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Runner’s High: A Scientific Perspective

posted by Gareth
Runner’s High: A Scientific Perspective

Have you ever returned from a run sporting a smile from ear-to-ear and beaming with joy, only to find your roommate or spouse hunched over their desk asking “what the heck are you so happy about?”  You suddenly realize that not everyone is experiencing your runner’s high and feel embarrassed and almost guilty for your over-joyous presence. If you are a veteran in this sport you’ve surely heard numerous accounts of individual’s experiences with the runner’s high, and while this article might be more enticing and enjoyable to read if it contains these anecdotes, my goal is to share with you the ‘magic’ behind this miraculously scientific process. After days of diligent research this is what I have discovered.

When discussing the experience of a “Runner’s High” the term “endorphins” is almost always present.  While endorphins are a key component of the “high” we experience, it is less widely known how endorphins create this high.

Firstly, endorphins – short for endogenous morphine – are oligopeptides that function as neurotransmitters. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, and are released during intense physical activity such as running.  Oligopeptides (or simply known as peptides) are chains composed of fewer than 50 amino acids linked together by Carbon and Nitrogen single bonds. A neurotransmitter is a molecule that transmits electrical signals from one neuron to another neuron or from a neuron to a muscle or gland.

Now I am sure you are utterly befuddled as to what this means and how it relates to “Runner’s High”. Simply put, electrical signals are passed neuron to neurone. Neurotransmitters can intervene between two neurons and have two possible effects depending on their nature (excitatory or inhibitory). Endorphins are inhibitory neurotransmitters, meaning that the electrical signal in the second neuron will be lessened, thus less likely to be passed on. For this reason, endorphins can lessen/mitigate pain.

While endorphins can mitigate pain receptors, there are no direct properties of endorphins that create the “high” runners feel. Every individual’s endorphin levels vary naturally, even post-physical activity.  Additionally, not every runner experiences “runner’s high” which has lead to speculation if such a concept even exists.

While many runners could vouch for the feeling of euphoria attained through running, we are hard pressed to explain why such a feeling occurs. On a personal note, only from returning from a long absence of running do I feel any euphoria. This could be because as my training becomes routine and daily, I become more callused to states of exercise induced euphoria.

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About the Author: Gareth Morl, was born in the UK and has spent much of his life abroad.  This fall he will begin his junior year at Santa Clara University where he is pursuing a Bachelors of Science in both English and Philosophy, while competing for the Cross Country and Track teams.

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