How A Runner’s High Works — And How To Make It Happen

Crisp air and vibrant leaves don’t just signal the perfect season for apple picking and pumpkin spice lattes. Thanks to its ideal temperatures and beautiful scenery, fall is also an excellent time for long-distance running. Hey, there’s a reason why the New York City marathon takes place in early November. Whether you’re a seasoned runner or someone who’s just starting out, you’ve likely experienced (or at least heard about) the elusive runner’s high. Although it’s incredible when it happens, it doesn’t happen every time — and sometimes it can feel nearly impossible.

Let’s take a closer look at why that is — and how you can get a runner’s high more often.

How a runner’s high works

A runner’s high was once thought to be nothing more than a massive endorphin rush. And that’s definitely one piece of the puzzle. From an evolutionary perspective, we needed to run from predators, and endorphins acted as a natural painkiller that could make the pain less intense and keep us going.

These days, we’re not on the run from predators quite as often, but our bodies don’t know that. That’s why endorphin-induced runner’s highs are more likely to happen during long, difficult runs (like marathons) than short and easy jogs. A 2008 study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that a runner’s high was most likely to happen during a two-hour run (or at least a run longer than an hour), which makes sense: that’s a long run, and your body needs all the help it can get.

More recently, researchers found that something else could be going on in the brain when a runner’s high is triggered. According to a study conducted out of the University of Heidelberg, endocannabinoids, or a naturally synthesized version of THC, can be produced in the brain during a tough workout. The good news about this research is that you can get “high” through a workout that isn’t necessarily crazy painful or two hours long.

How to make a runner’s high happen

Now that you know how a runner’s high works, how can you make it happen more often? The simplest answer is to go for a challenging, long-distance run. If that sounds less than appealing, there are other ways to get a runner’s high that are easier and less time-consuming.

While that intense endorphin rush may only come from marathon-like runs, there other ways to increase endorphin production. In fact, it could be as simple as exercising with other people. According to a study out of Oxford University, rowers who exercised together saw a greater endorphin rush than those who rowed solo. Music can also help trigger endorphin production in the brain while you exercise, which explains why your workout suddenly gets better when your favorite song comes on.

As for endocannabinoid production, a challenging but not over-the-top workout can do the trick, as can a small dose of mental stress — think a healthy does of the pre-race jitters. Just make sure to watch out for too much day-to-day stress. Chronic stress may actually cancel out the effects of a runner’s high, and that can be brought on by something as simple as a lack of sleep. In other words, if you’re going for a run on only a few hours of sleep, don’t count on a runner’s high. Clocking those seven to nine hours of sleep every night is crazy important for a lot of reasons — runner’s highs included!