At mile seven with sweat dripping and lungs full of fire, euphoria hits. A rush of triumph and strength alongside a dose of warm satisfaction. That moment of elation is a runner’s high—and buddy, you gotta earn it.
That rush, to those of us that last ran a mile in P.E. class, is the body’s own reward center releasing ‘feel good’ chemicals. It’s similar to the effect of high-quality cannabis and just as hard to describe. Runners have said it’s like running on a cloud, or a feeling of connectedness with the world around them. Any way you slice it, they’re all describing that feeling of calm satisfaction you get from pounding the pavement or pedaling up the side of a mountain.
It turns out that what we call an endorphin rush is perhaps not actually caused by endorphins. Scientists recognized elevated levels of these compounds in the bloodstream of distance runners in the ‘80s, and it made sense to declare that they were the root of the buzz. Further studies showed that endorphins, while present, were too big and clumsy to fit through the blood-brain barrier, and the jolt of satisfaction was much more likely a collection of endocannabinoids, released as a sort of reward for getting out of the house and kicking some ass. The molecules we’ve been blaming for keeping us locked to the couch all these years in fact rely on the same system endurance runners tap into for that extra stamina boost.
Endocannabinoids are similar to the cannabinoids found in the plant we know and love, but they are produced by our bodies. Studies have shown these systems light up when we exercise vigorously or eat a decadent dessert, likely making them a reward system for actions that help keep us alive. Okay, chocolate cake isn’t a necessity, but I’m not complaining about the cake—or the mild rush you get from eating a slice. By lighting up our pleasure center, the brain reinforces these activities. We can use knowledge of this reward system to our advantage by munching on a piece of chocolate after a long run, or relaxing with a joint after the gym.
Like most pleasurable pastimes, the runner’s high needs you to increase your racing distance or intensity to achieve the same euphoric results, so get out there and run an ultramarathon or two and enjoy the bliss and the blisters. Alternatively, considering how elastic we know the endocannabinoid system to be, it’s a safe bet that spending a month with your feet in a hammock is a good way to reset your system back to zero. (Though it’s probably a better idea to ride the euphoric wave of smashing your personal bests and getting another well-earned rush of feel good chemicals!)
We know it’s not actually endorphins that are responsible for the runner’s high, but likely our own endocannabinoids doing the heavy euphoric lifting. So it begs the question, “Could cannabis play a part in inducing that running-on-a-cloud moment?” Possibly! The entourage effect and synergistic nature of cannabis includes terpenes like Myrcene, which can encourage cannabinoids from any source to pass through the blood-brain barrier. Toking up before a run could reinforce the natural ‘bonuses’ you get from running on the trail.
Think about the true nature of the runner’s high the next time you face an endurance challenge. Sure, lighting up some especially potent Durban Poison might make the run more bearable, but push through that side ache and true euphoria is just a mile or two up the road! And it’s available right now. You’re done reading this article, so go on, lace those tennis shoes up and get started!
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