If you asked Kile Putman how he was feeling at mile 7 during his first marathon some 40 years ago, he would tell you he was steps away from giving up. He'd put six months of training under his belt and was about as fit as he'd ever been. But nothing prepared him for the heaviness that fell over him barely a fourth of the way into the race. That weight dragged on him for the next 10 miles (16 kilometers) as he sweated and panted, Nike-to-Nike, with a pack of other singlet-clad men.
And then something changed. The load that had staggered his pace and cramped his calves suddenly dissipated. He felt lighter somehow, almost as if he were floating. His pace picked up. He started to break away from the pack. It was turning into an incredible run. And then he began to cry. Deep emotional sobs he couldn't control. Not tears of sadness, but of such profound joy that, to this day, he struggles to describe. Was it runner's high?
Is Runner's High All in Your Head?
I'm running with Putman, a USA Track & Field-certified coach, through a well-coifed Alabama suburban neighborhood, dodging fresh-cut grass made airborne by a trio of noisy blowers. We're discussing whether there is such a thing as "runner's high" — that feeling of euphoria mixed with a sense of peace some runners describe. And that's when he tells me about the rush of emotions he experienced during his first marathon.
"I don't know if that was a runner's high or some other euphoric feeling," he says. "Maybe it was all in my head." Putman's an ever-skeptic, so I posed the question to someone who better understands the mental health aspects of the athlete's brain, Margaret Smith, Ph.D., a sports psychology provider and performance coach in Birmingham, Alabama.
"Oh, I totally think it's real," she says. "As someone who runs, I have definitely experienced those wonderful days when it happens, and it's the best thing in the world."
Ask most runners if they've ever experienced a runner's high and chances are they'll gaze up at the clouds and begin rambling about those mysterious moments when they became so immersed in the effort that their bodies began to operate as if on autopilot, effortlessly propelling them forward.
Smith calls this the "flow state," a concept Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came up with after interviewing athletes, musicians and artists about what brings them joy. He discovered that at moments of optimal performance level, those individuals reported falling into a highly focused mental state during which their work or activity simply flowed out of them without much effort.
For runners, could this mindful immersion be the source of runner's high? Perhaps, Smith says. Or maybe it's just believing that you're experiencing a runner's high that makes it real. "What we know from social psychology is perception greatly shapes reality," she says. "If I believe that something is real, it affects my actions and my interpretation of events."
Is There a Physical Explanation for Runner's High?
People have been buzzing about the so-called runner's high since the running boom began in the 1970s, says Jack Hasson, M.D., who's an avid runner and a pulmonologist affiliated with the University of Alabama at Birmingham. At some point, researchers (who were probably runners, too), chalked the feeling up to the surge of endorphins that are released in response to the stress exercise puts on the body.
Endorphins are neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, that activate the body's opiate receptors and create an analgesic effect that Hasson says numbs the body to pain and triggers a morphine-like sense of euphoria.
That seemed to make a lot of sense except a morphine high is different. Morphine, a drug in the opioid family, triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that does block pain and create pleasurable feelings that some may describe as euphoric. But it's also associated with drowsiness, Hasson says. And there's nothing about a runner's high that makes you sleepy.
If anything, a runner's high is more often associated with a feeling of "oneness" or "spirituality" or "peace," he says. Much more like the high one gets after smoking weed — at least that's what people who have tried marijuana have told him. (He's never smoked it himself.)
Research is in agreement. According to a 2015 study from German researchers and their mouse models, running also stimulates the body' endocannabinoid system, which produces endocannabinoids, the body's homemade cannabis-like chemical. Endocannabinoids are credited for improving symptoms of anxiety and mood. In fact, one reason why people say they self-medicate with cannabis is to reduce anxiety, researchers say.
"Some proponents now feel that this is really what's happening in the brain. It's more of a spiritual feeling that cannabis has as opposed to the pain relief and relaxation that morphine or opioids give," Hasson says. As a runner, that makes more sense to him, too.
"I've run distances from 5K to ultramarathons, and I've experienced that sort of feeling of spirituality, feeling of peace, feeling relaxation and of being laid back," he says. "So, I'm in favor of the theory that the runner's high may be more of a cannabis effect than an opioid effect."
Addicted to Runner's High
There must be something to runner's high because why else would people continue to put themselves through the rigors of pounding the pavement several times a week, or even every day?
"This may be why people become addicted to running, more or less," Hasson says. A runner's high, like an opioid or cannabis high, triggers the reward pathways in the brain. The brain is naturally circuited to repeat the action to get that feeling again. But often, as with opioids, that next high is never as good as the first, which can lead to addiction.
Whether it's the marijuana-like endocannabinoids or the opioid-like endorphins at play — or both — reaching that state of consciousness during or after a run is a just reward for many, even if it's only experienced rarely.
For my running buddy Putman, if he did experience runner's high during that first marathon four decades ago, it never happened again. But he's never stopped chasing that incredible feeling. "It kept me in the marathon game," he says.
But as I said, Putman is an ever-skeptic. I remind him of that glorious day during marathon training when we ran the Vulcan 10K course in Birmingham three times in a row to log an 18-plus-mile (29 kilometer-plus)- long run under an overcast sky, ending on a long, downhill stretch. "You didn't feel a high then?" I ask. Because, frankly, I did.
I see him in my periphery shaking his head. "Nah, that was a just a good run," he says.
There's an environmental phenomenon that may come into play with a runner's high, Hasson says. But he doubts that's all there is to it.
"There are occasions when you have a perfect run. Everything is great. The weather is perfect. And you're having a good run and you feel euphoric about it," he says. "But I don't think that's what happens most of the time [during a runner's high]. Because there are times in bad conditions where I run and it's a miserable day, but I'm running well. And then I finish and I feel really great."