I was in the middle of an all-out sprint on a treadmill at Barry’s Bootcamp recently, when an N’Sync song came on (“Dirty Pop,” if you were wondering). I was keeping pace at a really high speed, when I swear I had an experience that I can only describe as a “brain orgasm.” Now, it’s not necessarily what happens to your brain during an orgasm, but I can’t think of a better term for the pure bliss that washed over me.
I felt so incredibly happy, which I thought was kind of weird considering how challenging the sprint was (it was on an incline, and I had grown pretty exhausted by that point). I could barely breathe, and yet I felt the full-on warm and fuzzies. I think I even smiled (WTF). It’s happened before, too, and it always strikes me as odd—because it only really occurs at precise moments when you’re really beat down but also killing it. To learn more about this—so that I could crack the code to having them on demand (I repeat: orgasm)—I had to consult the pros.
Apparently, what I was experiencing was a good old fashioned runner’s high. “Runner’s high is the euphoric chemical rush of happiness one will experience after engaging in exercise after a specific period of time,” says Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, CMPC, a certified mental performance consultant and E-board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “It fluctuates over how many minutes in duration one must exercise until they feel that ‘rush’ of excitement and awesomeness. In a way, it’s your body signaling through the pain to push beyond the discomfort zone and have you continue to enjoy the process involved with hard work and exercise.”
“It’s your body signaling through the pain to push beyond the discomfort zone and have you continue to enjoy the process of pain involved with hard work and exercise.” —Dr. Hillary Cauthen
It takes hard to work to get to that euphoric point, but it can happen. “I’m sure at this point a lot of people chalk it up to a myth,” says Josh Cox, personal trainer with Anytime Fitness. “It’s understandable, though, given that it takes some focused, dedicated training to reach that euphoric mountain top. And even then, you’re not guaranteed to hit it whenever you want.” That’s because your body’s finicky AF.
What’s really happening during a runner’s high
A concoction of chemical reactions occur when you’re slaying a run or a high-intensity workout. “Your body experiences a runner’s high through the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids,” says Cox. A refresher on endorphins: “They’re the chemicals released by the body in response to physical discomfort,” he explains. Fun fact—according to him, they’re almost identical to morphine in every way, “only they don’t come out to play for just anything,” he says. You’ve gotta work hard.
“The reason we experience the high is due to the increase in our positive emotions,” adds Dr. Cauthen. “It was believed for a significant time that high-produced amounts of endorphins caused this runner’s high, but more recently, it’s been attributed to endocannabinoids—which are smaller molecules that have an impact on how we feel, move, and respond.” (Yep, it’s that same system that you hear about with CBD and THC.)
On top of these feel-good chemicals, Dr. Cauthen adds that you’ll also probably feel an uptick in serotonin and dopamine. “Running and finding enjoyment in the exercise will release chemicals like serotonin and dopamine that trigger our reward system and make us feel an increase in happiness,” she says.
How to feel that rush
As good as this brain orgasm-slash-runner’s high sounds, you can’t just lace up and expect to feel it in one shot. It’s very particular. “Runners experience this high the most as they’re more-often-than-not exercising in longer duration, so their body will have time to produce this chemical release,” says Dr. Cauthen. “Another avenue to help aid in the enjoyment and experience the sensation is practicing mindfulness engagement while exercising—focusing on the process of the movement and finding the joy in the activity and your surroundings. This can help facilitate the release of our happy chemicals and engage the reward system in the brain.”
If you’re thinking… but running for an hour straight is so not my jam, I feel you. Another component of feeling this euphoria is hard work and pushing yourself past your so-called limits—but also, not pushing too hard. “If you exert yourself too hard or are out of practice, you override the endorphin trigger as your body ‘redlines’ everywhere else,” says Cox. “Don’t push yourself hard enough, and your body deems your training unworthy of that feel-good juice.”
The sweet spot? Aim for a certain heart rate: “About 70 to 85 percent of your age-appropriate maximum heart rate seems to be the gold standard when it comes to how hard you should push yourself,” he says. “The other important component is being able to maintain that pace for one to two hours. Mix those together and you’ll be in business.” (I won’t be running for a full hour each time, like I said, and the “brain orgasms” I’ve felt have been after under an hour of work, if that makes you feel better.)
Also, cue the music. You’re way more likely to feel the euphoria when a song like N’Sync’s “Dirty Pop” is playing. (Or something else amazing that you love.) “Music’s a great motivator, and linked to [improvement of] one’s running performance,” says Dr. Cauthen. “It can provide an emotional boost and has been shown to improve focus, enjoyment, and work efforts. Listening to music that boosts your mood, tempo, and heart rate will push you to work hard and longer, linking to the runner’s high benefit.”
BTW—even though it’s called a runner’s high, it doesn’t only happen when you’re running. “Essentially, you’re dealing with body manipulation via science which bodes well for non-runners—that sweet euphoria is reached when you train your body to hold an exerted heart rate for a prolonged period of time,” says Cox. “This can be achieved through HIIT or circuit workouts, biking, swimming, or any other form of movement that meets the heart rate and time criteria.”
Just don’t expect it to come that easily, whichever way you go. It’s kinda like an orgasm, after all (!!!). “Do I get a runner’s high every time I run? Not even close,” says Cox. “It delightfully forces me to keep running, knowing that my next runner’s high is right around the corner.” Excuse me while I go blast my favorite ’90s boy band while on the treadmill.
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