Does Running High Increase Your Runner’s High?

Running junkies are well-acquainted with the mental benefits of pounding out miles. Sure, the ability to house three donuts sans guilt is a nice perk, but most of us lace up our shoes because we’re chasing that refreshing buzz that comes midway through our run, and carries us through the better part of the day: the runner’s high. The satiating breaths, and the enlivening pulse bring with them a clarity and euphoria that make colors crisper, and relentless emails less likely to topple you with their weight.

It was long believed that the runner’s high was brought on by endorphins — hormones our brains produce to help inhibit the sensation of pain. Recent studies have found, however, that the body’s endocannabinoid system (which responds to cannabinoids like THC to create, well, a high high) may also be responsible for the one we enjoy while exercising.

Sprinting Gets You Stoned

The study tested the stress levels of mice after they exercised on wheels. As has been observed in humans, the stress levels of the mice were greatly diminished post-activity. Researchers then removed cannabinoids from one group of the mice, and found that those in that group no longer saw the calming benefits of exercise.  

Dr. Frank D’Ambrosio of Los Angeles, California, agrees with the study’s supposition: that these findings strongly implicate the endocannabinoid system in the runner’s high. If this is the case, he says our own body’s system is reacting to a neurotransmitter called anandamide, which is released along with endorphins during a run. “It’s not like our body has an endocannabinoid system, and we’re waiting for a plant to exist that can stimulate it,” D’Ambrosio tells Civilized. “We produce anandamide, which stimulates the endocananbinoid system.”

Anandamide, which has its name derived from the Sanskrit word for joy, has been found to stimulate not only a sense of euphoria, but other side effects that will ring true for the cartoon and munchie-loving crowd: stimulated appetite and a decreased sense of anxiety. Runner’s high is, in other words, not a misnomer. Sprinting gets you stoned.

Can Cannabis Boost the Runner's High?

I regularly use CBD while running. That regimen began after a doctor friend warned me that the ibuprofen I was taking to deal with searing long-run quads was potentially dangerous to my kidneys. Given that runner’s high appears to be related to my other preferred method of elevating, I wondered if using a strong dose of THC while running could help me achieve a super runner’s high by doubling down on my endocannabinoid system.

Not so much, posits D’Ambrosio, who says that the body has what is called a negative-feedback response, meaning that it will release a certain stimulant until we’ve received as much as we need to achieve the desired effect. Once that amount is reached, the receptor sends a signal to the brain that says “I’m good,” and production of that stimulant is stopped.

“The body will give you enough to get you high and then shut it down," Dr. D'Ambrosio explained. "You’re not just going to keep producing it ad nauseam.” For this reason, the high generated by combining cannabis with running is finite. “What I see happening, is that if you’re using phytocannabinoids (marijuana) to stimulate the CB receptors, then your body is probably not making the anandamides, because it doesn’t have to," D'Ambrosio added. "The receptors are occupied by the ones you’ve introduced externally.”

Running while high may not offer the key to limitless bliss, but that doesn’t mean that cannathletes aren’t finding real benefits in integrating the plant into their routines. “Receptors are everywhere,” says D’Ambrosio. “Cannabis is not only going to stimulate the receptors that allow you to get high. It’s also going to lower your blood pressure. It’s going to lower your heart rate. It’s going to help your muscles recover.”

All of that sounds pretty appetizing to anyone who likes a little sweat with their sunrises.

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