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Runners say their pastime is like no other for chasing natural high

Credit: Gary Meader /

Tony Stensland's been at it for 25 years. He's done everything from 1- to 135-mile races, and while he's heard of "runner's high," he's not sure he's experienced it.

"I'm a Norwegian, so I'm pretty even-keeled most of the time," said the general manager at the Duluth Running Co.

Athletes describe runner's high as euphoria, a loss of pain, heightened awareness.

After hearing that, Stensland reflected on an experience during a long trail run. "Colors looked different. ... The blue sky, the green trees, everything seemed more vivid," he said. It lasted only five to 10 minutes, but it "probably was" a runner's high.

The cause: our bodies produces narcotic-like chemicals during continuous aerobic exercise, said George J. Trachte, Ph.D., interim department chair of biomedical sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus.

What happens during strenuous exercise is the brain secretes endorphins — "similar to morphine, but we make it ourselves," he said — and a marijuana-like chemical, anandamide, a type of endocannabinoid.

It doesn't happen immediately, but if you feel discomfort or pain, this makes it easier to continue, and it could contribute to runner's high feelings, he said.

The brain's response may have acted as a neurological reward to aid higher level exercise. And it would've helped hunter-gatherers in the pursuit of prey like antelope or gazelles. Add increased endurance, and you've got a better chance at survival and reproduction, according to National Geographic.

And humans seem to be built more for running than walking, Trachte said.

There are large, springy tendons in the legs that don't make much anatomical sense for walking, but they're critical in running, such as the Achilles tendon. And the gluteus maximus (big buttock muscles) are not much involved in a common stroll, but it's another endurance adaptation in the body, he added.

Stensland runs because he loves feeling his body move through space. When you're fit, you've trained and things are clicking: "You feel like you're floating or just flying across the ground," he said.

With that, there's also the energy dips. You can't experience the peak of a run without the valley, he said, and everyone feels it, even elite runners.

Marathoners typically "hit the wall," or complete energy depletion, at around mile 18-20. What's happening in the body is we run out of glycogen, a substance that stores energy in the form of carbohydrates, Trachte said.

To get through, "They say run the first 20 miles like an artist and the last 6 like an animal," added Stensland because it's all mental toughness and discipline.

Dayeton Tolle of Duluth ran for the University of Minnesota Duluth track and field team. Last week, she ran Grandma's Marathon in 3:36:19, according to official race results.

She said she usually hits the wall at around mile 18. What gets her through is Gatorade, imagining the finish line and the camaraderie. "I could look at the person next to me and see the expression on their face, and we're all in this together," she said.

While Tolle wasn't sure she experienced runner's high, after a run, she feels a rush of pure joy, like she could do anything, "I could take on the world," she said. The "feel-goods" last about an hour afterward, and with it comes a heightened sense of smell.

"Things like laundry detergent or foods, I can smell more intensely than normal," she said.

Tolle said she can see how people might become dependent on exercise. If she takes a break in between races and bikes instead, she doesn't feel the same.

"Once I start running again, I feel back to normal," she said.

For Stensland, after a day or two without running, he feels his energy levels drop a bit and his sleep is a little off. Running can be an addiction, but a positive one, as long as you're not trying to run through injures, skipping important events or being unwise with training, he added.

The sport is unlike other hobbies, such as fishing or golfing; you can only run for so long in one day.

And it can become an integral part of life. "Just like you put on your shoes, you go run. Just like you eat two or three meals a day, you're going to go run.

"Running is a lifestyle as much as it is a discipline," Stensland said.

Trachte has run six marathons. Today, he does about 2-4 miles a day, and sometimes it feels good, sometimes it doesn't, he said.

While similar, running or exercising won't create the same feelings as talking a drug or drinking alcohol, he said. The neurological chemical release can help get through an exercise regime, but it can't get through all pain. "If you push yourself beyond your limit, it's going to hurt like hell whether you have those endorphins or not," Trachte said.

As for runner's high, one thing Trachte is sure of is there's good evidence that exercise makes us feel better. And that applies for walking, biking, swimming, cross-country skiing. Running is a little more intense, Trachte said.

It's a long-term, patience game, but it's worth it, Stensland said of the sport.

Beforehand, there can be a little bit of fear because you know it's going to hurt, and that can extend halfway through a race, but what he looks forward to is afterward.

There's a sense of accomplishment, elation and pride, and while it only lasts until he hits the shower, "That's where I get my runner's high," he said.

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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