Wherefore art thou runner's high?
February 25, 2008 2:10 PM   Subscribe

Why do I never, ever seem to get that fabled runner's high from exercise? Is it something I can teach myself to do?

At various times in my life, I've been in rather good shape and less good shape. I've had more or less physical activity of various intensities. I have never, not once, got anything even resembling a runner's high.

Until I was 16 (I'm 26 now) I was a very committed dancer who had intense 90 minute practices three times a week with additional classes on weekends from time to time. At the time, I loved the performance aspect of dance, but always hated the long, sweaty practices, even when I was in very good shape.

Since then I've walked and run (the latter as much as my dance-wrecked knees will let me), swam and ellipticalled, played baseball and hiked, and I've even been pretty seriously into yoga. It's never felt good; no matter how long my heart rate is up, I never feel anything switch over and begin to feel at all pleasant and rewarding. During exercise, I just feel tired and irritable. Afterward I feel worse. After a good, challenging yoga session, I'm frequently very relaxed from having a good stretch and meditation, which is nice, but it's generally overwhelmed by my dislike of the shaky muscles, sweaty skin, and fatigue. That's as close as I've come.

So, is the runner's high feeling something I can learn how to get, or will exercise always be something I make myself do whether I like it or not?
posted by mostlymartha to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
shaky muscles, sweaty skin, and fatigue

Hmm, you might be in trouble, 'cause that's pretty much how I would describe the runner's high.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:13 PM on February 25, 2008

It took me 2 years of swimming several times a week before I got the "high," which instead of any kind of pleasurable sensation, would be better described as a divorce of mind and body - eventually, a thousand yards or so into my swim, muscle aches and soreness and tiredness just disappear, and I feel as if I can continue to swim - not sprint, just a nice even measured stroke - for hours.
posted by luriete at 2:21 PM on February 25, 2008

I agree with MCLC, you already covered it unless you're talking about a hyperventilation like buzz, which is bad for you: "Conversely, low carbon dioxide levels (e.g. from hyperventilation) cause the brain's blood vessels to constrict, resulting in reduced blood flow to the brain and lightheadedness. Thus, though it seems counterintuitive, breathing too much can result in a decrease in the oxygen supply to the brain."
posted by prostyle at 2:24 PM on February 25, 2008

Personally, I think it might be down to individual chemistry. I'm like you (never felt it, regardless of length, intensity, or type of exercise). On the other hand, I have friends who talk about feeling fantastic during exercise, post-exercise, etc. all the dang time.

Makes me feel like I got cheated on my biochemistry, frankly.
posted by aramaic at 2:28 PM on February 25, 2008

Well, I'm not sure what the runner's high is exactly, either, but I do sometimes feel good while running, but even then it's not a "pleasant" feeling. I feel accomplished and like I'm on top of things, but it's not like having an orgasm or anything like that. So, that's not what you should be expecting.

On the other hand, I can't know exactly how you feel, but if the running never gets any easier, you might need to do one of the following:

- Develop more strength. Do anaerobic exercises like that build up large muscle groups like dumbbell snatches or the stuff at Simplefit that build up your strength and strength endurance. My exercise for a while consisted of doing nothing but push-ups at running, but once I started doing things that built up these other aspects of strength, running got a lot easier.

- Get better nutrition. Make sure you're getting enough protein and vitamins.

- See a doctor. There are various conditions that cause excessive fatigue and stunt muscle recovery. Maybe your body doesn't produce or process ATP properly?
posted by ignignokt at 2:29 PM on February 25, 2008

Whoops: "push-ups and running" that should read.
posted by ignignokt at 2:30 PM on February 25, 2008

If I remember my college equivalent of anatomy 101 correctly, the mythological runner's high is just your body's natural release of endorphins when it is in too much pain. Some runners have described it as "breaking through a wall" of pain after long, grueling marathon sessions.

I don't know if pushing your body this hard is a good idea - especially if yoga makes you feel good already.

My 2 c.
posted by jdruk at 2:44 PM on February 25, 2008

I don't get it often anymore because I have some a chronic problem that doesn't allow me to push off the ground hard enough to trigger that feeling, but I used to get it a lot. It would happen after about 20 minutes, when I was fully warmed up and running at a strong speed. I'd feel as though my lungs were opening up and taking in a lot of air, and my legs were turning over at an effort that felt cathartic rather than arduous, for want of a better description. I know this will sound rather insane, but it's a sensation similar to the high from huffing inhalants (uh, not like I'd exactly know, but I'm in art for the fumes).

