Is it real? How do you get it? New research answers all your questions

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
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Ranked right up there with the Loch Ness Monster and Shangri-La, the "runner's high" is one of the most elusive yet sought-after myths in modern lore. But is it a real biochemical response or just marathoners trying to justify spending their entire Saturday running? The anecdotal evidence is mixed: For people who get a runner's high, it's not only real but amazing; but for those who've never experienced the high, it can seem like a whole lot of hooey. A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology takes a closer look at the runner's high-and the results are very interesting!

The Real Deal

A team of researchers led by David A. Raichlen, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, measured endocannabinoids (a brain chemical that indicates increased pleasure) in humans, dogs, and ferrets before and after a treadmill session. According to the results, humans and dogs both experienced a significant increase in endocannabinoids after high-intensity endurance running. Ferrets did not experience the same exercise-induced increase. Here's why: Unlike humans and dogs, ferrets as a species are not adapted to run, especially at high speeds or for long distances. The researchers conclude that the neurobiological "reward" for endurance exercise may explain why humans (and similar mammals) continue to engage in aerobic exercise despite the extra work (energy) and injury risks.

Who Can Get a Runner's High

Unless you're ferret (or similar mammal), you can get a runner's high. You just might not feel it right away. While all humans have the same brain chemicals, the researchers say there is a tipping point for achieving the pleasure response. That point has everything to do with the intensity of your exercise.

"Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to this sort of rewarding sensation," Raichlen says. But he is confident "that inactive individuals can be helped to build up their exercise tolerance until they cross the threshold where they become motivated to exercise by endocannabinoids."

How to Train to Get a Runner's High

Two factors influence the release of the endocannabinoids: intensity and duration. Most people need to run a minimum of 20 minutes before they start to feel the benefits. If extending your run alone isn't helping you achieve a high, try increasing the intensity of your run by mixing in short sprints or tempo runs.

This is great news for people who want to love running but haven't been able to make it happen. We just have one last question: How exactly do they make ferrets run on treadmills? Are there teeny tiny ferret treadmills? Do they tie them on? Do the ferrets complain about the TV only showing CNN too? Seriously, we want to know!

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