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The True Source of Runner’s High

The True Source of Runner’s High

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Every runner or fitness buff knows that feeling at the beginning of their workout routine. You probably woke up early to hit the track before the sun was out. You start your run feeling heavy, your breathing labored, and your knees start to complain before you even begin. But you push on to finish the 10 miles you set out for the day.
Somewhere along the way, something happens. Your lungs suddenly open, breathing becomes easier, pain diminishes, and this surge of energy makes you feel as though you could climb Mt. Everest.
This thrilling phenomenon is known as the runner's high. For a long time, it was attributed to the release of endorphins, but recent research suggests that this might not be the case after all. In this article, we delve into the runner's high to understand what it is and how we can reach this state faster during exercise.

How the Body Responds to Intense Physical Activity

The runner’s high is a state of physical and mental euphoria that some people experience after intense exercise. It is often described as a sense of floating in the air or having a burst of motivation to train longer. Various exercises can induce the runners' high, including running, high-interval intensity training, and cardio exercises like aerobics.
On a normal day when you are at rest or lazing around the house, your body uses the parasympathetic nervous system to keep your breathing, heart rate, and metabolism in a balanced state.
During an intense physical workout, however, there is an increased demand on the body. This activates the sympathetic response, which increases the heart rate, dilates your airwaves, and releases adrenaline. These functions help your body deal with the increased stress.
After a prolonged period of intense exercise, the body takes an extra step and activates the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This is a system of neurotransmitters, receptors, and enzymes that help regulate different processes in the body like mood and pain sensation. When triggered, the ECS reduces pain perception, creates a feeling of ecstasy, and elevates your workout routine.

Scientists have yet to fully understand the connection between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the ECS. However, studies have shown that these systems both work together to help the body deal with the stress of intense physical activity.

The Science Behind the Elusive Runner’s High

woman running on a long road with the sun in her face

People have been trying to understand the runner’s high for decades. In 2008, the Opioid Theory was formulated, suggesting that during an intense workout, the brain releases endorphins, which are opioids, into the blood system. The endorphins would then result in a sort of mood boost, or “high.” 
However, this theory was later debunked. Scientists realized that because endorphins are large molecules, they are not able to cross the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system. Therefore, they cannot have a euphoric effect on the brain.
7 years later, research on mice showed evidence that the endocannabinoid system is the true phenomenon behind the runner’s high. When you engage in a rigorous workout for a prolonged period, anandamide is released into the bloodstream. Anandamide is one of the two endocannabinoids naturally found in the body. Its molecules are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the central nervous system.
Once here, anandamide limits the pain sensors in your body. It also triggers the release of dopamine, a pleasure neurotransmitter, and binds to the cannabinoid receptors in your brain. This results in the euphoria associated with the runner’s high.

What Is the Endocannabinoid System?

neural network of transmitters and receptors

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is the most extensive biological receptor system in the body. The endocannabinoids and the receptors they bind to are found throughout the body, from the nervous system and brain to vital organs.
The ECS works to keep bodily functions, such as sleep, inflammation, mood, and pain, balanced (in homeostasis). For example, when you are going through high-stress situations in life, your body releases cortisol, which is a stress hormone. To counter the effect of this stress hormone and ensure homeostasis, the body releases endocannabinoids to induce relaxation.
The ECS operates on a lock-and-key model. The cannabinoids are the keys, while the receptors are the locks. Whenever a key and lock fit, there is a physiological effect on the body.
The endocannabinoid responsible for runners' high is called anandamide, which is the key in this process. Two main receptors are associated with the blissful state during exercise, CB1 and CB2, which are the locks.
CB1 receptors regulate appetite, memory, and pain. They are found in the brain and spinal column. CB2 is found within the immune system and controls inflammation.

In the long run, the cannabinoid anandamide is released into the bloodstream and into the brain, where it finds the CB1 and CB2 receptors, and the lock and key system occurs. Suddenly there is less inflammation and no pain, and you have the endurance to run a 5k.
There are actually two types of cannabinoids found in nature that can activate the endocannabinoid system and create the runner’s high experience: endocannabinoids, which naturally occur in the body, and phytocannabinoids, which are found in plants. THC and CBD are two well-known examples of cannabinoids that come from plants, specifically hemp and marijuana.
These phytocannabinoids are similar in structure and behavior to the endocannabinoids. They are keys that fit perfectly into the CB1 and CB2 locks, causing that same feeling of euphoria when consumed. They may even improve muscle recovery after an intense workout.

Why the Runner’s High Is More Than Just a Feeling

woman on a run smiling

Now that we understand the runner's high, the question becomes why it is important. For starters, who doesn’t want to feel bliss, even for a short time? But, beyond the experiential effects, this phenomenon can lead to:
  • A consistent exercise routine: Many people work out more often because of the euphoric feeling they experience after the workout.
  • Improved quality of sleep: The combination of neurotransmitters released during a runner’s high lowers stress levels promotes relaxation, and improves sleep.
  • Elevated mood: The euphoria associated with the phenomenon may significantly boost mood, reducing feelings of daily stress and worry.
  • Pain relief: The chemicals released temporarily reduce the sensation of pain and discomfort.
  • Higher productivity: Some people have reported having better focus, mental clarity, and energy following a runner’s high. This may enhance cognitive function and productivity.
The overall impact of the runner’s high, especially its role in regular exercise, may create long-term health benefits, mental wellness, and general well-being.

How to Experience the Runner’s High

To enjoy the phenomenon that is the runner’s high, you have to go through a rigorous workout, such as aerobic exercises or running for a prolonged period. Some studies suggest taking at least a 30-minute run at a 70%–80% maximal heart rate.
However, even with this strategy, runner’s high is still a rare phenomenon. Taking microdoses of phytocannabinoids such as THC is a great way to not only speed up the process of getting a runner’s high but also guarantee the experiential effects.
Taking a microdose of THC in the form of edibles, supplements, or baked items may make the workout more enjoyable and less painful while improving your endurance. Another great way to incorporate it is with our fast-acting ORCA supplements, which are a blend of THC, vitamins, and minerals designed to make your workout a walk in the park.
Until next time, happy running, and mind your mind!

FDA Disclaimer: The statements made regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA-approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant as a substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your healthcare professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires this notice.

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