Have you ever had one of those days where everything just clicks? You feel great on your run and are hyper focused and productive for the rest of the day… I love those days. How about those days when you struggle to get out the door but you manage to anyway? Do you still feel that sense of satisfaction; alertness and accomplishment persist through the rest of the day? I certainly do. This is what we call the runner’s high, a coveted state and welcomed side affect to our training routine.
But do you really know what’s going on inside our bodies to achieve this runner’s high? Hint: it has everything to do with the brain.
Neuroscientists have worked long and hard to discover ground-breaking drugs to treat mood disorders including anxiety, depression, and ADHD; to keep us happy. Only recently have we realized that exercise can treat all of these disorders simultaneously all while improving new neuron growth, and learning and memory.
How does this work exactly? Well, there are 3 main regulators of the brain: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These are the neurotransmitters involved in regulating mood (serotonin), reward (dopamine) and focus (norepinephrine); generally speaking of course. Drugs target specific neurotransmitters, for example serotonin, in order to increase its levels within the brain, thus, keeping you happier (this is how antidepressants work, generally).
So where does running come in? As I mentioned earlier, neuroscientist are discovering that running works to regulate the same group of neurotransmitters that regulate the most fundamental states of our existence. In fact, running proves more effective in maintaining mental health than any drug currently on the market! Many studies have shown that patients with depression, severe anxiety or ADHD, were able to eliminate most of, if not all of their symptoms, when they started a running routine. How amazing is this?!
Us runners have known about the runner’s high for a long time, but now there’s scientific data to back it up! Even if you don’t suffer from a mood disorder (which is quite uncommon in this era), maintaining a running routine helps with more than just mood (see Spark, by John J. Ratey, MD), the benefits are endless.
So, keep on lacing up those running shoes, it’s not only about your heart and lungs, but also about your brain.
I was disappointed back in the 1970s when the evidence came out that runner’s high was probably not much related to endorphin release, but have been recently delighted as evidence has come out that runner’s high may well be mediated by endocannabinoids: https://www.philipbrewer.net/2015/10/07/new-research-on-endocannabinoids-as-source-of-runners-high/