Latest Research On The “Runner’s High” Yields Astonishing Results

How many times have your sweat sessions worked to not only burn calories but improve your mood as well? 

Though often spoken of in reference to runners, truly if you workout at all, especially if you do so consistently, you’ve likely experienced the euphoric, mood-lifting effects of exercise. 

And, chances are you’ve heard this phenomenon attributed to the release of a particular group of peptide hormones known as endorphins. 

I mean, even if you didn’t learn about exercise and endorphins from science class in high school, Hollywood has attempted to educate the masses on the matter as well. 

After all, what early 2000’s Reese Witherspoon fan isn’t familiar with her most famous Legally Blonde quote: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” 

Well, as much as this notion of an exercise induced high caused by the release of endorphins has been ingrained in many minds, recent research is telling a different story. 

That’s right, according to new research, this commonly held view seems to have been debunked, meaning something other than endorphins is at the root of the “runner’s high.”. 


What Is A “Runner’s High”

We briefly alluded to the overall notion of what is meant by the common phrase “runner’s high” above, but let’s delve into this term a bit deeper. 

The second word of that phrase likely gives away its meaning in the simplest of terms, but to elaborate, a “runner’s high” is a feeling of euphoria, happiness, relaxation, or calm experienced after a run. 

But, while mostly used in reference to running, a “runner’s high” can be experienced after any high intensity exercise. 

And, if you’re reading this and feel like you’ve been missing out, despite your best high intensity efforts in your workout sessions, don’t worry, not everyone has or will experience this phenomenon post workout. 

For many years, the most noted cause of these happy or euphoric feelings was linked to endorphins. 

This is due to the fact that vigorous exercise is known to prompt the release of such chemicals or hormones. 

The thing is, technically the release of endorphins happens in response to stress or pain. 

Ever experience pain in a high intensity workout? No pain, no gain, right? 

Well, this release of endorphins may be the reason that runner’s can push past pain and endure for one more mile, then another, then another, but new research has indicated that this same release of endorphins may not be the cause of the euphoric, anxiety-relieving feelings felt post-run (or workout). 

But, since we also know that endorphins are released throughout intense exercise, what is it that has led researchers to believe that something else is the true connection to the “runner’s high?” 

Endorphins Or Endocannabinoids

Though research on the subject of the cause of the “runner’s high” isn’t new, the reviewing of these studies’ findings are becoming more conclusive, and so a new message is finally reaching the masses: endorphins aren’t the cause of post-run euphoria. 

The fact is, studies conducted over the course of the last few decades have consistently shown that endocannabinoid levels increase with vigorous exercise, leading scientists to believe that this is the actual cause of these post-workout feelings. 

Typically, endocannabinoids are responsible for keeping balance between the brain and the body. 

The endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating sleep, memory, appetite, fertility, and mood. 

But, research in both mice and humans has shown that the receptors in the endocannabinoid system are crucial when it comes to receiving the healthy benefits of exercise. 

Such studies have also shown that endorphins, the once thought hero of post-workout good vibes, are actually too large to pass what is known as the blood brain barrier. 

What does that mean? Not being able to pass the blood brain barrier makes it highly unlikely, even impossible for endorphins to alter mood (in this way) through exercise. 

So then, how do endocannabinoids cause that “high?” (And, don’t worry, we’re not likening a great run or workout to firing up a joint!)

The human body actually makes its own version of cannabis, tiny molecules made of fats (lipids) that move throughout the brain and the body. 

After intense exercise the body naturally produces these biochemical substances, also known as endocannabinoids.

When you exercise, especially at a high intensity, the amount of endocannabinoids in your bloodstream increases, and they easily move from your bloodstream to your brain. 

Once in the brain, endocannabinoids can have a psychoactive effect, allowing you to experience calmness, reductions in anxiety, and an overall improvement in mood. 

So, let’s take a look at some of the findings that have led researchers to this endocannabinoids trump endorphins conclusion: 

In a double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled human study, 63 healthy participants ran at a moderate intensity for 45 minutes on a treadmill (in a lab).

During a later session, these same participants walked (casual pace) for 45 minutes on a treadmill in an exercise lab. 

The findings?

Researchers found that “the participants exhibited increased euphoria and decreased anxiety after 45 minutes of running on a treadmill in a moderate-intensity range compared to walking.” 

And, this euphoria experienced when running coincided with higher blood plasma levels of two types of endocannabinoids.

To rule out the role of endorphins in the outcome (here the increase in euphoria and decrease in anxiety as predicted), participants were randomly given opioid blockers.

The participants who were given these opioid receptor blockers still experienced the exercise-induced euphoria (and decreased anxiety), proving what many scientists have already hypothesized – endocannabinoids, not endorphins, are what causes the “runner’s high.” 

From this research, scientists have also realized that keeping one’s heart rate elevated is crucial in raising endocannabinoid levels. Specifically, reaching between 70-80% of the maximum heart rate listed for your age, continued for roughly 30 minutes, is needed to potentially achieve a “runner’s high.” 

Just remember, euphoric feelings and decreased anxiety aren’t the primary goal of exercise. 

And, some do not experience these results no matter their exercise intensity or duration, lending to the notion that there is still much research to be done regarding the role of endocannabinoids and endorphins in running and all other forms of intense exercise. 

What we do know regarding consistent (even vigorous) exercise and the brain: 

  • Parts of the brain associated with memory and learning increase in volume with consistent exercise.
  • Exercise elevates mood. 
  • Exercise slows age-related cognitive decline. 
  • The brain’s response to physical and emotional stress is dulled with exercise. 

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