The "Runner's High" and other Mental Benefits of Running

Many of us run to improve cardiovascular health; build endurance, strength, and muscle; and to burn calories and lose weight. But did you know that while you're taking care of your body, you're also taking care of your mind? 

Have any of you felt the “runner’s high”? I ran 12 miles today, and it felt almost effortless; in fact, it felt so good I was able to run the last few miles in under 9:00 per mile and felt like I could have continued running forever. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it’s incredible. 

What Is the Runner's High?

Runners who have felt the high describe it in many ways, using words like calm, peaceful and euphoric. Some say they feel like they're floating, almost as if they're weightless and  running on air; minor aches and pains disappear, and runners may lose their sense of time, too. 

The word "high" isn't an accident because a runner's high is similar to the altered state of consciousness associated with painkilling drugs. Perhaps most of all, running seems effortless and you feel as though you could keep going forever. 

Something about distance running's rhythmic, moderate-intensity seems to contribute the most to the runner's high (since runners experience it more than other athletes). Several processes are happening in your body and brain as you run that contribute to the high. Many have previously thought this occurred through the release of endorphins during running, but it is more likely the release of endorphins prevents your muscles from feeling pain and it is the release of endocannabinoids that are responsible for the euphoric feeling of the “runners high”. 

Endocannabinoids are cannabis-like substances, but they are produced in the body, not acquired from smoking or otherwise consuming cannabis. And, while the endorphins help manage pain the endocannabinoids can actually “cross over” to the brain and produce that euphoria associated with the runner’s high. 

And, while experiencing a runner's high is one of the best ways to feel happy and relaxed, running provides several mental health benefits, including: 

Stress management. Running increases the production and concentration of norepinephrine, a chemic that helps moderate the brain’s response to stress. Have you ever been stressing about something and gone for a run? Did you notice those issues which may have seemed insurmountable before your run somehow become less stressful during and after your run? The release of norepinephrine help you control stress and boost the body's ability to deal with existing mental tension. 

Vitamin D. Running outside on a sunny day helps your body produce vitamin D, a nutrient that can lessen your likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms. Not only will more vitamin D help relieve mental stress and depression, but it’s also helpful in reducing joint pain, muscle cramps and fatigue. 

Slows cognitive decline. Running and working out, especially between the ages of 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in your brain that support and prevents the degeneration of the hippocampus, and integral part of your brain for memory and learning. While running doesn't "cure" Alzheimer's, it may help boost the brain's ability to minimize and slow cognitive decline that begins after age 45.

Brainpower boost. Many scientists previously believed that brain cells were formed solely in the womb and early infancy; however, recent studies have proven that certain parts of the brain can continue to produce new brain cells in adulthood. This process is called “adult neurogenesis” and there are things that can be done to stimulate this process, including aerobic exercises such as running. So, while your building your endurance and overall fitness you’re also producing new brain cells. 

Better sleep. A study published in the American Journal of Sleep Medicine determined that regular exercise can help improve the quality of your sleep as well as helping you sleep through the night. As a runner, this is very important since the quality of your sleep as well as the number of hours you sleep play a critical part in your body’s recovery, especially after a particularly difficult run. 

Increased productivity. When you exercise, you are also increasing blood flow to the brain, which can help sharpen your awareness and make you more ready to tackle your next big project. A protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) boosts your cognitive abilities; and BDNF is triggered by exercise according to the American Council on Exercise. 

Having more energy means you will feel more awake at work. Being on top of your game will assure that you perform your work correctly and to the best of your ability. If you don't have time to put in a full cardio workout each day, make small changes to meet your daily goals, such as walking during your lunch period or taking the stairs instead of the elevator advises Psychology Today. Take as many opportunities during the day to find small ways to exercise and your work productivity will increase. 

Greater creativity. A study published in Frontiers in Human Human Neuroscience demonstrated that exercising regular help one become more creative and proved there is a direct link between our physical selves and our creative minds. The study showed that people who exercised four times per week were able to think more creatively in a series of tests, as compared to those with more sedentary lifestyles. 

Other studies have shown that small amounts of exercise are able to produce long periods of better creative thought; around 30 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve creativity and these effects last for about two hours afterwards. 

So, while you’re improving you fitness and endurance your running is also helping you not only get the runner’s high but improve in many other life enhancing areas.

Be safe and keep running!

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Rich Flaherty is a middle of the pack runner and triathlete, whose only real claim to fame is his daughter Bekah Brooks qualified for the Boston Marathon in her first marathon.

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