From your description of the sensations you get during intense exercise, I think you are breathing too shallowly. If you concentrate positively on the effort your muscles are making, and allow your breathing to become deeper and not just faster, you'll feel a lot better.

Like "sniffing a sharpie" better.
posted by stagewhisper at 2:45 PM on February 25, 2008

I used to hate running with a passion, and honestly sometimes I still do. But if I'm running at a good clip (fast for me but not overexerting myself or in pain), and I'm listening to good music and there aren't any distractions (treadmill is best for this), I can get in a zone of pure awesome. My brain kicks into high gear and my thoughts go at a mile a minute, though after my run I probably couldn't tell you what I was thinking. It's like a really energized daydream. I've never been particularly athletic, but I've always been the kind of person who moves around a lot when my mind's going, and just has to put on energetic music and bounce around when I feel good. (I've also been known to spontaneously bust out into pushups after a few drinks.)

It might be possible to learn to associate that energetic-happy feeling with your workouts. Next time you're in a really good mood, do a quick burst of physical activity, like a handful of jumping jacks or a brisk walk around the block. It'll get your heart going and blood flowing to your brain, and if it's not particularly strenuous activity, it'll make you feel exhilarated and not drained.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:51 PM on February 25, 2008

I get the runner's high, but it's a lot like you describe: I'm achy, exhausted, shaky, and damn it, it feels good. There's this amazing sense of accomplishment and of realization after a good run that just puts me in an absolutely wonderful mood. However, I have to run myself to where I've pushed my limits to achieve this feeling, and anymore, that means running 4 to 5 miles at a 7 to 8 minute pace. You can't just jog a few miles and expect results. Seriously, though, it you really push yourself, you'll start feeling really good around the 3 mile mark. You have to try and not focus on the burn, though, that'll just make it take longer.

Data point: I'm in a university ROTC, go running several times a week with a large number of other cadets, and the numbers I gave seem to be around the consensus on getting the best feeling from running (though the speed is usually a bit quicker for the males).
posted by internet!Hannah at 2:53 PM on February 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another bit of clarification- the feeling should the same one you get when you've been dancing around like a maniac for a while. Fun, not torturous, although you might feel exhausted. I think the difference between feeling "high" and feeling tortured is being able to lose yourself in the activity, and relaxing at hard efforts is the key to this.
posted by stagewhisper at 3:07 PM on February 25, 2008

Side question inspired by stagewhisper: Could this have something to do with my breathing? I mean, the idea of "pushing through the burn" or whatever is totally foreign to me. I stop exercising not because it's physically uncomfortable but because I feel like I can't breathe deeply enough to get enough air not to pass out. From yoga, I know about diaphragmatic breathing. When I exercise, my breathing generally feels labored quite quickly (long before my body feels too tired to go on), but I just deal with it for as long as I can. I guess I've always just figured that a lot of people know it's time to stop because they feel like they can't breathe enough.

If it's relevant, I have somewhat killer allergies (that I'm on medication for) and anxiety problems that nearly always figure around the feeling of being unable to breathe.
posted by mostlymartha at 3:08 PM on February 25, 2008

I think it has to come from steady sustained aerobic exercise, not exercise that pushes into anaerobic.

I get it when I do two spin classes in a row. Once I did a three hour special event spin ride and I came off the bike practically euphoric, and the euphoria lasted awhile.
posted by konolia at 3:11 PM on February 25, 2008

Until last year around this time, I never ran more than three miles in my life (but I rode bikes a lot). I trained off and on for a 5 miler in March 07, and although my legs hurt like hell at the end of the race, I noticed that I felt pretty good, mentally.

This summer, I bought a Nike+ for my Ipod. Now I can listen to all manner of whatnot while I run, and feedback about my current speed and distance are a button press away. I decided to push past my old three-miler and started doing up to seven miles at a stretch. What I noticed was that what I thought was the end of my useable energy, at 3 miles, was just a temporary ebb. Once I pushed through that, I coudl get into a zone whereby I no longer had to pay strict attention to my form, my breathing, etc...and just *go*.

I've added morning swims to my exercise routine, and after sucking wind up to the 1000 yard mark, needing to catch my breath after every other lap, I'm able to just zone out, and swim up to 800 yards uninterrupted.

Point being, you might need to 1) not focus on the sweat, grime aspects - so you get dirty, sowaht? 2) push yourself into longer distances.
posted by notsnot at 3:15 PM on February 25, 2008

The Secret of the Runner's High: Even walking can get you "high" if you meet the two conditions.
posted by JaySunSee at 3:16 PM on February 25, 2008

I worked out regularly for five years, a whole variety of activities, and I only felt this way maybe twice from swimming. I never felt good during ,or after a workout, I never felt physically yucky if I skipped a workout. I never got in any zones (except a few times while swimming). I don't work out anymore and keep meaning to start again, but there's not much tempting about it.

