Running is one of the most popular sports in the United States(Yates, 1987), in which million of people own a plethora of running magazines, and spend large sums of money on expensive training shoes and racing fees. Most runners do not just run for the physical benefits endowed by the sport, but rather for the psychological. Well although running can give people a new-found sense of control and pleasure in life (Noakes, p. 243), running does not always create pleasure and peace. It is not uncommon for running to manifest and emphasize destructive personality tracts (Nudel et al., 1989). Two very common traits of running are the experience of the"runner's high," and the relationship between compulsive running and eating disorders.

The Runner's High:

In the early 1980's it was found that endorphin levels increase during exercise (for review see Harber & Sutton, 1984). Soon after, a increased interest was raised in the possibility that elevated endorphin levels could attribute, and help explain, the mood changes that occur during running; the euphoric feeling often referred to as the "runner's high." The runner's high describes a hallucinogenic, even mystical state of consciousness, that sometimes is experienced after and during running. Often marked by a decreases in anxiety levels and tension, this phenomena has been reported many times (Wildmann et al., 1986).

In 1975 John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz isolated two similar peptides that seemed to bind to opiate receptors in pigs brain. These substances were named enkephalins, and soon after Hughes and Kosterliz's discover, similar compounds were found in the brains of humans(Rosenzweig et al., p 178). Endorphins, as later the family of molecules were named, act as the body's natural opiates, often released in reaction to strenuous exercise and pain. Under intense running there comes a point where the action becomes painful, often as a result of the bodies inability to effectively utilize oxygen and the forming of microscopic tears in muscle fibers (Noakes,p. 99). At this point, endorphins are released to reduce the sensation of pain, which often results in a feeling of elation or euphoria-- the runner's high.

Currently the view seems to be that endorphins form part of the natural stress response of the body. Under stress, whether from jogging or from running from a lion, brain endorphin levels will rise, in particular beta-endorphine levels (Noakes, p 701). In 1986 Wildmann, et al. performed a study with 21 male long distance runners in an attempt to correlate the increase of circulating beta-endorphin-like immunoreactivity with change of mood after running. A similar study was performed in 1987 on nine male runners, where both ACTH concentration and beta-endorphine levels were measured and contrasted with physical and psychological stress(Oltras et al., 1987). Both of these studies showed an increases in beta-endorphine after running, well the latter also reported an increase of ACTH levels also. Although these studies show a strong correlation between beta-endorphin levels and experience of euphoria, this data must not be taken at face value. Beta-endorphine levels and changes in mood both showed high inherent variations. Furthermore, cognitive influences and esthetic sensations reported during running have been believed to effect certain chemical factors, in particular the opioid peptides often stimulated by long distance running (Wildmann et al., 1986). More importantly, the latter study found an increase of beta-endorphine levels and ACTH prior to running, demonstrating that the psychological stress that exists before running may cause an organic response that in itself stimulates beta-endorphin and ACTH secretion. This last finding raises the question to why runners only experience runner's high during or after running, and not before.

In 1982, a study in which endorphin effects were blocked was performed in an attempt to better show the relationship between the euphoric feelings of the runner's high, and the high concentrations of beta-endorphins found after running (Markoff et al., 1982). The drug naloxone, a chemical known to induce a reversal of analgesia, was given to runners before running. In the end of the experiment, the naloxone showed to have no strong effects on the mood or the attitude of the runners, suggesting that mood changes apparent in a runner's high are not endorphin mediated (Markoff et al.,1982). This studied was however challenged by Wildmann et al. on the bases that the dosage of naloxone used may not have been large enough to block endorphin activity. Since naloxone only blocks µ opioid receptors, a higher dose of naloxone would need to be required to induce antagonism of other ligands (Wildmannet al., 1986).

