 2012 Apr 15;215(Pt 8):1331-6.
Fuss J, Gass P. Endocannabinoids and voluntary activity in mice: runner’s high and long-term consequences in emotional behaviors. Exp Neurol. 2010 Jul;224(1):103-5.
Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, Tolle TR. The runner’s high: opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Cereb Cortex. 2008 Nov;18(11):2523-31.
Hinton ER, Taylor S. Does placebo response mediate runner’s high? Percept Mot Skills. 1986 Jun;62(3):789-90.
Scoon GS, Hopkins WG, Mayhew S, Cotter JD. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. J Sci Med Sport. 2007 Aug;10(4):259-62. Epub 2006 Jul 31.