According to Kelly McGonagal’s book, The Joy of Movement, trail runner and triathlete Scott Dunlap describes the feeling he gets when he runs this way: “I would equate it to two Red Bulls and vodka, 3 ibuprofen, plus a $50 winning Lotto ticket in your pocket.” The runner’s high is often thrown out as bait to reluctant exercisers. It’s this intoxicating side effect described by many as a spiritual experience–a moment in time where runners feel completely alive, connected to everyone and even, loving. A similar euphoria can be found in any sustained physical activity, according to McGonagal. That includes hiking, swimming, cycling, dancing, or yoga. However, the high appears only after sustained effort. In her book, McGonagal asks the question, why does such a reward exist? And, why would it make you feel loving? Here are a few of her fascinating findings:
Linked to our Ancestors
The neurochemical state that makes running gratifying may have originally served as a reward to keep early humans hunting and gathering. This means that in our evolutionary past, humans may have survived in part because physical activity was pleasurable. McGonagal emphasizes that understanding the science behind the runner’s high can help you capitalize on these effects whether your goal is to feel more connected to your community or to find a form of exercise that leaves you feeling glad to be alive.
Sound like something else that makes you feel good? Well, that’s because cannabis, or marijuana mimics these runner’s high brain chemicals. Anthropologist Daivd Raichlen reasoned that in addition to a rush of endorphins, high-intensity exercise also produces endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids alleviate pain and boost mood. Similar to the effects of marijuana, exercise-induced endocannabinoids produce the sudden relief of stress, the slowing of time, and a heightened awareness of the senses. Raichlen speculates that our brains reward us for exercising at intensities similar to those successfully used for hunting and foraging two million years ago. According to The Joy of Movement, this means that the key to unlocking the runner’s high isn’t just running, but continuous moderate intensity. If you want that cannabinoid high, you have to put in the time and effort!
Exercise Helps Us Bond
According to McGonagal, endocannabinoids aren’t just about “don’t worry, be happy” they are also about feeling close to others. Higher levels of these brain chemicals increase the pleasure you derive from being around other people and reduce social anxiety. The runner’s high can help us bond! And, not only that, when we exercise with others, we get a double hit of the neurobiological reward. McGonagal notes that mutual cooperation activates the brain regions linked to reward. Call it the cooperation cocktail: dopamine, endorphins, and endocannabinoids. Your brain likes when you do work with others toward a shared goal. Now you know why it feels so fantastic walking into Beechmont high-fiving your friends and cheering each other on during workouts!
In conclusion, McGonagal encourages us to look at persistence in a new way. She says, “We don’t persist so we can get some neurochemical reward; the high is built into our biology so that we can persist.” Mindblown! Get to Beechmont and get that persistence high going! Science says, you’ll feel braver, more optimistic, and ready to face whatever struggles lie ahead.
(McGonagal, Kelly. The Joy of Movement. Avery, 2019.)