A study released in 1995 by Harte et al., showed that a another chemical was found to correlate with mood changes in runners --corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). The fact that this chemical was found as a contributor to the relaxation that encompasses a runner's high is very intriguing, because CRH is significantly associated with beta-endorphin levels (Harte et al., 1995). Inthis study Harte et al. compared beta-endorphine levels and CRH levels in a group of runners, and then in a group of meditators. After a one hour run, the runners showed an increased beta-endorphin and CRH immunoreactivity, and that the elevated general mood was correlated to the increase in beta-endorphins and CRH. After meditating for an hour, the meditators reported being more relaxed and in an overall better mood, and although they were found to have increased levels of CRH activity, no significant increase in beta-endorphins were found. This lead Harte et al. to correlate the mood change of the meditators with increased CRH immunoreactivity, but not with beta-endorphin reactivity. The increase in CRH in the meditators gives evidence, for the first time, that physical activity is not necessary in order to produce elevated levels of CRH; that mental activity of concentrative meditation can trigger CRH release. Furthermore, if mood changes in runners is produced by a similar mechanism as meditators, then there is some evidence that pitutary-dervied beta-endorphins are probably not involved, in the euphoric feelings experienced after running. This hypothesis is supported by the lack of correlation between peripheral plasma beta-endorphins and cerebrospinal beta-endorphins (Harte et al.).

Still much is not understood about the runner's high. The current feeling is that beta-endorphins perhaps play the major role in the feelings of euphoria and analgesia. However the results of studies such as Harte et al. and Wildmann et al. site other chemical,cognitive, and environmental factors that may play as equal or a more important role than beta-endorphins in this still unexplainable phenomena.

Running and Eating Disorders: Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is the condition when a person stops eating and starts starving to death. Although the term means "loss of hunger on a psychological basis" this is not quite true. A person with anorexia has intense hunger, however will not eat (Blumenthal et al, 1985). The traditional person whom suffers from anorexia is a female of the adolescent age, usually from a higher socioeconomic status, of above average intelligence, a perfectionist, and highly active in a sport.

In 1983 an article titled: "Running -- An Analogue of Anorexia?"was released by Yates et al. in the New England Journal of Medicine. This was the first article to note the correlation between the increased incidence of anorexia in adolescent females, and the simultaneous increases of runners throughout Western Countries (Noakes, p 589). Yates released another article in 1987, that discussed the disturbing relationship between those who are obligatory runners and those who are obligatory dieters. Yates believes that the typical obligatory runner is a man who uses running as a way to deal with his depression; a person who emphasizes exertion or "output", compulsively recording distances, times, and workouts. Well on the other hand, the eating-disordered person is typically a female who uses dieting as a way to deal with her depression; a person who emphasizes the regulation of food or"input", compulsively recording weight, calories, the next meal, and sizes of clothes. Yates noted many other similarities between runners and dieters, such as the aspect of sexuality (the runner seeing themselves as more attractive due to their physical shape, while the dieter sees themselves as attractive by being thinner and more graceful), the strive toward an elusive goal (to be thinner, faster, or both), the value of discrete units of gratification (pounds or minutes), and a history of depression that often precedes the dieting or running. Although Yates notes some difference between the dieter and runner, such as sex type and age group, both of the groups are referred to as ascetic. Yates, believes that both obligatory runners and obligatory dieters are whiling to sacrifice many of the pleasures in life in order to complete their actions, and that endorphins released in reaction to the stress placed on these peoples bodies often produce an altered state that continues to reinforce these destructive practises(Yates, 1987)

Many people have tried to explain the psychological mechanisms and stimuli that can make a highly intelligent person treat their body in such a destructive, and sometimes life threatening way (Noakes, p 586). A traditional view is that people who have anorexia nervosa make a conscious decision to run in order to lose weight easier and faster -- or in other words running is a purely secondary trait to the disease (Katz, 1986) This idea has been challenged however, by growing reports of runners who developed anorexia, and other eating disorders, after beginning a serious running program (Katz, 1986). In one particular case study, a 32 year old physician reported running as an attempt to get more exercise during his post-resident work. Well working his way to running 35 miles/week he lost 40 lbs., going from a weight of 175 lbs. to a weight of 135 lbs. in a period of 4 months. At the same time he started to become obsessed with his calorie intake, and became very interested in the new vegetarian cooking class that his wife was enrolled in. By one year after starting running, he had dropped down to 125 lbs. and had become fanatic about watching his calorie intake versus calories output. For the first time in his life he began bingeing, along with occasional self-induced vomiting. This cycle continued to worsen as his life became more stressful, till at one point he was running 50 miles a week, and had dropped to a weight of 115 lbs. Soon he became hurt and was forced to stop running; he then became depressed for the first time in his life. After probing one could determine that it was not the stress of work or family that was causing him to become upset, but rather the thought that he was becoming fat. In another case very similar to this one, a man developed eating disorders not because of fear of getting fat, but rather a fear of gaining weight that would cause his racing times to diminish. (Katz, 1986)

