Let’s see how the runner’s high may help you.
by Phillip Maffetone, DC
Most athletes would say that working out is the best way to reduce stress. The so-called “runner’s high”— a feeling of euphoria during exercise— is often discussed as a way for an athlete to escape. This occurs not only during running, but biking, swimming, and virtually any other sport.
What really is this “high”? We don’t really know exactly what runner’s high is or why it occurs. In past decades, research has associated this state with natural opiates in the brain, or a cognitive state of dissociation. This usually centered on a discussion of endorphins—different types of hormone like chemicals produced in the brain; some may even be produced in the skin, associated with sun exposure and vitamin D.
More recently the so-called runner’s high has been associated with the same brain receptors for substances like marijuana. While these receptors in the brain are still being studied in the lab, and undoubtedly other chemicals will be discovered that might better explain that elusive feeling gained from working out, the brain is far too complex to pinpoint just one cause for an “elevated state.”
I believe the runner’s high phenomenon is an important state of consciousness. Normally, when we’re sleeping, in a business meeting, or in the middle of a great workout, our brain produces certain brain waves. When we’re mentally relaxed, unstressed, and doing something that takes us to our own private world, such as that workout, our brain produces alpha waves. This state also can be promoted by listening to music, mediating, prayer, and other activities. Unfortunately, not all athletes experience the high because, for some people, stress can overpower the enjoyment of the workout, impairing the ability to make alpha waves.
Maffetone, Philip (2010-09-22). The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing (p. 130). Skyhorse Publishing.