Runner’s High

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.

References:

  1. 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.
  2. Jackson, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. 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.

See also: