Can You Hack Your Way to a Runner’s High? I Tried It — and Here’s How it Turned Out

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Am I going to throw up?

Should I do a cartwheel?

In the last month, I’ve been experimenting with my morning jogs, all in the name of achieving the elusive “runner’s high.” And it’s these two questions (yes, about vom and gymnastics) that have strangely proved most pivotal for me in determining if I’m happy with a run. After (or even during) a sprint, I ask myself: am I more likely to throw up or break out a spontaneous cartwheel right now? The scale is not scientific but, for me at least, it’s a good indicator of mood and equilibrium — a way of determining if I needed to let up, push harder, or keep vibing.

I perfected the puke-to-cartwheel spectrum as I tested various biohack-y ways to get as “high” as possible via the power of running. On the journey, I tried everything from chugging chocolate milk post-sprint to doing weird meditative vagus nerve exercises before my runs. I quite didn’t get Afroman or even James-Blunt-“You’re Beautiful”-level high, but my experiment did peak with the sudden, jovial urge to do the most poorly executed cartwheel in history on a gorgeous grassy knoll in Central Park. And really, what more could you want?

Below, I break down the best tactics to try if you too are in search of a runner’s high. But first: what is a runner’s high, even?

The Runner’s High: Fact or Fiction?

The term is extremely squishy. Scientists have researched the runner’s high, but aren’t 100 percent sure what’s happening in the body. However, there are some strong theories, which inspired me as I tried to create the conditions most conducive to a post-run high.

For years, researchers believed the runner’s high was brought on by a release of endorphins — pain-numbing brain chemicals that have been linked to a sense of euphoria — in the brain, explains Timothy Miller, MD, a sports medicine and orthopedic physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

However, in recent years, researchers have theorized that runner’s high may not be about endorphins. Instead, acute exercise may “activate” the body’s endocannabinoid system by boosting levels of endocannabinoids — compounds the body produces that have effects that are similar to, though weaker than, THC, according to a 2022 literature review in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.

Acute exercise may “activate” this system by boosting levels of endocannabinoids — compounds the body produces that have effects that are similar to, though weaker than, THC, according to a 2022 literature review in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.

However it happens in the body, not everyone can feel a runner’s high, and even among those who do, it doesn’t always happen consistently, explains Hilary Marusak, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine. Runner’s highs are also less likely in brand-new runners, according to Dr. Miller.

I’m a fairly regular runner, and in the past, I would occasionally feel a semi-euphoric glow, though I could never quite tell if it was an official “high” or I was just in the middle of really distracting, delicious daydream. I was determined to figure out the difference.

With all that in mind, my objective was clear. In my quest to see if I could induce a runner’s high, I created an (intense) spreadsheet where I tracked each protocol I tested, plus how I felt during and after each experimental run. Here’s how it went.

My Quest to Feel a Runner’s High — Every Time

What I Did: Running With a Killer Playlist

I figured I’d start my experiment by doing something I actually like to do: bop around to a bangin’ playlist. I found the hype-iest running songs I could, and ran to tunes like “Cruel Summer” by Taylor Swift, “Fire Burning” by Sean Kingston, and, yes, James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful.” (Yes, I’m a millennial…)

I eventually discovered that Spotify will curate playlists based on your listening preferences for whatever beat per minute (bpm) goal you’re trying to achieve if you just type “bpm” into the search bar (it’s like their daylist function). I looked at a Plos One study, which had some detailed information on which bpm you should run at based on your pace, but ultimately went with 150 bpm because it felt comfortable and I liked the songs.

How It Felt

Listening to good, new music is one of my favorite things about going on runs, so I found the playlists totally set the tone for my runs. For instance, I listened to Taylor Swift’s “The Bolter” (my fav on her new album) as I ruminated on my latest date. I picked up the pace and went even faster and further when “Choose Your Fighter” from the “Barbie” soundtrack came on my bpm playlist. Every song brought a diff vibe, including, sometimes an excited, happy feeling — though I’m not sure if it was the music or the run that did it.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

The playlists made a difference and brought up the vibes, whether I was having a good or bad run. I can’t say that I experienced runner’s high specifically thanks to the music, but the jams did make me feel more motivated and added fun and sparkle to even the worst runs. I give it an 8/10.

What I Did: Ran at Night

Although I’m not a natural morning person, over the years, I’ve somehow become a morning runner. I’ve realized that even if I don’t feel like pounding the pavement at first, generally, I just feel more focused and less crabby throughout the day if I get out there before I start work. This is true whether I do a baby run (under a mile) or go for longer.

I love my morning runs, but I wouldn’t say I consistently feel “high,” so I thought a night run was worth a shot.

I wasn’t really looking forward to postponing my run to the evening, but I made it happen. I timed it around 6 p.m., before the sun set, for safety reasons, and was off.

How It Felt

It was fine! I was glad to be out there, and I did feel better after than I did before (is that all a runner’s high really is?). But I think I would have had a better day overall if I’d gotten out there sooner. Still. It definitely perked up my day’s last quarter.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

5/10

What I Did: Run With People

I went on a 3.2 mile group run for a Nike event, where I ran into some friends and got to know some strangers. We all journeyed through Central Park, chatting about everything from Caitlin Clark to the weather.

How It Felt

I was a little nervous at first because sometimes I find it hard to socialize normally when I’m huffing and puffing. Plus, this was a big group with new people. However, it ended up being fun to chat with folks, and I somehow went faster and farther than I usually do without even realizing it. The power of a good conversation is wild.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

I gave the conversation a 10, and it was a great way to meet people and not notice distance or exertion. However, I didn’t get to ruminate and jam to my music, so I didn’t feel as high as I normally do afterwards. I give it a 5/10.

What I Did: Ate a Mid-Run Snack

I’d seen a lot of my more hard-core runner friends chomp down on energy chews and gels during runs to keep up their energy over the years. Although the tactic is more associated with fueling for longer runs than I was doing, I figured that more energy might equal a better run… ultimately leading to that sweet, sweet high. So, shortly after going out, I peeled open a packet and swallowed the glutenous gel.

How It Felt

Gross! I hated that goop and its texture. I was gagging in the middle of the Conservatory Garden in Central Park.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

I was in a pretty tired, sore, and low-energy mood when I first went out on my run, and I thought swallowing that awful goo would be the death of me at first. However, there is a chance it worked. By the end of the run, I felt much better and did have more energy — though I wouldn’t call it a runner’s high, per se. I think that gunk works, it just isn’t very pleasant. 4/10.

What I Did: Ran at Sunrise

At one point during my running experiment, I asked for suggestions on how to achieve a runner’s high via my Instagram story. Amid lots of jokes from my IG followers about trying cocaine or EPO (I did not!), one of my friends from the Upper East Side Run Club suggested “running all night (further than you thought you could, getting some good low moments) and then running through the sunrise,” which he described as “electric.”

While he made it sound appealing, I could think of 28,000 reasons not to run all night. Still, I liked the idea of starting my run early enough that I could catch the sunrise, so I gave it a shot.

How It Felt

Remember I said I liked the idea of this technique. In actuality, I put off this run until the very end of my experiment because getting up that early in the name of exercise is not my jam; I usually reserve my early mornings for deadlines and flights. But I finally forced myself to get up two hours early, at 5:30 a.m., before the 5:56 sunrise. The waking up part was awful, but the experience was… strangely, incredible.

I went further than I planned to, and it was nice feeling like I had the park mostly to myself (I expected it to be a little scary to be alone, but there were enough cars and runners to make safety feel like not a mega-concern). The butter-gold sunrise was gorgeous, and the vibes were immaculate.

Throughout the day, I also felt more creative and had more energy. I even took little dance breaks while I was heating up my coffee.

Can I truly become a sunrise runner? Probably not, but I’m now much more open to the idea of forcing myself out of bed before sunrise every now and again.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

I am shocked, but I’m giving it a 10/10. Definitely closer to cartwheel vibes than not.

What I Did: Speed Intervals

There are theories that more intense runs are more likely to trigger a high, and Dr. Miller recommended trying speed intervals — a key workout for those hoping to run faster — for my experiment.

He suggested sprinting for 50 to 100 meters, then slowing down for about a quarter of a mile in between each one before picking up the pace again.

However, I don’t have easy access to a track, so, rather than running on a treadmill to help count my meters, I ended up just picking up the pace during the first chorus of every song I listened to. I did this for about six songs.

How It Felt

Great! However, I quickly learned I preferred to sprint through the chorus of a song like “Holding Out For A Hero” more than I did “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Yes, these were all Glee covers, don’t judge me!

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

I was surprised how good I felt after this — I give it an 8/10.

What I Did: Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Our vagus nerve is our 10th cranial nerve — the longest and most complex in the body — and it’s related to our body’s stress and parasympathetic responses, essentially determining whether we’re in “fight or flight” or in “rest and digest” mode. A marathoner with a Medium blog, Outside, and Psychology Today all suggested that exercises that tap the parasympathetic properties of this nerve could reduce anxiety pre-race, and to contribute “to increased vagal tone and improved heart rate variability.”

So, I tried deep breathing (in for 4, hold for 4, out for 6, pause for 4, repeat), and then attempted to cradle the back of my skull and look to the left and right with my eyes for the count of 15 on each side. This was supposed to stimulate my vagal nerve and signal to my fight or flight system that I was not in danger.

How It Felt

It was strange — in a good way. The sky was very gray and I was in an oddly relaxed mood for someone sprinting down the sidewalk. I was slower on my run and taking it easy, but it was chill, in a good way.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

I wouldn’t call this run euphoric, but it came close to the relaxed vibes of an actual high. 7/10

What I Did: Pushed My Distance

Dr. Marusak said most runner’s high studies show that it takes about 30 to 45 minutes of running to affect the endocannabinoid system. So maybe running longer would be the ticket. (That said, this could be because most studies include runs that are mostly around that length.)

