The Art and Science of Fitness | Chasing the runner’s high - Hindustan Times
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The Art and Science of Fitness | Chasing the runner’s high

Apr 09, 2024 09:17 PM IST

Most non-runners think of this term, often used in the running community, as an exaggeration, an elusive mythical sensation. Is it?

In simple terms, when you’re out on a run and you have been running for a while, once you are in the ‘runner’s high’ zone, even though you should be tired, you don’t feel tired even at a faster than normal pace. It feels like you could carry on forever as if you are invincible. Your breathing, heart rate and muscles, as well as all other physiological functions, seem to be in sync, and you feel almost as one with the surroundings. In my 40ish years of running, I have experienced runner’s high several times. That feeling is one of the main reasons I love running. It’s akin to attaining nirvana or a zen state, albeit temporarily. For that brief period, the runner becomes one with nature and the cosmos. It feels like one is floating, with no struggle in step or breath.

For a couple of decades now, I have been telling folks who I have mentored for running that if you want to last as long as you possibly can, you need to slow down.(Pixabay) PREMIUM
For a couple of decades now, I have been telling folks who I have mentored for running that if you want to last as long as you possibly can, you need to slow down.(Pixabay)

There is no formula as to when it’ll happen, and what you need to do for it to happen. It’s this unpredictability that makes it even more sought after. More than anything, it is this connection with one’s inner, deeper self that gets runners hooked on running.

Jason Reardon, a 555 km participant at the 2019 edition of La Ultra -The High, an ultra-marathon up in Ladakh, had run around 500 km when it happened — what followed was magical, and those who weren’t there called it fake. Jason ran the next 55 km at 10-12 km per hour; this, after five days of rigorous effort at high altitudes in extreme conditions of rain, snow and sandstorm. He had developed severe knee pain at around 250 km, and in spite of that, he attained a runner’s high at the 500 km mark.

Mortals like you and me can experience this high after distances in single digits too or even double digits like a half marathon. After the high might come a low, through which, like everything else in life, you need to soldier through so you can experience the high again. The bad news is that as you evolve as a runner, the runner’s high kicks in a bit later.

Of course, your running background, experience and training matters a lot as does your nutrition, hydration and electrolyte intake. But everyone can feel the runner’s high.

For a long time, we were told that endorphins are at work when we feel good after a workout. These are chemicals (hormones) released naturally by the body in response to pain and tension, and they help relieve pain and reduce stress. We now know that endocannabinoids, or naturally occurring cannabis-like compounds, are responsible for the runner’s high. An interesting feature of endocannabinoids is that they can cross the blood-brain barrier, altering the mental state to have a euphoric sensation. Endorphins, on the other hand, do not have this feature, hence are unlikely to be responsible for this feeling.

For a couple of decades now, I have been telling folks who I have mentored for running that if you want to last as long as you possibly can, you need to slow down. And that’s when runner’s high will find its way to you. And yes, you can experience multiple runner’s highs in one single run. If you haven’t yet, well, then you might still end up with a rush of endocannabinoids, that make you feel great and relaxed. It’s the ultimate win-win situation.

Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days. He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise. The views expressed are personal.

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