The runner’s high is a welcome side-effect of endurance training. A fleeting reward for prolonged activities in the moderate intensity zone. But the runner’s high shouldn’t be the arbiter around which you plan your training week.
“Feeling good in the moment is NOT a great reference point for effective, healthy training.”
The real goal of running is long-term health and performance benefits. And that doesn’t exactly align with how you feel during or after a particular run.
What Is a Runner’s High?
As distance runners, we all have experienced the euphoria during or immediately after a run to some degree. A sense of relaxation with heightened clarity. The runner’s high is a mood booster. Even books on the subject – such as “Running Is My Therapy” by Scott Douglas – have been written that underscore the mental benefits of running.
A cocktail of endorphins certainly plays a role in the pleasant effects of the runner’s high. But German researchers have found that endocannabinoids are the primary reason for the ecstatic mood that lingers after some runs. As you can tell from its name, it induces similar feelings to cannabis. There you have it, a great story to motivate friends to join the running community.
From an evolutionary perspective, this reward system probably kept our ancestors going (running) in the pursuit of food and escaping (again running) from dangerous situations. We are their descendants, and although we don’t run for survival anymore, we inherited our ancestors’ brain circuits.
Workouts That Lead to a Runner’s High
The runner’s high is not confined to running – despite the name suggesting otherwise. The runner’s high is a feature of all endurance sports, such as swimming, cycling, rowing, and Nordic skiing. At this time of writing – with a sprained ankle of 2 torn ligaments – I’m glad alternatives to running exist. I would be an intolerable person to be around otherwise.
Back to running. The type of workout most associated with triggering the runner’s high is the tempo run. In other words, a moderate effort for a prolonged time. That is upper zone 2 training and zone 3 training, ranging from the aerobic threshold to the anaerobic threshold. Your heart rate would likely be between 145 and 165 bpm if you are in your 30s.
The runner’s high is also expected during long runs of 90 to 120min in duration. It is not an exact science, of course. The degree to which you feel a significant mood boost depends on your training level and other factors. But unless you run yourself into the ground, expect to feel good after a long run.
Why Your Feelings Should Be Secondary
But before you restructure your training week to exclusively feature tempo and long runs, hear me out. Running based on how you feel during or after a run should not guide your decisions on how to structure your training week.
Would you go to the supermarket and shop for your week’s groceries based on your feelings? I hope not. You would likely skip the veggies section and end up with cakes, chocolate, and ice cream in your basket instead. Choices that are based on immediate gratification rather than mid-term and long-term benefits. But no, as an endurance athlete, you have disciplined yourself to make food choices that align with your health – most of the time.
By the same token, you shouldn’t approach your training with a runner’s high in mind, as propagated in countless articles in popular magazines. Your running training serves a higher purpose than just feeling good in the moment. You aspire to build a robust, healthy, high-performance body. Rather than an ‘addict’, you should see yourself as a disciplined athlete, well-conditioned physically and mentally to withstand the demands of a busy workweek and to tackle new personal records at running events.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no intention of being the party killer. By all means, enjoy your running. But be purpose-driven rather than a hedonist. The ancient Greeks would agree. Therefore, I dedicate the second part of this article to how you can enjoy running more and achieve your goals simultaneously.
The Calm of Easy Runs
If you follow a sensible training schedule, about 80 percent of your running happens at an easy pace. And this is where most amateur runners make the fundamental mistake of running easy runs too fast. It feels better (the runner’s high again), leaving the impression that you’re doing good work toward improving your fitness. But the short answer is: you’re sabotaging your training! You’ve got to run really easy on easy days so that you can go hard on the days when it really matters.
If you are under-challenged, extend the duration of your easy runs rather than increasing the intensity. You will eventually get faster at the same heart rate with proper training because of increasing fitness. So throw out the earphones that push you off the appropriate pace. You should never run a workout faster just because you can. Save your heroic efforts for race days.
Instead, embrace the calming nature of your easy runs. If you run with a partner of similar ability, you should be able to hold an effortless conversation. If you run alone, let your mind wander to reflect on the things you’re not in the headspace for at other times of the day. You could even meditate during your easy runs by focusing on the sensation of your breathing and movement. Pay attention to your surroundings without interpreting anything.
In short, you should feel invigorated after easy runs rather than exhausted. You may not experience the same ‘high’ as during tempo runs (or easy runs run too fast), but overall, you will feel, sleep, and perform better.
The Thrill of Intervals
The other intensity ranges that fall out of line with the runner’s high are VO2max intervals and speed repetitions. Stress hormones ramp up quickly, and you will feel anything but a cannabis-like bliss. If you seek pleasure during these workouts, you are either sadomasochistic and/or like a good adrenaline-induced thrill.
I personally love VO2max and speedwork. Those workouts put the mind on high alert, like in a fight or flight situation. There are not many mental resources left to let the mind wander. All mental faculties are focused on the task at hand. A sort of active meditation, if you will. Try to plan your weekend while on a VO2max interval next time. I bet you can’t.
I used to run a lot of intervals and repetitions at the National Stadium track in Bangkok. After the cool-down, we lay on the grass of the adjacent soccer pitch stargazing for minutes; such was the high we experienced. Not exactly the calming nature of the runner’s high but the lingering kick of a fully activated nervous system. I would ride my bike home like a maniac, as if the police were chasing me. Such was the impact of heightened alertness.
Let science-based, purpose-driven workouts guide your training week. This requires forward thinking and properly set up training zones. You will always like some workouts better than others, but that shouldn’t stop you from following through. The result will be a healthy, high-performance body you can frequently test for progress in running events. That’s where the real fun is.
That doesn’t mean you should never listen to your body or can’t deviate from the training plan occasionally. Sometimes you don’t feel ready for a certain workout. (Although I always recommend you start the workout as planned before you decide to change or abandon it.) And there are occasions where you want to run comfortably hard to feel your best at a social event afterward.
But instead of making the pursuit of the runner’s high your default mode, embrace the variety of workouts in a structured training plan . Typically, 2 workouts a week fit the bill for the runner’s high, 2 – 3 runs are easy with the meditative qualities I described, and if you are one of the few, you’ll even come to love the thrill of VO2max and speed workouts.