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July 16, 2009

On The Run: In search of the elusive runner's high

On The Run

Jay Kumar

There are many benefits to running, both physical and mental. People have their own reasons for running, whether it's simply to stay fit, to clear their minds after a tough day at the office or to lose weight.

Another benefit that has been oft-discussed over the years is the runner's high, that elusive state of euphoria that some runners say they feel during or after a run. But does the runner's high truly exist or is it simply a mythical state created to sell running shoes?

The long-held theory was that intense exercise releases mood-altering chemicals called endorphins into the brain, resulting in the so-called high. But the theory remained just that until 2008, when German researchers were able to conclusively prove that running does cause the release of endorphins. The more endorphins a runner produces, the greater the effect.

According to the New York Times, researchers led by Dr. Henning Boecker of the University of Bonn used positron emission tomography (PET) scans and chemicals that reveal endorphins in the brain to compare runners' brains before and after a long run. Ten distance runners were recruited for the study but were not told that the researchers were looking at endorphin release and runner's high.

The runners were given PET scans before and after a two-hour run, as well as a standard psychological test to indicate their moods before and after the run. The study found that endorphins were produced during running and were attaching themselves to brain areas associated with emotions, specifically the limbic and prefrontal areas. Boecker told the Times that those areas are also activated when people are in love or when they hear a piece of music that causes euphoria.

All of this is well and good, but do you feel euphoric during or after your runs? I can't honestly say that I do. Some runs leave me feeling better or happier than others, depending on how well the run went. I definitely feel better about life in general after I complete a run, but I'm not sure I would characterize that as the same way I feel when the Patriots won the Super Bowl.

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