My sister, on the other hand, is an exercise addict, and it's all based on how her workouts make her feel. She can't relate to my experience, and I envy hers!
posted by Squeak Attack at 3:19 PM on February 25, 2008

I ran cross country in High School for 4 years and only got this sensation once during a run alone on a Sunday. I've felt good or even great on occasion during runs, but this is much different; you would know it if happened to you. I didn't do anything differently that day but it was perfect weather for running (high 60s and misting). About 15 minutes in I felt great and gradually started running faster, and finally settled into about a 6:15 mile pace (a good :30- faster than my race pace). It lasted the rest of the time I was running (an hour maybe), I felt great afterwards, and I haven't had anything like it since.

You sound like you just want to feel good while you're working out though, which is different. Running for a high would be like golfing for a hole in one, at least for me.
posted by Kupo? at 3:24 PM on February 25, 2008

When I have got the "runner's high," I've never felt it was because I was working particularly hard or doing something different. I've just had the sensation very much like breaking through a wall--- I'll be in the second half of a long run, and then feel like I could easily go on much, much farther. The best "high" was one time when I suddenly had boundless energy and had the urge to not only keep running but jump over obstacles and whatnot. Up to that point it had been a not-so-great run.

I think, for me at least, it isn't any one thing you can do to be sure to get it. It is such a combination of things that it is pretty hard to force into happening.

That said, it is pretty rare. I had been running for a while before that first time (which was the best time).
posted by synecdoche at 3:35 PM on February 25, 2008

I get a pretty nice runner's higher if I run continuously for a minimum of 90 minutes. The great buzz part starts after I stop, and only lasts for two or three minutes, though.
posted by J-Train at 3:43 PM on February 25, 2008

I am a pretty dedicated runner - currently averaging about 50 miles a week.

I have felt a runner's high several times: They seem to occur for me after 45-60 minutes of continuous running. As others have described, you get a feeling like you could just keep running forever and that it takes no effort to move over the ground.

While I've only felt that a couple of times during my runs I more consistently feel a weird sort of Zen during my long runs. I'm talking about running for more than three hours at a time. After about an hour or 90 minutes it will no longer be such an intense mental and physical struggle to keep going. My body just seems to know what it needs to do and I'm in a place mentally that is neither euphoric nor uncomfortable...my mind is a bit quieter and seems to tune out some of the usual racket that's goes on inside my brain most of the day.

It's good medicine. Some people do yoga, some people meditate. I run.

Also, nothing compares with the rush of completing a marathon - now that's an experience that's as intense as an orgasm.
posted by heatherbeth at 3:59 PM on February 25, 2008

I mean this not as snark:

Have you tried getting high before you run, and seeing how much you can deepen it?
posted by Netzapper at 3:59 PM on February 25, 2008

It doesn't sound like you exercise frequently enough. I used to start biking every day in April and was obsessed with mileage by June, but I never began to feel that feeling until August or so.

The feeling is subtle, too, ..or more subtle than the hype-word "high" might lead you to believe. I suspect a lot of it is just the relief of doing what your body has come to expect as routine.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 4:47 PM on February 25, 2008

When I jog, I pretty much consistently get euphoric and expansive at some point. I do 2-3 miles four times a week, so I'm not sure what the difference is. Maybe it's just a matter of biochemistry. I also start sobbing during tv shows and sometimes reading mefi(!) so it's not always a good thing.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:11 PM on February 25, 2008

JaySunSee: That explains deep hacks, for sure, which as far as I've been able to ascertain (from talking to hackers who are atheletes in their spare time) is just about identical to "runner's high". Except you can do it for 12 hours at a stretch.
posted by ysabet at 5:16 PM on February 25, 2008

HA. I hate every second of the actual running, but afterward, the sense of psychological uplift and accomplishment and pride and I suppose adrenaline is the high for me, and what keeps me doing it. After a while of running regularly it has a more general psychological benefit for me as well.
posted by loiseau at 6:14 PM on February 25, 2008

I've felt good or even great on occasion during runs, but this is much different; you would know it if happened to you.

Yes, definitely. I've had lots of good surges of energy while running, but the runners high experience stands apart. It was my first run longer than 30 minutes after years of being sedentary. I don't know if that was what made it happen, but it was fantastic. A complete body buzz and sensation I could have run forever.
posted by Adam_S at 7:03 PM on February 25, 2008

For me, the runner's high comes only when I stretch myself into an uncomfortable area just beyond what I can quite do.

