The “runner’s high” is a euphoric sensation reportedly experienced during running, usually unexpectedly, in which the runner feels a heightened sense of well-being, enhanced appreciation of nature, and transcendence of barriers of time and space. There are many terms in the research and popular literature that have been used to describe the runner’s high. These include euphoria, speed, strength, power, gracefulness, spirituality, and sudden realization of one’s potential, and they also include glimpsing perfection, moving without effort, and spinning out.
There are variations in the percentage of runners who experience the runner’s high across different surveys, but many percentages tend toward the lower end of the spectrum, perhaps 10% or so.
However, this percentage really depends on how one defines the runner’s high, and each individual may have her or his own definition or perception of what the runner’s high means. The runner’s high may be experienced on a continuum from what one might call an enhanced sense of well-being on one end to peak experiences on the other end.
This enhanced sense of well-being may be related to the feel-better phenomenon described by some researchers as being experienced during and after exercise participation. Assuming adequate physical conditioning, running generally feels good, both while one is engaged in the activity and afterward, and this sense of well-being may be interpreted as the runner’s high. While one would not want to suggest that this is not what the runner is experiencing (this experience may be important for a given runner in promoting adherence to running on a regular basis), many researchers have looked for more “significant” experiences than just enhanced well-being or what might be seen as a flow state. Instead, researchers have focused more on exalted and euphoric experiences, closer to peak experiences. However, peak experiences, by definition, only occur occasionally and are sometimes accompanied by peak performances. This is not necessarily what the runner’s high is, although it can certainly be felt during peak experiences (and probably is, most of the time). Rather, the runner’s high is a more frequently experienced, but still generally unanticipated, phenomenon. One cannot start out running and say, “I’m going to experience the runner’s high today,” although some runners do talk about being able to get into a meditative state and experience the runner’s high on a regular basis. In the final analysis, the runner’s high is indeed an individual experience.
What does it take to be able to experience the runner’s high? One starts with a high degree of physiological preparedness—being able to run a fairly long distance. Ideally, the runner should be able to run at least 3 to 4 miles comfortably in order to more readily experience the runner’s high. There is a saying about running long distances that the first half hour is for the body, the second half hour is for the mind, and the third half hour is for the soul. This is exactly where the 3 to 4 miles comes in—the suggestion is that one has to run 3 to 4 miles to get into a physiological “groove” wherein a shift to the mind takes over (for those who can run this comfortably) and one can “escape” into the sensation of the runner’s high on occasion.
What types of settings are more conducive to experiencing the runner’s high? Research suggests this is fairly individual, but general suggestions include cool, calm weather with low humidity and few distractions. An absence of hills is recommended along with running in familiar areas. An absence of problems is also desirable, with little anxiety about day-to-day affairs, nor pressure about speed and distance during the run. Rather, one is looking for a nonstressful environmental experience along with few cognitive distractions so that one can “tune out” and enjoy the running experience and then potentially experience the runner’s high. However, there are exceptions, with some individuals having said they experience the runner’s high in new settings (running through a new city). The runner’s high is truly an individual experience.
What is the derivation of the runner’s high? Is it related to psychological factors such as entering a flow state and being able to tap into right brain consciousness? Perhaps there are physiological explanations that encompass biochemical elements (e.g., the endorphins) or enhanced physiological preparedness to run smoothly and efficiently or effortlessly over a time or distance that is challenging but within one’s capabilities. Unfortunately, no definitive answers are presently available, but the search for such an answer is an exciting one.
The runner’s high is a challenging phenomenon to study. By definition, it is unlikely to be experienced in laboratory conditions (such as running on a treadmill), where one could control a variety of variables such as weather, terrain, speed, and so on. Once one begins working with runners in the real world, one has challenging logistical issues—one could easily communicate with runners via cell phones or other such devices but then this would be a distraction likely to detract from the possibility of experiencing the runner’s high in the first place or disturb it if it is being experienced.
In the final analysis, whether what the runner is experiencing is an enhanced sense of well-being, a peak experience, or somewhere in between, the runner’s high appears to be a factor in keeping runners coming back for more. Anything that facilitates adherence to exercise is desirable. However, researchers always desire to know what really underlies these types of phenomena, especially one as mysterious and euphoric as the runner’s high. The runner’s high is likely to remain, for the moment, an elusive but highly desirable and wondrous experience.
- Berger, B. G., & Tobar, D. A. (2007). Physical activity and quality of life: Key considerations. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 598–620). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Jackson, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Sachs, M. L. (1984). The runner’s high. In M. L. Sachs & G. W. Buffone (Eds.), Running as therapy: An integrated approach (pp. 273–287). Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press.