Christopher White looks at whether “runner’s high” is real or just a gimmick from the era of lava lamps and moon rocks.
Running, as a rule, comes with a built-in fad detector: performance.
New training methods come. And if they don’t produce measurable, well-sampled, and repeatable results (faster times, improved fitness indicators, healthy weight loss, etc.), they’re best remembered for the perfect arc they describe going into the recycle bin. Equipment and apparel trends come (don’t our wallets know it). And as long as those trends aren’t linked to a measurable injury uptick, they hang around until the next promising—or uber cool—innovation comes down the pike. But this isn’t to say that running is a science. Not hardly. With running, as with every sphere of human endeavor, a colorful mythology attends its history, culture, and cast of characters. Running has its heroes (e.g., Steve Prefontaine, Paula Radcliffe, and Ryan Hall); anti-heroes (Rosie Ruiz and chafing); battles (the duel in the sun and Prefontaine vs. Lasse Virén; pilgrimages (the Boston Marathon); and quests (records, PRs, and the besting of a rival). And what would a mythology be without its magic? For running, that magic is the hallowed runner’s high.
“Runner’s high?” you may scoff. If you’re feeling forsaken, you’re far from alone. Though some veteran runners seem to experience them as regularly as untied shoelaces, others will tell you (often disappointedly) that there’s just no such thing as a runner’s high. (The author has experienced one in 14 years of running. Then again, it could’ve just been his Venti Americano really kicking in.)
It is, I think, significant that the running movement, with its purported high, caught fire at roughly the same time the recreational use of psychoactive drugs (e.g., cannabis) was being glorified in popular music and on the drive-in movie screen. Running became just one of several paths to a high in the 70s. One could get high on marijuana, peyote buttons, nature, meditation or life. Or one could get high on endorphins, so the thinking went. Endorphins could be synthesized within the body, and thus could be indulged in without risking possession charges, hitchhiking to the desert, or hooking up with a guru in the days before Google.
Whether you were Forrest Gump, Jenny or John Denver, high was the thing to get in the 70s, and as long as you were getting it, your ticket to the peace train was stamped. There was something idyllic about running in the Me decade: reading a few of the then-very-much-alive Jim Fixx’s pages (replete with pencil-sketched, blissful runners) for inspiration, saving one’s nickels for a Greyhound to Boulder or Eugene, slipping on a pair of shorts in which today’s streaker might feel self-conscious, hiking a pair of striped tube socks to one’s knees, clapping an elastic sweatband to one’s forehead to restrain a shock of lank bangs, lacing up a low-tech pair of sneakers, jogging to the strains of the animals and the birds, and getting home in time to sink into your bean-bag chair and catch that episode of In Search Of or Mork & Mindy. For the full-fledged culture maven, an out-of-body experience or UFO sighting might have been a welcome distraction in the fifth mile of a run.
The 70s left subsequent decades—eventually with the help of eBay—to pick through its good, its bad and its lava lamps. And it left runners with the Nike Swoosh and the runner’s high.
In our fourth decade of hindsight, what can we say about the runner’s high? Was it a physiological phenomenon brought to light in the decade bridging the Nixon and Carter administrations? Or was it the pipe dream of folks who wanted to prove that one didn’t have to sacrifice his sobriety to alter his consciousness? The fact that thousands of 70s runners sincerely reported experiencing a runner’s high proves very little when one considers the weight usually given to the equally sincere testimony of thousands claiming to have seen UFOs during the period.
Taking the cynical view, one might say the runner’s high was a marketing ploy for shoe manufacturers and apparel companies to entice high-seekers to the fledgling sport of recreational running. If marketers didn’t exactly invent the runner’s high, they were happy to latch onto and exaggerate its “high.” Anything seems possible for a decade that successfully fobbed the pet rock off on a glib public. What if nothing more than the power of suggestion is to blame for all incidental running highs experienced during and following the Prefontaine era?
At first scientific glance, the runner’s high seemed to hold about as much water as a moon rock. Early findings suggested that endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier to affect brain chemistry (as happens in the case of psychoactive drug use). Endorphin release, it was thought, relieved pain in joints and muscles while producing no brain high. Findings like these were enough to make a high runner come down faster than, well, Skylab! But wait. Did someone say endocannabinoids? As a matter of fact, Dr. Matthew Hill did (and I’ll bet even he had a hard time saying it). In 2003, Dr. Hill of Rockefeller University linked this vital player in the cannabis-brain connection to the runner’s high. It now looked as if both running and cannabis stimulated endocannabinoid activity in the brain, contributing to similar feelings of euphoria (and the munchies). While the connection was as yet imperfectly understood, Dr. Hill gave runners their best hope yet of escaping the mass-hallucination or wish-fulfillment rap. And as of 2008, new scientific studies began to put endorphins back in the party mix. But even if the endocannabinoid and endorphin leads turn out to be more smoke than substance, many runners will keep believing.
Because, as nearly as I can tell, it’s like Bob Dylan summed up in a 1966 ditty that previewed the 70s: “Everybody must get stoned.”
Keep on trucking, runners.
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