Runners High and Your Mental Health

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
October 6, 2019

Attending a high school or college track meet can be very entertaining.  While cheering on your runner of choice, you can get in some fantastic people watching.  You can take in the impressive sculpture of their leg muscles, the speed at which they run, their stamina, and their overall mental and physical strength.  You can also see ankles and knees perilously wrapped up, beads of sweat racing down every area imaginable, and bear witness to the occasional incidents of throwing up.  Amazingly, despite all this, they keep on running.  They train, they compete, they nurse their injuries, and they return to do it all over again next time.  What makes them persevere and forge forward?

runners high

One factor that keeps people on their high school track teams or signing up for marathons is what is known as the runner’s high.  The runner’s high is a term used to describe the feelings of emotional well being that are linked with exercise that is intense, long in duration, and rhythmic.  The runner’s high is associated with feelings of exhilaration, decreased anxiety, and a reduced ability to feel pain.  Individuals tend to experience a lessened state of discomfort and lose their sense of time.  Despite being called the runner’s high, this type of euphoria can occur with any type of exercise that is continuous, rhythmic, and moderately intense. 

From a scientific standpoint, the precise cause of the runner’s high remains a mystery.  Researchers, scientists, and practitioners all agree that it has something to do with the way that the body and brain change during intense bouts of physical activity.  One theory is that the release of endorphins can account for this type of euphoric feeling, while another speculation suggests that the release of brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, may be the direct cause.  Another theory suggests that endocannabinoids, body chemicals that have a similar effect as marijuana, can cause the experienced high.  From an evolutionary perspective, another hypothesis states that bodies are wired to experience this high since survival was always based on running and catching food.

Although the exact cause of the runner’s high is unknown, its impact on mental health is obvious.  Repetitive and rhythmic movements that are somewhat intense produce feelings of elation.  The runner’s high can instill confidence and stimulate people to keep on going.  People feel as if they could run for miles and miles.  The runner’s high produces positive emotions and feelings of well being.  It can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety and create a feeling of temporary invisibility.

The runner’s high is a short-term feeling, but can prompt an individual to keep engaging in this type of exercise in the long-term.  People enjoy the euphoric feeling of the runner’s high and begin to chase it, causing them to work out more frequently.  The recurrent workouts can result in more frequent experiences of runner’s highs in addition to improving one’s health, physical appearance, strength, and mobility.  These improvements can lead to enhanced self-esteem and increased confidence.  The runner’s high is also linked to the anticipated and actual experience of crossing the finish line.

So while people watching at your next track meet, you now know that the miserable looking runners are likely those who have not participated in the type of exercise needed for a runner’s high.  Perhaps they need to be running for longer durations, or running at higher levels of intensity.  Maybe they are not engaging in the type of rhythmic or repetitious running that is necessary to achieve the runner’s high.  Either way, we know that any type of running is good for you, whether you experience a high or not.  However, experiencing the runner’s high on a consistent basis will just enhance these positive mental health effects.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

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