How to get a runner’s high

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Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don’t. But we always want it – and more of it. It’s the runner’s high, and when we’re lucky enough to tap into it, our runs feel easy and even euphoric. But we aren’t always that lucky. Recently, researchers studied how the brain responds to running and found that the ability to get ‘high’ while logging miles might be hard-wired within us. Years ago, our ancestors’ survival probably depended on chasing food. The desire to live was possibly their motivation to run, and the feel-good brain chemicals released when they did so may have helped them achieve the speed and distances required, says David A Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, US. The runner’s high may have served as a natural painkiller, masking tired legs and blistered feet, he says. Even though you no longer have to chase down dinner, learning how happy brain reactions are sparked may help you achieve the runner’s high more often.

The trigger: Endorphins

Nature’s home-brewed opiates, endorphins are chemicals that act a lot like their medically engineered counterpart, morphine. Runners have credited them for their feel-good effects for decades, but it wasn’t until 2008 that German researchers used brain scans on runners to identify exactly where endorphins originated. The scientists found that during two-hour runs, subjects’ prefrontal and limbic regions (areas of the brain that light up in response to emotions such as love) spewed out endorphins. The greater the endorphin surge in these areas, the more euphoric the runners felt.

Get it: Push yourself – hard, but not too hard. Endorphins are painkillers produced in response to physical discomfort, says Matthew Hill, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Canada. But that doesn’t mean your runs should be excruciating – you need to find a sweet spot where they are comfortably challenging (think tempo run). In the German study, for example, the subjects were experienced runners for whom a two-hour run at a six-to seven-mile-an-hour pace was neither easy nor gut-busting.

‘Most runners I have worked with experience endorphins when they are pushing their bodies, but not usually at maximum effort,’ says Cindra S Kamphoff, director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University, US. A short, casual run probably won’t produce enough discomfort to trigger the rush. However, if you attempt a pace or distance that’s too aggressive, you may be too overwhelmed by the effort to feel good.

Running with others could also help – an Oxford University study reported that rowers who exercised together significantly increased their endorphin release compared with solo rowers.

The trigger: Endocannabinoids

Endorphins get all the attention, but your body also pumps out endocannabinoids, which are a naturally synthesised version of THC, the chemical responsible for the buzz that marijuana produces. The most examined endocannabinoid produced in the body, anandamide, is believed to create a feeling of calmness, says Hill. Endorphins can be created only by specialised neurons, but almost any cell in the body can make endocannabinoids, which means they have the potential to make a bigger impact on your brain.

Get it: Endocannabinoid production is believed to react more strongly in response to stress as opposed to pain (the stronger endorphin activator). Differentiating between physical stress and discomfort during a run is nearly impossible for the brain, which means the same mechanism that triggers endorphins – a tough (but not killer) workout – can also trigger endocannabinoids. Raichlen says that running at 70-85 per cent of your age-adjusted maximum heart rate (220 minus your age is a very rough measure of this) is optimal in spiking the primary stress hormone cortisol, and producing endocannabinoids. (If you’re 30, for example, you’d aim for between 133 and 161 beats per minute.) Hill’s research suggests that, in small doses, mental stress could increase endocannabinoid production, so pre-race jitters may have a payoff. However, long-term stress can dull this effect.

That may be one reason why Cecilia J Hillard, director of the Neuroscience Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin, US, has found that people need eight hours of sleep a night for optimal endocannabinoid production. What’s more, her research shows that endocannabinoid levels are three times greater first thing in the morning compared with when you hit the hay. Although there’s no scientific proof, this may suggest that a morning run is more likely to produce a high than an afternoon or evening run. Set your alarm – it’s worth experimenting!

You don’t have to run hard to run happy

A true runner’s high might be reserved for fairly tough workouts, but an easy run can still be blissful. There is a state of mind called ‘flow’ that occurs when your brain becomes so focused on running that you aren’t thinking, you’re just doing. Sports psychology consultant and marathoner Cindra S Kamphoff explains how to find it.

Be positive: ‘The biggest threat to flow is negativity,’ says Kamphoff. ‘Runners who call the treadmill the “dreadmill” are eliminating the chance of flow.’ Anticipate that your run will bring you pleasure.

Cover familiar ground: It’s easier to find flow on a route where you feel comfortable and you don’t have to think about negotiating difficult terrain or finding your way.

Focus on moving, not thinking: Pay attention to your footfalls, arm swing and breathing. ‘By focusing on your body, you lessen internal chitchat and anxieties,’ says Kamphoff.