[By James Andrews]
Annie loves to run, but wonders why. But her husband tells her that the look on her face when she is running is just blissful. So maybe even she gets a runner’s high.
THE runner’s high: Every athlete has heard of it, most seem to believe in it and many say they have experienced it. But for years scientists have reserved judgment because no rigorous test confirmed its existence.
“Nothing quite compares to how I feel when I finish a run; I feel great exuberance and joy, and completely and totally energized” says Brenda, an avid runner.
Others have shared similar sentiments, reporting that they felt so good when they completed a run that it was as if they had taken mood-altering drugs. But was that feeling real or just a delusion?
The euphoria that runners experience is not an uncommon phenomenon. Many runners have reported that they have experienced “a runner’s high”; this may range from a sense of sublime bliss to an intense euphoria. Often, those who said they experienced an intense euphoria reported that it came after an endurance event such as a marathon.
Others said they experienced a high when pushing themselves almost to the point of collapse in a short, intense effort, such as running a five-kilometer race.
Is there a physical explanation to the runner’s high?
The runner’s-high hypothesis proposed that there were real biochemical effects of exercise on the brain. Chemicals were released that could change an athlete’s mood, and those chemicals were endorphins, the brain’s naturally occurring opiates. Running was not the only way to get the feeling; it could also occur with most intense or endurance exercise.
Researchers in Germany, using advances in neuroscience, report in the current issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex that the folk belief is true: Running does elicit a flood of endorphins in the brain. The endorphins are associated with mood changes, and the more endorphins a runners body pumps out, the greater the effect. Leading endorphin researchers not associated with the study said they accepted its findings.
For athletes, the study offers a sort of vindication that runner’s high is not just a New Age excuse for their claims of feeling good after a hard workout.
For athletes and nonathletes alike, the results are opening a new chapter in exercise science. They show that it is possible to define and measure the runner’s high and that it should be possible to figure out what brings it on. They even offer hope for those who do not enjoy exercise but do it anyway. These exercisers might learn techniques to elicit a feeling that makes working out positively addictive.
In the study, researchers recruited 10 distance runners. The athletes had a PET scan before and after a two-hour run. They also took a standard psychological test that indicated their mood before and after running. The data showed that, indeed, endorphins were produced during running and were attaching themselves to areas of the brain associated with emotions, in particular the limbic and prefrontal areas.
The limbic and prefrontal areas in the study participants were activated when people are involved in romantic love affairs. The greater the euphoria the runners reported, the more endorphins in their brain. Some people have these really extreme experiences with very long or intensive training.
Still, the results are provocative. If they are trying to send us a message, it’s that our evolutionary history appears to have included this kind of endurance activity and rewarded it. And as a result, we continue to have a biological imperative” to move.