It used to be easy, this whole “runner’s high” thing. We’re decades beyond the 1970’s and ‘80’s when well meaning smokers chortled, “ I couldn’t run that far if you put a gun to my head, or a beer at the end!” and you had to describe to Aunt Mertyl just exactly why you were zipping up a windbreaker to go run 10 miles in the rain. You couldn’t say, “ Because when I get done I alternately feel numb and powerful at the same time.” (Poor Aunt Mertyl never felt powerful a day in her life) So you fell back on, “I like the runner’s high.” After all, Donohue had done a program on it, you could read about it in the paper’s, we all knew that the endorphins were taking good care of making you feel great, run after run.
However, once again, science comes along and takes the easy part and makes it hard again. Endorphins are composed of relatively large molecules, “which are unable to pass the blood-brain barrier,” said Matthew Hill, a postdoctoral fellow at
In an experiment in 2003, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that 50 minutes of hard running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bicycle significantly increased blood levels of endocannabinoid molecules in a group of college students. The endocannabinoid system was first mapped some years before that, when scientists set out to determine just how cannabis, a k a marijuana, acts upon the body. They found that a widespread group of receptors, clustered in the brain but also found elsewhere in the body, allow the active ingredient in marijuana to bind to the nervous system and set off reactions that reduce pain and anxiety and produce a floaty, free-form sense of well-being. Even more intriguing, the researchers found that with the right stimuli, the body creates its own cannabinoids (the endocannabinoids). These cannabinoids are composed of molecules known as lipids, which are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier, so cannabinoids found in the blood after exercise could be affecting the brain.
Psychologists coined the term “positive addiction” back in the 1970’s for those patients who they tried to get off of drugs and alcohol by replacing that behavior with exercise. Surprise, those same people became addicted to the “runner’s high”, in ways that were occasionally as destructive as their prior behavior. Whether some of this had to do with the basic personality traits of the individuals involved is up to debate. “Positive addiction” is about as good a term to describe runners as any you will ever find.
What isn’t open to debate is how amazing we know that a good hard workout makes you feel. The description of that has taken up reams of paper and edged into plenty of bad poetry quite often, because there are some things that are just really damn hard to describe in words. I would make the case that the whole point of the “runner’s high” is anti-words, anti-linear. You are more present in your body at that time, and more out of it than at almost any other time. You shouldn’t be able to put it all into words, it should make you feel more. We spend a lot of time in the 21st Century over thinking things anyway.
It appears that we can let the endocannabinoid system suffice for now, or at least until science decides to make a few more stride some years from now and we find out that THAT isn’t the actual reason. By then, most of us will have even more miles under our belt and hopefully even more reasons to enjoy our runner’s high, even if we can’t pronounce endocannabinoid.