I push past the shaky muscles, sweaty skin, and fatigue. (Just a little further... just 5 more minutes and I can stop... harder, keep going... now 5 more minutes...) And just when I feel like I have nothing left to give and am about to die, something switches. The endorphins kick in and it feels like Super Mario on Starman, leaping and flying off the screen. Serenity and euphoria bloom inside and you gain a heightened awareness of body as a well-oiled, perpetual machine. Sounds totally cliche but it's true!

I first "learned" what it takes to achieve a runner's high on my first 10-mile race in high school cross country. Have had it happen once or twice during long, especially intense tennis practice sessions. And a few times while running or swimming now in my late-20s. The rest of the time I experience the more subtle Zen-like state that heatherbeth mentions and sometimes nothing at all.

/Not an athlete, and totally out of shape right now
posted by QueSeraSera at 7:10 PM on February 25, 2008

Oh, and I find that there's a mental element involved as well. Actively working hard toward a goal that's difficult to achieve (X miles in X minutes, finish in 3rd place, maintain a full sprint for the next X stoplights, etc) vs. simply exercising to your limits seems to be the difference between "high" and "Zen surge" for me.
posted by QueSeraSera at 7:21 PM on February 25, 2008

I think I will regret it , mostlymartha, if I do not point out something that I learned from Asimov's "Guide to Shakespeare" years ago. O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? does not mean where are you, Romeo?

Sorry, I know not much of runner's high. :)
posted by kryptos at 7:48 PM on February 25, 2008

I don't get runner's high but I definitely get mountain-biker's high. It sounds to me like you are not properly fed and watered and are attempting to go beyond your conditioning. Pushing yourself beyond the limit won't make you feel high, it'll make you feel dreadful. You get the high when you go close to the limit and stay there as long as you can. For me that's about 2 hours of aerobic.

Most young people (I count you as young) go way too hard way too fast. Notch it back and keep going.
posted by unSane at 10:32 PM on February 25, 2008

I only get it occasionally, but I would divide it into two different types:

During long, sustained session of exercise when I'm pretty fit I occasionally get the meditative, 'zone out' kind of high while I'm actually exercising. There's also a mental aspect to achieving this - I'm more likely to slip into it if I e.g. fix my eyes on a point ahead of me and focus on it, rather than actively taking in the view, thinking about my day etc. This is not necessarily a high in the sense of feeling "Yippee, life is great!" - more of an absence of conscious thought, just awareness of me and my breathing/movement and a sense of physical efficiency.

If I suddenly step up my level of exercise - run for the first time after a period of not exercising, or do sprints/hill runs for the first time in a long time, the run itself can feel like a real struggle, but I might get a 'Bing!' high when I stop running. This is a more obvious one - a sense of great wellbeing and relaxation which can last for the rest of the day and sometimes into the next. I'll sometimes go back to think about things that were worrying me intensely an hour before and think "Heh, why was I worried about that? That's not a problem", and everything seems possible.
posted by penguin pie at 3:51 AM on February 26, 2008

Maybe you should stop working out, as I currently get an endorphin rush from as little as ten minutes of aerobic activity. But this is not the same as "being in the zone", which takes about 15 minutes to get into. And in the first case, I don't get the endorphin rush till after I've stripped off my clothing and rested my sweaty ass for a few minutes. Drinking pineapple juice before exercising also helps, for some weird reason. Maybe it's the sugar.

(Also, I have trouble breathing at the moment but it's more cos I'm out of shape, although allergies are also a factor. I can't run outside in warm months, and as for swimming, even at my most-in-shape, no way. Even when I was running 12 miles a week, I didn't do anything special for breathing, except go slowly.)
posted by herbaliser at 10:32 AM on February 26, 2008

Like Kupo?, I ran nearly everyday from the time I was age 10 into college, and experienced runner's high all of one time. It was so remarkable I remember it with pride - nothing hurt, I was strong and could have gone on for hours.

Later in life I saw a Naturopath and had a blood test for food allergies. After removing the problematic foods, I was able to begin an aerobic program and hit the runner's high every damn time, unless I'd had dairy, wheat, or eggs the day before.
posted by Feisty at 11:19 AM on February 26, 2008

I get satisfaction from jogging, but I never have a post-coital high.

Intense, 30-sec sprints, on the other hand, especially the first couple, do make me feel what might be the runner's high.
posted by muzzlecough at 11:46 AM on February 26, 2008

I don't get runner's high unless I'm in very, very good shape. This means lots and lots of workouts that are absolutely horrible. Races helped a lot, since they made me keep going after I would have stopped.