These case studies bring up one of the possible psychological dangers involved with running. In both of these cases, the patients reported increased physical awareness of their shape and bodies, only after they started running. Due to it's nature, running can often serve to focus one's attention upon their physical self. The strong relationship between weight, ease of running pain and injuries, and maximum performance times, makes one become very critical of one's on physical shape (Katz, 1986). Take into account the fact that elite runners are often very lean and thin, and the competitive nature of people who often run and race, it is no surprise that many people think that the more weight they lose the better of a runner they will become. (Noakes, p 591).

Other physical factors also can add to the psychological dangers of developing eating disorders from running. Much animal workhas been done that indicates somewhat of a paradox: increased and extensive exercise seems to diminish food intake, while diminished food availability tends to aid motor activity. This phenomena has been documented in many studies (Noakes, p 395) and if is true, serious long-distance runners would be at the extreme for this trait.

The effect of the runner's high has also been speculated to add to difficulties and dangers of this problem (Katz, 1986). In both the case studies mentioned, both men began to feel the most significant bouts of depressions when they were injured and not allowed to run. More importantly, bulimic behavior became apparent for the first time in correlation with this halt in running. This raises the question of withdrawal from exercise-inducing endorphins, and there part in the triggering of anorexia.

In summary there are many similarities between the psychological reasons behind dieting and running (Yates, 1987), and there is also evidence that these two activities might be linked together or perhaps developed from each other (Noakes, p 591). Possible correlations among eating disorders and CNS opioids have also been noted, along with the capacity of long distance runners to emphasize body shape, and possibly perpetuate anorexia nervosa in those who are psychologically and biologically in high risk(Katz, 1986).


Although running has many psychological benefits for those who take part in the sport, one most be careful not to become caught up in the excitement of the sport (Noakes, p. 243). The somewhat additive properties of running, both physically and psychologically, offer themselves to all but can also lead one to despair. As much as a runner's high can be an enjoyable and a pleasant thing, one must keep in check the compulsiveness of their running. For there lies a danger that has been shown to lead people to psychological diseases that can bring one running full speed down the road to despair (Noakes, p. 247).


Journal Articles:

Harte, Jane R., George H. Eifert, and Roger Smith. The Effects of Running and Meditation on beta-endorphin, coritcotropin-releasing hormone and cortisol in plasma, and on mood. Biological Psychology, Vol. 40, pp. 251-265, 1995

Katz, Jack. Long-Distance Running, Anorexia Nervosa, and Bulimia: A Report of Two Cases. Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol.27, No. 1, pp 74-78, 1986

Markoff, Ricard A., Paul Ryan, and Ted Younge. Endorphins and mood changes in long distance running. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Vol. 14, No. 1., pp. 11-15, 1982

Oltras, C.M., F. Mora, and F. Vives. Beta-Endorphin and ACTH in plasma: Effects of Physical and Psychological Stress. LifeSciences, Vol. 40 pp. 1683-1686, 1987

Wildmann, Johannes, Arnd Kruger, Matthias Schmole, Jurgen Niemann,and Heinrich Mattaei. Increase of circulating beta-endorphine-like immunoreactivity correlates with the change in feeling of pleasantness after running. Life Sciences, Vol. 38, pp 997-1001,1986

Yates, Alayne. Eating Disorders and Long-Distance Running:The Ascetic Condition. Intergrative Psychiatry, Vol.5, pp. 201-203, 1987


Noakes, M.D., Tim. Lore of Running, 3rd Edition. pp 99,243, 247, 395, 586, 591, 701. Leisure Press, Champaign, Illinois © 1991

Rosenzweig, Leiman, and Breedlove. Biological Psychology.p 178. Sinauer Associates, Inc., Sunderland, Massachusetts ©1996