On the Runner's High

Imagine that the mind is an ocean. Thoughts come to us like waves crashing on a beach, one after the other, a relentless pounding of the sand. At times more tranquil, at other times riled and roused by storms of intensity, each thought is influenced however slightly and indirectly by the wave-form before it; no wave is ever precisely the same, and once it has crashed its specificity is broken and lost, subsumed into the next wave, and so it goes.

When we think of the mind and its experiences through metaphors of natural phenomenon, like an ocean or spring or fountain, its personal qualities fall away, and we are more attentive to its rhythms and flows, its liquid structure, rather than its specific content. A primary way in which the body interacts with the mind is through changing the mind's structure. Running is a specific example of this; one reason that runners run is that the structure of their minds becomes altered when they do it.

 This phenomenon has been called somewhat crassly the "runner's high." Runners dispute the runner's high. Many are quick to disavow the experience or write it off as marginal to the more serious and hard-nosed endeavor of self-improvement. I think, though, that the term is ill-defined. I am not so sure we even really know what getting high means in a drug context, much less in a context where the body gets itself high off of its own natural processes. If being high is a state of mind, what are the characteristics of that state?

 A primary characteristic of the mind in a running-altered state is that it is more generative and more connected. This state I am sure has its physiological origins in specific hormones or blood flow patterns. But we talk less about its experiential origins -- the bodily rhythms and sensations that the run produces. The steady and audible breath. The regular beat of foot against pavement. The burnings and loosenings and tightenings of muscles as we warm up, or as fatigue and effort make their marks.

These bodily sensations form a sort of riverbed for the stream of thought. Thought that had perhaps pooled up over a sedentary day, or which was dammed up by our various and complex neuroses, is released as if from a sluice. Given banks and obstacles of feeling in the body, the water of thought swirls and roils and progresses. To call this feeling getting "high" is maybe to allude to a feeling of being borne along, like a leaf upon a fast-flowing stream.

Does the runner's high, such as it is, have a narcotic origin in chemicals somehow released in response to physical exertion? Or is it an organic effect of the body being awakened to feeling? I prefer the latter explanation because it makes the runner's high continuous with sobriety -- and perhaps an even more sober form of sobriety; a mode of experience that is not farther from reality, but closer to it.

 Drugs artificially enhance experience, altering reality. Perhaps runners are resistant to the notion of the runner's high because the experience of running feels more real, not less. It reminds us that thought is most itself, most natural, when it is on the move, when flowing and dropping and roiling. We remember that we are at our best when engaged and flowing. The runner's high is no substitute for experience. It is experience, brought back to itself.


  1. I like that description of sobriety. I think of my running maybe as purity. The simplicity of going out for the nightly run is the pure life. The simple minimalist life - that is exactly why I wear no watch, heart rate monitor, gps, or music devices on most runs.

  2. Drug-induced highs are different depending on the drug inducing them. A runner's high could be as different from an ayahuasca high as a cocaine high. Because "high" suggests a fleeting peak, I distinguish between the runner's high and the runner's trance. The high is what the trance culminates toward, a temporally localized experience of elation. The trance, on the other hand, might not be pleasant at all, but it is an experience of protracted transcendence. "Rhythms," "steady," "regular," to use your words, connote something that's meditative and lasting.


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