General Inspiration Sports Psychology

Runners High – The Flow Experience while Running

Author: Dr. med. Sibylle Matter Brügger, Allg. Innere Medizin FMH, Sportmedizin SGSM, Manuelle Medizin SAMM, Sonographie Bewegungsapparat SGUM – Stv. Leiterin Sports Medical Center Medbase Bern Zentrum

Some runners regularly experience a “runners high”, others never experience it. Which conditions are most likely to lead to a blissful “flow-experience”?

Great, awesome, an incredible feeling of happiness – more than 25 adjectives are used by runners to describe the “runners high”. This proves how hard it is to grasp this flow-experience.

There is no common definition for this – not to mention a guarantee that you will experience it while running: “I have been a runner for 25 years and can train as much as I want, but the “runners high” is unknown to me”, a runner confesses. He is certainly not the only one. Some even doubt that the runners high really exists.

But psychologists agree: the flow experience exists. Not only during running but also during many other sports and activities. In sports climbing as well as in “diving” into a book where you forget the world while reading. The decisive factor is that it is a continuous activity, without interruptions. Volleyball players, for example, who alternate intensive playing phases with short breaks, therefore hardly ever get into the “flow”.

The first person to investigate the phenomenon in detail was the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Tschiksentmihaj). He described the flow experience as a state of “unified flow”, in which action follows action and humans merge into their activity, fully focused on what they are doing. Time flies by most of the time. Playing children “master” how to get into the flow. In such moments adults can feel feelings of ecstasy, euphoria or deep inner contentment. Sometimes it even lasts for one or two hours after the run.

But how do runners reach this blissful state in which running becomes effortless? It’s not that easy, and it certainly can’t be forced. But: You can create the conditions for the runners high to appear sooner:

Neither under- nor overstraining yourself
It is important that the current training and one’s own goals match the current performance. For example, if you are dissatisfied with your pace or have unrealistically high expectations, you have a lower chance of getting into the flow experience. Performance-oriented people who set their goals well, on the other hand, have good chances.

Run with your head free and relaxed
If you are tired or chewing on a problem, the probability for a runners high is small. The thoughts should not be focused on a particular thing and the overall attitude to life should be positive.

High training intensity
The flow is almost only reached by those who are both well trained and train at 80 to 90 percent of their maximum heart rate. Beginners can only keep up with this training intensity for a maximum of two minutes. But that is too short. They will therefore hardly ever get into the “flow”.

Schedule sufficient time
The flow experience comes at the earliest after 20 to 30 minutes of running.

Running in a pleasant environment
When running through a city where constant attention is needed to avoid overlooking other traffic participants, switching off is impossible (and not advisable). Some runners are best off on well known routes, such as a route through nature without abrupt changes. Others succeeded for the first time on a route that had not been mastered for some time.

Run alone
When running in a group, the flow experience occurs less often than when running alone. If you are not on your own, you have the best chance of a flow experience if your training partner is similarly well trained.

How the runners high exactly is achieved is unclear. It is triggered by the heart rate, which reaches a certain height. During this almost meditative state, the concentration of endorphins in the blood increases. These substances produced by the body have a pain-relieving and mood-lifting effect similar to morphine. However, they are not the cause of the flow, but rather a (pleasant) side effect.

Not so for the endocannabinoids. They are probably partly responsible for the flow experience. These are various cannabis-like molecules which the body produces and which have an effect on various organs. Endocannabinoids can, for example, protect brain cells from hyperstimulation, relax the soul or have an anti-inflammatory effect in the intestine.

Researchers have also found evidence that the nerve cells in the frontal cortex reduce their activity during runners high. However, what exactly happens in the brain is still unclear. But for those who are able to experience this feeling of happiness, this is probably of secondary importance.


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