To answer your second question anectodally, I don't remember ever having to stop because of breathing. I didn't even think about it after I'd found a good rhythm (at the beginning of a run, in for 4 steps and out for 3). Are you trying to force diaphragmatic breathing? Maybe letting your body do its natural thing would help. It is probably already trained to breathe pretty well on its own.

I have asthma, and sometimes that affects my breathing. It feels like my chest/lungs aren't big enough to take in the air I need, or like I can't take a deep enough breath. It's worse on muggy, "air advisory" days.

Do you think you would actually pass out if you kept going after breathing became uncomfortable? What happens if you take a short break or slow down and start again?
posted by ramenopres at 3:21 PM on February 26, 2008

I've been doing endurance activities more than an hour a day, six days a week for more than a decade. Primarily running, but also mountain biking, triathlon (road biking, swimming), cross-country skiing and canoeing. I've competed in everything from sprint to marathon distances in each of the sports.

There are a number of different feelings that I find you can get:

Shortness of breath - easy to get this in swimming
The adrenaline rush/being "pumped"

Lactic burn - 400m sprints are ideal for this - your legs don't obey you anymore

The Zone - After about two weeks to a month of near-daily training in any sport, your body adapts, and you can go forever, you don't really have to think about what you're doing - it's as if you have two brains. It's kind of like driving or playing an instrument, except that your body has evolved to do it and is just expressing a different part of you through its action. Throw in some nice trails and scenery, and this is a guaranteed feel-great for me every time, in every endurance sport.

The next step up after that is the "spinning" feeling. It's called this because it's easiest to get to on the road bike - you go fast, but you don't feel like the chain is attached to anything. I've felt it running ("floating") and x-c skate skiing ("glide/flow"). This will happen maybe once every twenty outings for me - it seems to have to do with recovery from training period overload.

There's a crazy feeling after you stop after a 2+ hour run - kind of similar to what happens after taking off a heavy backpack after a long hike - you feel like you're floating. It also feels really weird to not be moving the way you had been for so long - so normal movement feels alien.

The wall or bonking - the marathon is a weird distance, but it is what it is because for many people, when you really push and race it, you will hit the wall, or at least flirt with it. This is your body being running out of glycogen and other forms of carbohydrate which it uses to burn fat. Your body can't produce energy anywhere near as fast, has to resort to dire alternatives, and what's worse, there's no energy for your brain either. The wall epitomizes feeling bad, but you did it to yourself, and you are capable of overcoming it. If you've ever seen that video of Welch and Ingraham crawling to the finish, they're hitting the wall hard. An IronMan triathlon is a back-to-back-to-back marathon in all three sports.

What I think people are talking about when they talk about runner's euphoria happened to me once while I was doing a half-ironman - I knew I was going to bonk, so I backed off and got food and water at a feed station, and about twenty minutes later I saw something funny and laughed hysterically for the next km.


So my advice: shoot for the zone. Dancing is totally different from running - they may call some dance "aerobics", but it's really an inconsistently anaerobic activity, so it's totally unrelated to your goal.

The goal is to get up to 45 minutes, at least five days a week in an endurance sport. Don't go all out right away, or you'll get injured. Listen to your body.
Most people go too fast to get aerobic benefit, and end up putting in tons of effort, only to totally sabotage themselves. Get a heart rate monitor, and learn how to use it. Start by trying to keep it at (220-[your age]) * 0.75 beats per minute.
I would recommend against swimming although you can feel great, it's notoriously brutal to get good enough to feel good, and it's not really aerobic until you get good. The easiest way is to road bike or mountain bike, esp. if you have knee troubles.
It's better if you can either train alone or have a big group - a single training partner usually isn't consistent/convenient enough for almost-every-day training. Having a goal will really help focus you.

As for the sweaty skin, I also have trouble with that, as my skin is already oily, but I always shower immediately after I finish (and stretch) and I don't have any troubles.

Over time, you will have to increase the amount you eat, and the amount you sleep. I find a minimum of 8 hours of sleep is necessary while training steadily, otherwise you feel like garbage, and your training will be wasted.
posted by metalfilter at 10:16 PM on March 5, 2008

There was an article in yesterday's New York Times regarding the endorphins that cause "runners' high". It sounds as though more research needs to be done before anyone can actually answer your question, since they are only beginning to investigate if the positive mental effects of exercise vary person to person, and whether some people don't experience the endorphin bath.
But, take heart, they're on it! Here's another article about the same study, as published on an Australian website.
posted by stagewhisper at 7:52 AM on March 28, 2008

« Older First visit to DF   |   Salsa. Lets make it. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.