The Highs and Lows of Running

It wasn’t until l experienced the intense euphoric high after a run that I started exploring the sport. Until only a couple of years ago, I was writing off the “runner’s high” as a flood of endorphins. Turns out, this feeling was far more complex than I had originally thought. Based on research that came out in the 80’s, endorphins have long been believed to be the source of the “runner’s high”. Studies now show that these “happy chemicals” are too large to travel from the blood to the brain and likely not responsible for my post-workout tingles.

Enter cannabinoids: produced either naturally by cells in the human body or by ingesting a very stimulating plant. Regardless of the source, cannabinoids follow identical pathways that result in interactions with specific receptors of the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, which make up a system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system is threaded throughout our bodies and plays an extensive role in our physiological processes and maintaining homeostasis. While in its entirety, the list is almost too long, some of the major functions of ECS include regulation of energy levels, metabolic processes, joint health, insulin sensitivity, sleep, and psychoactivity. And that’s just the tip. It’s hard to believe how extensively involved cannabinoids are in relation to our cognitive and physical health. As a physical therapist and an ever-evolving adventure-seeking athlete, I wondered what kind of benefits I could unlock if this system were somehow enhanced or harnessed. How do the athletes under my care benefit from this system? Would controlling a system like this change my performance as an athlete?

It just so happens that two stimulators, or producers, of cannabinoids are exercise and marijuana use. Results include, but are not limited to, euphoria, sedation, pain reduction, anxiety reduction, enhanced sensory perception, altered perception of time, and feelings of well-being (also known as “FLOW”). While mental changes have been well-reported, the not-so-well-known physical alterations through ECS activation have also been related to movement refinement (Steiner et. al 1999) and adaptive responses, such as vasodilation and lung function (Hillard 2000, Calignano 2000). If we boil it all down, the high that we experience while running is practically identical to the high we experience after toking.

Conceivably, our body’s natural ability to mask pain and enter flow-states developed way back when our ancestors had to chase down dinner. According to anthropologists, in order to sustain speeds and distances to wear down prey achieving this high was an evolutionary function and essential for survival. Thankfully with Uber and Seamless at our disposal, running can just be about the fitness benefits or even just about the high. Research has suggested that triggering the ECS requires elevating stress levels with workouts that are challenging but not painful (Raichlen et. al 2013). Yes, there’s a difference. Consider performing at a moderate to hard effort level by staying around 70-85% of your age-adjusted max heart rate between zones 3 and 4. You can easily find a heart rate training zone calculator on the interweb. Or even better, use your inner GPS device and ditch the numbers. Train at a level that is out of your comfort zone but allows you to carry a choppy conversation with a friend.

The science behind the runner’s high has yet to be fully understood, and a lot has yet to be uncovered as we sift through emerging science of cannabinoids and cannabis-based treatments. My hope is that we not only pin down the sources of euphoria during movement and exercise, but also to unearth natural means of performance enhancement and injury recovery.

Written by David Jou of MOTIV NY 

Doctor of Physical Therapy – Columbia University, BS in Kinesiology – Penn State University, Functional Range Release, Functional Range Conditioning, USAW Level I Sports Performance Coach, Selective Functional Movement Assessment, Fascial Movement Taping I&II, Spinal Manipulation Institute I

Raichlen, D.A., Foster, A.D., Seillier, A., Giuffrida, A., Gerdeman, G.L. (2013) Exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling is modulated by intensity. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 113:869-875


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