Although I have run two marathons in the past, in the last several years, I’ve been in my short run era, sticking to between one and two miles a day, more for mental health purposes than anything else. So, I decided to push myself and go a little over five miles in the park, one beautiful spring morning.

How It Felt

I was a little nervous about this one as I hadn’t run that far in a while, but the extra distance came with one of the best runner’s highs I’d had in years. I had enough time to really process my feelings and ruminate (one of my favorite running activities), and it made me want to try to fit in more long runs.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

Very. At the end, I did a little cartwheel behind the Harlem Meer. 10/10!

What I Did: Drank “Recovery” Chocolate Milk

This is a tip I got from one of my friends who ran track at my alma mater, who subscribed to the theory that chocolate milk as a post-run bev delivered the perfect combo of carbohydrates and protein that could help with muscle recovery. I figured that re-fueling with protein couldn’t hurt a runner’s high if it had other helpful properties.

How It Felt

I honestly felt a little sick.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

Maybe I chugged too fast, but this technique did not hit and landed me closer to the vom side of my scale than not. 3/10

What I Did: Stretched Post-Run

I am a big stretcher. After a bad injury while training for a big race years ago, I live and die by my foam roller. But I usually do my stretching pre-run.

However, Dr. Miller told me he usually does his best stretching postrun. This technique wasn’t a short-term hack for a runner’s high, but I thought it might pay off in the long run (no pun intended). “Stretching can be more effective after your body is warmed up,” says Dr. Miller. So stretching after a few miles “can make it easy to feel comfortable on your next run.”

How It Felt

While I wasn’t expecting this to produce a runner’s high in the moment, I actually felt pretty awesome after my stretch session. It may have had to do with the fact that I did this after a beautiful run as all the tulips and magnolia trees were blooming in the park, but it put me in a great mood the rest of the day (plus, no injuries).

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

8/10

What I Did: Carb-Loaded

Carbohydrates = energy, which one needs on a run. That’s why many marathon runners say they eat pasta in the name of “carb loading” the night before the big 26.2, to give them more power reserves to keep going. Dr. Miller told me there wasn’t a lot of scientific evidence about specific meals pre-run, but this was a fun one, so I had to try it.

How It Felt

I tried this a few times on this journey (it’s an easy meal, and I wanted to make sure I had enough energy to thrive on all my runs). The first time, I felt very sluggish when I hit the trails the next morning, but on the second try, I had a wonderful run.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

I can’t say what made the difference, but I give it a 6/10, splitting the difference between the good and bad.

What I Did: A Silent Run

I was even more resistant to this idea than I was to getting up with the sunrise. I always run with headphones and zipping around with no music sounded mind-numbing and hard. However, one of my friends suggested it as a way to really connect with my body and my city, so I had to give it a shot.

How It Felt

I’ve decided this is the “eating your veggies” of running hacks. I was astounded to find that the experience wasn’t so bad. I felt more engaged with my form and my breathing, and also found myself noticing little things all around my neighborhood that I hadn’t before. There was pretty violin music coming out of one little shop. I read more signs than I usually did, and I even learned a new word that I looked up afterward that was written on the side of a van.

I was more alert, asking more questions about my surroundings, and taking time to appreciate things like the birds chirping and all the different plants around me. I’d most likely be a better, more knowledgeable person if I always ran this way… though I can’t say I can stomach going raw with no headphones every time.

Did I Get a Runner’s High?

10/10. I felt observant and alive!

Overall reflection:

My experiment was hardly foolproof: I was focused on trying the most possible strategies, rather than repeating each one dozens of times for scientific rigor. And even if I had, I’m only one person. Every body is different, so what worked for me may not work for you.

But when looking back at my spreadsheet, I was struck by the fact that it was the things I wanted to try the least (like running farther and jogging in silence) that ended up bringing on the best runner’s high.

According to Dr. Marusak, though, that tracks with the generally illogical nature of running. “If we were to look at blood pressure and heart rate during exercise, it often looks like people are dying. Yet, it has all these positive health benefits,” she says. It’s so counterintuitive that you stress people out and then it’s actually good for them. [But] somehow, most things that are stressful — but in a manageable way — can actually make you stronger.”
So maybe that’s part of the key: when you push yourself to the edge on a run, you reap the benefits.

That said, I probably won’t always want to undertake something that temporarily makes my runs feel less pleasant in the hopes of maybe achieving that super-groovy post-run feeling later. Ultimately, running almost always feels good, if not in the moment then at least later that day. And in general, when I consider the cumulative effects my jogs have on my mental health, I’m OK with them not always making me feel “high.”

Molly Longman is a freelance journalist who loves to tell stories at the intersection of health and politics.

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