What Causes A Runner's High? Here's What We Know So Far
Toned thighs and a strong cardiovascular system are great and all, but most runners will tell you that it's the mental health benefits of the sport that keep them lacing up their sneakers.
Here's what researchers know so far about what causes the ubiquitous "runner's high"—and how anyone might be able to achieve a similar sensation without hitting the pavement.
What do we know about the runner's high?
First off, we know that running isn't the only exercise that can cause a borderline euphoric experience. An extended period of any moderately intense cardio exercise—swimming, biking, etc.—has the potential to do so.
As for how exercise changes the brain, neuroscientists looked into it in a 2008 study on 10 male endurance runners. They took two PET scans of each athlete's brains—both at rest and 30 minutes after a two-hour run—and compared the results. They found that running seemed to release endorphins in the frontolimbic area of the brain, which is involved in regulating mood. This explained why the runners' self-reported levels of "euphoria" and "happiness" also shot up after the long run.
Another 2011 study1, this one conducted on mice, studied the long-term impact of running on mental health: The University of Colorado team found that consistent, prolonged bouts of wheel running seemed to improve neuroplasticity and alter the reward networks of the brain when done over the course of six weeks, but not two weeks. This could help explain why seasoned runners (of the human variety) seem to get more joy from the exercise than beginners do. It's a high that takes time to build.
How cannabinoids might activate a similar reaction.
In 2015, a team of German researchers challenged the notion that a runner's high is caused by endorphins and brain chemistry alone. They reasoned that these feel-good hormones don't cross the brain-blood barrier, so another mechanism must be responsible for the full-body bliss that can follow a cardio burst.
These researchers also studied mice but looked specifically at their endocannabinoid activity after exercise. The endocannabinoid system, ECS for short, is a master regulatory system that extends throughout the entire body and plays a role in mood and relaxation as well as pain management.
Certain plants also contain cannabinoids; one of the most ubiquitous being the fittingly named cannabis plant. Marijuana, a strain of cannabis, produces its own kind of high because of the way its THC cannabinoids interact with ECS receptors in the brain.
Another strain of the cannabis plant, the hemp plant, is very, very low in THC but does contain plenty of other cannabinoids, like CBD, CBGA, and CBC. In other words, hemp extracts don't cause the psychoactive high of smoking weed—but they might deliver some of the full-body buzz of a runner's high.
More research needs to be done on the link between the ECS, cannabinoids, and exercise, but the theory that they're connected tracks with the way we've heard people talk about their experience taking mbg's hemp multi+ supplement.*
Amanda Quadrini, from the brand partnerships team at mbg, for example, would equate the feeling she has after taking it to a runner's high: "It's like I just completed a tough workout—even if I haven't left my apartment yet that day," she wrote in her review of the product. *
Of course, exercise comes with many physical and mental benefits that can't be translated into a pill. Taking a hemp supplement shouldn't stand in for your existing cardio routine. But on those days when the weather, COVID restrictions, or some combination of the two have you staying relatively stagnant, it's another mood-supporting option to have on hand.*
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.