A Hurt So Good: My Quest for the Elusive Runner’s High

Photo of Peter Hartmann
August 11, 2016
Reading time
3 minutes

We’ve all had a song or a phrase stuck in our head that we just couldn’t get out.
For me, it was two words spoken by a coworker.

Jabra NWoL blog 7 - Runner's high_FINAL

They came from Joachim Ekelund, a product manager at Jabra. I met him while previewing our new Jabra Sport Pulse wireless earbuds. As he demonstrated the cool Sport button, which enables runners like me to get read-outs of distance, time, heart rate and other useful metrics while running, I asked him about battery life.

He responded in part with the words I now couldn’t stop thinking about. “Five hours – enough to get anyone in the runner’s high zone.”

“Runner’s high.”

Next thing I know, I’m running in Fælledparken, training for the half-marathon I plan to participate in soon. My Sport Pulse earbuds are securely in place, but my legs are on fire and I’m wishing for a dose of those two words.

“Runner’s high.”

Through my pain I started wondering… what exactly is this phenomenon I’m so determined to achieve, if not to relieve my sore thighs than to at least get the words out of my mind?

When my workout finally, mercifully ended, I decided to learn more about runner’s high. I was surprised at what I found. In a nutshell, scientists aren’t entirely sure how it occurs – or even where it came from. Joachim calls it: “That sensation of being euphoric and weightless when doing long distance running, you know!” But earnestly, no, I don’t.

Our Own Personal Painkiller

As far anyone knows, the expression was first coined in 1978 to explain the state of bliss that some — but not all — athletes experience. Runner’s high appears to act as a natural painkiller that masks tired legs, blistered feet, swollen joints and other aches caused by pounding away on hard pavement for extended amounts of time while training for, oh… say, a half marathon.

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Some scientists believe runner’s high is caused by opioids. We tend to think of them as addictive drugs, such as opium or morphine. But they’re also produced naturally by our bodies, usually as a response to physical stress. Thus, the theory goes, opioids block the pain that our bodies experience during intense physical activity.

An alternate theory attributes runner’s high to a different substance produced in the body: endocannabinoids. I know; the hints at something familiar. Endocannabinoids are chemicals that, like cannabis in marijuana, alter our moods. Some scientists believe that it’s endocannabinoids, and not opioids, that help to create runner’s high.

Maybe it’s a little of both – or something else entirely, especially since we’re talking effects on the human brain, and the human brain is a pretty complex thing.

The disagreement even extends to why runner’s high occurs. Some trace it to evolution; as part of the food chain, we humans ran in search of dinner and away from predators who regarded us as a tasty snack. Others attribute it to part of the brain shutting down, thus making us a bit loopy, while others cite the placebo effect of realizing a difficult goal.

Despite all the science, it isn’t clear who is most prone to getting runner’s high and who isn’t.

So I guess I’ll grab my Sport Pulse, lace up my running shoes and just keep trying for it. Wish me luck.

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