Runner’s High Is Real, It’s Just Not What You Think

Photo: Siriwat Nakha/EyeEm/Getty Images

I’ve been running since junior high. I was on my school’s track team, and continued through high school, but I never liked the competitive aspect. In fact, my coach once yelled at me for not wanting to compete in a race I qualified for (I couldn’t help it, track meets were so long). I much preferred the times when we were instructed to run on our own — cool downs, or easy days where we’d do laps around the soccer fields until our coach said we could stop. Those days, I could zone out completely: bring my headphones, listen to music, and jog to the point of forgetting what I was doing. And unlike my teammates, I never had days where I didn’t feel like running, which was confusing to everyone (myself included) because of my general apathy toward competing. Recently, I realized my allegiance to the sport came not from winning or losing, but from the buzz, or, the runner’s high.

I personally didn’t believe in the existence of runner’s high until about a year ago, when I found running to be the only relief for my early pandemic anxiety. After a brief hiatus during my sophomore year of college, I got back into it during lockdown. Now I run two to three times a week, and I can’t imagine how I’d function if I didn’t.

A lot of people think runner’s high is fake, and they’re totally entitled to their (wrong) opinion. The runner’s high doesn’t come naturally to most people, and it’s hard to describe what it actually feels like. I had been experiencing runner’s high for years without knowing it.

Clinical Sports Psychologist Dr. Hillary Cauthen explains that “runner’s high” often isn’t the phenomenon people imagine it to be — something akin to the effects of drugs and alcohol. “There is a natural, emotional, physical reaction through running, and after a specific duration, and depending on your fitness level, you will experience the positive mood-boost benefits,” she explains. Those “mood benefits” are the high. It isn’t necessarily a euphoric, head-in-the-clouds feeling (though for some it can be) but rather instant relief from stress, anxiety, and even physical post-run exhaustion. Have you ever started your day with a run and felt more energized, clear-headed, and generally happier than normal for the rest of the day? That’s a runner’s high.

But don’t get confused — these advantages aren’t achieved by simply going on any old run. This is probably another reason people are skeptical. A lot of factors play into whether or not you’ll ever have the experience, and how often one will occur.

“It’s like enjoyment in your job. If your job is to run, and to compete, you’d have to be more intentional about being mindful when running to allow the runner’s high to happen, because it’s a daily task for you. Running eight miles could be no different than responding to ten emails,” says Dr. Cauthen.

Your intention is crucial to whether or not you will experience a runner’s high afterward too. Training for races rarely gets you there. Often, if I go into a run with the sole purpose of exercising or improving a personal record time, I end up overthinking, cramping, and having an overall terrible experience. But when I run with only the purpose of listening to an Ariana Grande song that’s been stuck in my head all day, or trying to work through writer’s block? Magic happens. I finish the run feeling refreshed, calm, and, weirdly, not at all tired.

According to Dr. Cauthen, you should be calculated about getting a runner’s high, without overdoing it. It will most likely be a bad run if you constantly try to achieve a runner’s high throughout. It’s like anything else enjoyable — you can’t force it. She suggests taking note of what your body feels like throughout the run and consciously setting an intention of what you’d like to feel like after. She also advises varying your route, so you don’t run the same path every time, and if you’re really serious about achieving a high, to write about how you feel post-run in a journal.

“Reflective writing is always good. Like, how did that run feel? Why did that feel the way it did? It might give more insight [into] what you’re experiencing.” says Dr. Cauthen.

In brief, it takes consistency and effort to achieve a proper runner’s high, which is frustrating (but so worth it). Another problem: if you become the type of person who regularly achieves runner’s high, it is likely you’ll also become the type of person who wakes up early on a Saturday morning to go for a run and posts about it on social media (and who likes that person?).

Runner’s High Is Real, It’s Just Not What You Think