Spring has sprung, which means it’s time to lace up those running shoes and hit the pavements.
Some people do it to stay in shape, I do it for the high. Yes, you heard me right.
I just came back from a 10-mile run. The sun was shining without a cloud in the sky, and a light, steady breeze kept me cool.
I feel a slight tingle throughout my body — in a good way — and a sense of calming that feels like it’s here to stay for a while.
During my run, when breathing became a chore and my legs began to ache, I pushed myself even harder until I experienced a sense of elation, which masked all the discomfort in my legs and blistered feet, and even eliminated my sense of time.
It felt peaceful. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s the reason I get up and hit the pavements again most mornings.
It sounds like I’m addicted to a drug, and according to science, it’s not too far off from that. Sure, my story, among many others, is purely anecdotal; I could just be happy after a great run.
But science has shown that rhythmic, continuous aerobic exercise, like running, produces narcotic-like chemicals in the body during and immediately after exercise.
Natural chemicals similar to opium and marijuana are manufactured in your brain.
The short answer is endorphins, nature’s opiates. A 2008 study found during two-hour-long runs, the same part of the brain that lights up in response to emotions (like love) gushed out endorphins, which can explain the euphoric feeling many runners report.
But scientific evidence can’t support endorphin claims 100 percent (the study had a sample size of just 10, already-fit runners) because the effects of endorphins vary from person to person, and while endorphin levels may be up, science hasn’t fully gotten around to how it impacts a person’s psyche.
But evidence has clearly demonstrated that your body pumps out a natural chemical similar to marijuana during and after moderate intensity exercise.
Endocannabinoids (yes, as in cannabis), known to be a naturally synthesized version of the same chemical that gives you a buzz when you’re actually high, can have a greater effect on your body.
Unlike endorphins, which can only be created by specific neurons in your brain, any cell in your body can produce endocannabinoids.
It goes back to our ancestors.
Recent research shows the ability to get high while pounding pavements and tracks is something hard-wired within us.
It goes all the way back to our ancestors. Many anthropologists believe our ancestors’ survival depended on literally chasing down and exhausting their prey, and the release of endocannabinoids is what helped them do it.
David A. Raichlen, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona conducted a study to test this theory.
He found a surplus of endocannabinoids in distance running animals like dogs (and humans), but found no trace of it in non-distance runners, like ferrets, suggesting the ability to obtain a runner’s high is fairly deep in our evolutionary roots.
Your body needs to be in a state of discomfort.
You do have to push yourself. Dr. David Sack wrote in the Huffington Post that you do need to run for at least 30 minutes.
Endorphins are essentially natural painkillers your body produces when it experiences any physical discomfort. But here’s the good news: You don’t have to exhaust yourself.
Endocannabinoids are similarly triggered by physical stress, which means you still have to put yourself through a somewhat challenging workout.
One doctor’s research found that for optimal endocannabinoid production, runners need eight hours of sleep, and that endocannabinoid levels are three times higher in the mornings.
While science doesn’t make this conclusion, it might be worth trying out a morning run.
It’s also important to note running isn’t the only sport where you can try your luck at getting high. Research suggests a wide variety of rhythmic sports like swimming, cycling and rowing can produce the same effect.
It's worth a shot.
Whether you can get the short-term high or not, the long-term benefits of physical exercise and running are well-documented. And there’s nothing like crossing a finish line.
That’s an emotional high that can last for days. Maybe it’s the beautiful spring breeze, or my endocannabinoids talking, but it’s a high worth chasing down.