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How to Get a Runner's High Without Actually Running


More and more friends are popping up on the news feed with medals from 10Ks, half marathons, and marathons—and big smiles on their faces. Every time a new picture shows up, I feel a rush of desire to get out of bed the next morning and lace up my own running shoes. As I huff and puff my way through my neighborhood running route, I'm fantasizing myself high-fiving the kids on the sidelines and throwing my arms in the air as I cross the finish line. I've only run about three-quarters of a mile, but in my mind, I imagine it to be more like 26.2.

Anyone who's ever run a 10K, half marathon, or a marathon can relate to that freeing, euphoric feeling of having just finished a race. And science proves it: The runner's high is legit, according to the University of Montreal. This phenomenon is caused by a rush of dopamine, one of the most important neurotransmitters involved in motivation. "During intense or long-term, heavily challenging exercise like running a half marathon or marathon—and training for one—the stress and pain from such heavy workouts increases one's endorphin level to such a level to give you a better chance of not quitting and reaching your goal," says exercise physiologist Michele Olson, Ph.D. After completing your race (or a rigorous workout), the increased endorphin level make you feel cool and calm, but also like you're on Cloud 9, which is where the "high" comes into play, adds Olson.

While reliving my race-day memories helps me get out the door for a morning run, I don't really have the time to train for a race right now. But I still crave that race-day euphoria, so I set out to find other non-running ways to feel the runner's high. Olson says your best bet is doing Tabata and other forms of HIIT, as well as lifting heavy weights and making sure to give it all you've got during those last few reps. If you're looking for more ways to feel the burn and the "high" from your workouts, try these four strategies from the pros that are sure to make you feel on top of the world, no marathon training required.

1. Skip rests.

John Cianca, group fitness instructor at Equinox in New York City, recommends a high-intensity routine that builds in barely any rest to boost both heart rate and endorphins. Try it for yourself with his circuit below. Perform each exercise for 1 minute with no rest between moves. Do 3 rounds total, with 60 to 90 seconds of recovery between each round.

Squat to Curtsy Lunge: Lower into a squat, then transition into a curtsy lunge by bringing right foot behind you. It should now be in line with your left shoulder. Keep hips square, facing forward. Return to squat position and repeat curtsy lunge on opposite side.

High-Low Plank: From a forearm plank position, come up to your palms one hand at a time, making sure to alternate the leading arm.

Squat Jack: Lower into a squat. Quickly jump your feet together and back to hip-distance apart. Continue quickly, alternating between positions, but never standing back up.

Lateral Lunge: Stand with feet hip-width apart, then step out to the side and squat down with your right foot, keeping left leg straight. Make sure to sit back with weight into your right heel.

Push-Up to Side Plank: From a palm-plank position, hands under shoulders, lower down into a push-up. Return to starting position, lift right hand off the floor, twisting your body open, so you come into a side plank. Right arm should lift toward the ceiling. Return to plank position and repeat, alternating between left and right side planks.

Skater: Begin standing, then quickly hop to the left by kicking your right leg behind your left. Then reverse the movement with left leg kicking behind right as you hop toward the right. Quickly alternate sides.

Reverse Lunge: Step back with right foot into a lunge while keeping knees bent at about 90 degrees. Return to standing then repeat, stepping back with left foot.

Burpee: Start with your feet hip-with apart, then squat down and place both hands on the floor just inside your feet. Jump both feet back behind you, keeping legs straight and butt down (option here to perform a push-up). Quickly jump feet back in toward your hands, and return to standing. (Option to add a hop straight up at the end.)

Plank Twist: From a palm plank position, hands under shoulders, twist your body open by lifting right hand and right leg straight up, coming to a side plank, left palm and left foot still firmly planted on the ground. To modify, stack right foot on top of left, arm still reaching up toward the ceiling.

Seated Russian Twist: In a seated position on the floor with knees bent, hovering off the ground, arms extended in front of you, twist your torso from side to side.

2. Add drop-sets to your circuit training.

Chicago-based trainer Joey Thurman, author of 365 Health and Fitness Hacks That Could Save Your Life, suggests taking whatever weight-training workout you're already doing and incorporating something called drop-sets. This is when you drop the amount of weight for each set—for example, you'd go from a 15-pound dumbbell to 12 pounds and then to 10—but the key is to bang out more reps each time you descend. If you're doing shoulder presses, "choose a weight that forces you to push the last few reps out to exhaustion, as if you're really struggling to get through those last few," says Thurman. A good baseline is adding 5 to 8 more reps for every set you decrease your weight. "By doing your reps this way you'll continue surprising your muscles so they don't get used to the movement," he says.

3. Go hard for 15 minutes.

Daphnie Yang, creator of HIIT IT!, a cardio, core, and weight-training program, agrees with Olsen and suggests a Tabata and HIIT-style workout. Fifteen minutes is all you need for this interval circuit.

Tabata 1:

  • Jump squats × 20 seconds + 10 seconds rest
  • Burpees × 20 seconds + 10 seconds rest
  • Repeat circuit 4 times through

Quick Descending HIIT:

  • Forward lunges × 60 seconds
  • Jumping jacks × 45 seconds
  • Mountain climbers × 30 seconds
  • Repeat circuit 3 times through

Tabata 2:

  • Skater jumps × 20 seconds + 10 seconds rest
  • High knees × 20 seconds + 10 seconds rest
  • Repeat circuit 4 times through

4. End every workout with a dumbbell ladder.

Trainer Adam Rosante, author of The 30-Second Body, recommends adding this quickie dumbbell routine to the end of your workouts. Grab a pair of dumbbells and perform the moves as a descending ladder, back-to-back, aiming to complete the workout as fast as possible. (Rest only when necessary.) You'll start by doing 9 reps of each move, back-to-back, then drop down a "ladder rung" by two reps to 7, then two more to 5, and so on until you reach 1 rep. Time yourself, and aim to beat that number next time.

Front Squat: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of shoulders. Press hips back and down to lower until thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Drive through your heels to return to start. That's 1 rep.

Push Press: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of shoulders. Maintain a straight back as you bend hips and knees slightly, then drive dumbbells up overhead. Lower dumbbells to shoulders. That's 1 rep.

Renegade Row: Come to the top of a push-up position with wrists positioned under shoulders holding a dumbbell in each hand. Row the dumbbell in your right hand to your right hip. Return the dumbbell to floor. Repeat row on the left side. That's 1 rep.

Mountain Climber: Come to the top of a push-up position holding a dumbbell in each hand. Drive right knee forward, then back to start, quickly. Drive left knee forward, then back to start. That's 1 rep.

Burpee: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Squat down, place hands on floor under shoulders and jump feet back to land at the top of a push-up position, but quickly lower entire body to the floor. Press back up to the top of a push-up position. Jump feet forward to land under hips. Explosively jump straight up, clapping hands directly overhead. Land softly. That's 1 rep.