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Just How High Can You Get from Runner’s High?

On a scale of a single toke to ego death

Whenever a runner’s high is referenced in conversation, I’ve never been able to contribute intelligently to the dialogue. I may have been predisposed to disregard the idea of a runner’s high simply because I’ve never experienced it before, but I always dismissed it as a common rambling of the slender, stoner runners who I pre-judged as being more than likely high on something else entirely. 

Leave it to my friend and former swim-lesson student Rachela Lack to corroborate it all for me. Rachela is a multi-time Boston Marathon participant, and she captured the 2021 U.S. Track & Field National Championship in her age group for the 100-mile run. Astonishingly, she has somehow managed to accomplish all of this despite never training to run until she was 39. “A runner’s high is as real as the runner’s blues are,” she tells me. “A runner’s high feels like meeting the love of your life for the first time. You’re excited, curious, interested and wanting more. It usually happens when you hit a certain pace. Or a certain goal or complete a big distance.”

Finding out a runner’s high was a real thing was the equivalent to finding out a Snuffleupagus really exists, and I had to explore it further. But I should have known from the very beginning that it would all boil down to some convoluted connection to marijuana

Marijuana?! Are you insinuating that runners all smoke weed?

Not at all. This is going to take a bit of explaining on my part, so please strap yourself in.

The concept of the runner’s high first rose to prominence in the mid-1970s, in the wake of the running boom that initially began in the 1960s. In the December 9, 1976 edition of the Sacramento Bee, two different specialists weighed in on the runner’s high in what may have been the most public forum in which it had been referenced to date. Psychiatrist Thaddeus Kostrubala was quoted from his book The Joy of Running, and spoke thusly about “the runner’s ‘high’ that occurs 40 minutes or so after starting. It’s a distinct euphoria with feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. I call the feeling of 40-60 minutes the altered state of consciousness. It’s not hallucinatory; it’s a condensation of reality.”

In the same article, William Glasser is quoted from his book Positive Addiction, saying, “I have talked with many physically addicted people, runners and others, and it is this state of mind that almost all of them describe — a trancelike, transcendental state that accompanies the addictive exercise.”

What is this high occurring, and how can I partake of this righteous buzz?

Obviously, you partake of the runner’s high by running for quite a while; many people say at least 30 consecutive minutes. As far as what’s actually occurring in your brain when the euphoric state is reached, that’s more complicated. For years, researchers traced the runner’s high to the release of endorphins, which are a set of chemicals the body produces to eliminate pain and stress. While these endorphins certainly play a role in the production of the high, some recent research has added the missing piece to this peculiar psychotropic puzzle. 

A study involving mice demonstrated that running for considerable distances on a wheel increased endocannabinoids, thereby decreasing anxiety and the sensation of pain in mice. So this boost in endocannabinoids unites with the concomitant endorphin surge to produce the very unique set of circumstances that culminate in a runner’s high.

Endo? Cannabinoids? Do you mean I’ve had weed living inside of my brain this entire time?!

You wish, Spicoli.

While the endocannabinoid system is so named because it was discovered by researchers studying the effects of cannabis, it’s simply a cell-signaling system that keeps your body running smoothly. So the same set of receptors that respond to the THC in marijuana are triggered by your run, producing a similar high of varying intensity and length.

So, how high will a runner’s high actually get you? 

Well, the length, intensity and feeling seem to vary from person to person, so it’s impossible to pin a definitive baseline to it. However, one runner described it as a drug-like rush with no downside, because it manifests itself absent the grogginess and confusion connected with alcohol or other popular drugs.

If all of this sounds intriguing to you, might I suggest that you take up running as a fitness hobby? As far as euphoric highs go, the runner’s high is probably the safest and most altogether constructive high you can pursue. Given all of the physical advantages associated with distance running, the fact that literally chasing a high can be accompanied by so many beneficial lows — like lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol — makes the runner’s high a dragon worth chasing.