Dr. Lara Pence had just finished a two-mile run and had circled back to her parked car. It was still early, but as she sat in the vehicle packing away her running gear, there was only one thing that she really wanted to do: Call someone! Yep. She had a powerful urge to get on the phone and chat with someone about the great run she’d just had!
“That’s part of the racer’s high!” she laughs. “It’s a combination of a chemical, psychological, and also social experience that produces everything that feels good after you’ve competed or challenged yourself in this physical way.”
A licensed clinical psychologist, most Spartans know Dr. Pence as Dr. L, Spartan’s Chief Mind Doctor whose popular pow-wow on the Spartan Up! podcast offers listeners a weekly mini fine-tune for the mind.
Working with high-performance athletes (as well as also being a regular runner and race competitor) means Dr. L is not only the perfect psychologist to give a comprehensive lowdown on what a racer’s high is, but she can also lay out top tips on how to get some of the feel-goods even if your run is a personal workout rather than a full-on Spartan race.
The Three Parts of a Racer's High
1. The Chemical Part
“It’s long been thought that the main chemicals contributing to the racer’s high were endorphins,” Dr. L reveals. “But recent research has pinpointed different chemicals at play. These are endocannabinoids, and in the neurochemistry world we call them the “don’t worry, be happy” chemicals!”
Dr. L further explains that endorphins actually have difficulty crossing the blood-brain barrier. But endocannabinoids, biochemical substances that are released through physical activity, can easily travel from the blood into the brain. And once there, they trigger the psychoactive effect, or that joyful and oh-so-satisfying feeling, that we call the racer’s or runner’s high.
2. The Social Part
And here’s a further kicker: That high doesn’t just increase feelings of euphoria, it also increases an individual’s desire to be socially connected. Think athletes high-fiving and hugging each other after crossing the finish line.
“They’re not just finishing the race and then heading off on their own to sit down and untie their tennis shoes,” Dr. L says. “They’re seeking each other out to see how they are and to celebrate together. This is literally our neurochemistry at play because the high also comes from feeling connected to others.”
This is why Dr. L was doing a mental checklist earlier on of who might not be completely mad that she was waking them up at wait!-what’s-the-time?!-o’clock to chat about her super run.
“Connection is a key part of the runner’s high experience," she says. "We don’t just feel happy for ourselves, we feel a sense of affection — almost love — and the desire to express that.”
3. The Psychological Part
The final psychological aspect of the racer’s high is as interesting as the social aspect and, as a long-time psychologist working with top athletes, Navy Seals, elite Spartans, and entrepreneurs of every shape and size, Dr. L believes this to be a singularly important piece.
“No matter who we are or what we do, as human beings, we have all struggled with self-doubt at some stage during our lives," she says. “So in a physical experience, even if we are 99% confident that we are going to complete what we set out to complete, it’s impossible to be 100% confident. The reason? As humans, we know there’s always room for error. There’s always that 1% or more that leaves us unsure that we can, in fact, achieve what we want to achieve.”
Therefore, when we do find ourselves pushing past the finish line, not only does it validate the part that was confident we could do it, it invalidates the 1% that promoted self-doubt.
“And that creates a positive experience because it plays into our perception of ourselves, it provides us with a new level of self-esteem," Dr. L explains. "We now know that we’re more capable than we might have previously believed. And that feels damn good!”
“It's one of the reasons why the Spartan tagline is ‘you’ll know at the finish line!'" she adds.
Can You Get the Racer’s High ... Without the Race?
But what about feeling the feels of a racer’s high without actually, you know, racing or completing the event you’ve signed up for?
Dr. L tells it straight by noting that setting out to achieve something and then actually achieving it is what’s going to make you feel good.
“That’s not to say that if you don’t finish — but you have gone further than you’ve ever gone before — you won’t feel positive or proud of yourself," she says. "Of course you will! But it likely won’t trigger the same ‘high’ that completing the race would.”
That’s because it’s not plugging into the chemical, social, and psychological components in quite the same way.
However, as Dr. L sees it, the issue at hand here is not really about finishing or not finishing a race. Rather, it’s about the goals we’re reaching for.
Tip No. 1: Set YOUR Goals, Not Anyone Else's
“We can still create a sense of self-esteem around putting ourselves in challenging positions and being able to accomplish something even if it’s not what everyone else is accomplishing,” she says. “For example, when you go for a run, your goal doesn’t have to be ‘run 10K’. It can be to run up the hill instead of walking like you normally do. And if you accomplish that, internalizing ‘I just did something today that I couldn’t do two months ago and that feels very good to me,’ will very likely trigger a runner’s high.”
Tip No. 2: Extend Your Goal Definitions
Extending your definition of what a goal might be can also help get you in the feel-good zone.
“When it comes to exercise or physical activity, goals tend to be measured in a quantifiable way — running within a certain time, keeping a particular pace, or doing whatever it is that my watch is telling me!” Dr. L says. “But what if we have a goal around ‘this is what I want to feel at the end of my race: I want to climb into my car feeling peace and joy.’ That’s not a quantifiable goal, but it can still create that high.”
And while you're sitting in your car punching the air and hollering “AROO," if you don’t have anyone around to celebrate with — go ahead and call someone.
And if they’re also a Spartan, they get it. And they’ll be happy to hear that you’ve smashed a goal and to share your high with you — no matter what time it is!