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Endorphins, Emotions, and Exercise: The Psychology of Working Out

There’s a lot going on at the physiological level during a fitness session. The skeletal muscles are put to work, and blood flow is redirected to them to deliver increased quantities of oxygen. As body temperature increases, blood also flows to the skin to help with temperature regulation. Metabolic rate, which quantities energy expenditure, is elevated as energy demands increase. Respiratory rate increases to meet increased demands for oxygen consumption. 

The physiological changes that occur during exercise don’t just influence physical health - they can also bring about strong emotional and psychological responses. Elevated mood is often touted as one of the mental health benefits of exercise.

You may have also heard of the concept of the “Runner’s High”, in which feelings of euphoria occur after an intense exercise session such as a marathon. There are a whole host of emotional experiences that come with fitness, and that can be explained by physiological changes in the body. 

The Science Behind Runner's High

The runner’s high takes place when brief but very intense positive emotions are felt immediately following high-intensity exercise or a lengthy fitness session. This kind of emotional response to exercise is highly individualized and is typically experienced in different ways by different individuals. The runner’s high is also not a guarantee with exercise. It is commonly reported by runners and individuals who participate in high-level aerobic exercise such as kickboxing and rowing. 

Traditional views held that endorphins must be responsible for euphoric experiences following exercise. Endorphins are a kind of neurotransmitter that are also known as endogenous opioids. Endorphins are often referred to as the brain’s “feel-good chemicals”, and are known for stimulating positive feelings and contributing to pain relief. More current research, however, suggests that it’s actually a different class of neurotransmitter that contributes to the runner’s high: the endocannabinoids. 

In one study, opioid receptors were blocked to prevent endorphin release following exercise. Even in the case of opioid blockage, participants still reported experiencing positive emotions after exercise as well as the runner’s high phenomenon. Levels of endocannabinoids were found to be elevated after the workout sessions, leading researchers to theorize that these molecules are at least partially responsible for the mood boost that can occur post-exercise.

Bonking (Hitting the Wall)

The myriad of psychological states that can occur after exercise are not always positive. A less desirable occurrence is bonking, which occurs when an individual feels like they’ve “hit the wall” during an intense or lengthy exercise session. It’s often experienced with symptoms including:

  • Sudden Energy Depletion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Reduced Coordination
  • Total Body Weakness
  • Trouble Moving

There’s a physiological explanation for bonking. The body needs energy in the form of glycogen to perform during high-intensity exercise. Stores of glycogen in the muscles are dipped into to keep active skeletal muscles going during especially intense exercise. Once glycogen stores start to run out, fatigue occurs. The experiences of bonking and hitting the wall are the result of glycogen depletion. Once your body runs out of this important fuel, both physical and mental performance suffer. 

Preventing Bonking

Bonking can seriously disrupt athletic performance, but there are steps that can be taken to help avoid or prolong it. Adjustments to your training efforts and nutrition habits can be helpful in mitigating the experience of bonking. Helpful tips to add to your fitness routine include:

  • Plan Ahead — When it comes to optimizing nutrition to prevent bonking, planning ahead is essential. If you have an upcoming race or marathon, make sure to give your body enough fuel beforehand. That means eating a balanced meal with plenty of carbohydrates ahead of your event. You should also plan to replenish your energy stores throughout the event if possible. There are a variety of products marketed towards athletes that promise to deliver quick, easy spurts of energy. These can be used to keep glycogen stores up throughout a long event.
  • Stay Hydrated — Dehydration will also contribute to feelings of fatigue and can exacerbate symptoms of bonking. If the body starts to overheat due to dehydration during an athletic performance, glycogen stores will also be dipped into to assist in temperature regulation. Hydrating before and during your event will help keep bonking at bay. 
  • Increase Your Fitness Level — At a higher fitness level, the body is able to perform while burning fewer calories. Essentially, the body becomes more efficient at exercising while expending less energy. As you develop a training plan leading up to a high-intensity performance, focus on increasing your fitness level to put yourself in a better place to avoid bonking. 

Flow State

The “flow state” is experienced as “getting into the zone”. It occurs when an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity so that all outside distractions disappear. It’s commonly characterized by:

  • Heightened Focus — All of the body’s attention and focus are directed towards the primary task at hand. 
  • Time Distortion — All extraneous factors, like sense of time, fade into the background during the flow state.
  • Sense of Mastery — The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used the term “flow state mastery” to describe a proposed phenomenon in which there is a peak in performance levels during the flow state.

Elite athletes often report entering into the flow state during key performances and sporting events. The flow state can also be experienced during training and other physical activities like running and cycling. The flow state is not limited to exercise, and can also be experienced during a variety of everyday activities like listening to music, reading, gardening, and carrying out a favorite hobby. 

Euphoria and Sense of Accomplishment (aka: Why Working Out Is So Addicting)

Positive emotions don’t have to be as intense as a runner’s high to produce a desire to experience them again. A general feeling of euphoria and accomplishment after a challenging workout are a much more common experience than the runner’s high, and one of the main reasons that working out can feel so addicting. Research has found that key neurotransmitters are released during exercise, including:

  • SerotoninSerotonin is involved in reducing the experience of negative mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression, and is linked to feelings of calm, happiness, and stability. 
  • NoradrenalineNoradrenaline is an important part of managing stress in the brain, and can also be a part of pain relief and elevated attention.
  • DopamineDopamine plays a large role in experiences of pleasure, and can also positively influence overall mood, motivation, and focus. 

In order to continue experiencing the mental health benefits of working out in the long-term, it’s important to maintain a consistent fitness routine. It’s unlikely that you’ll see significant changes in mood from a single workout session every two months, for example. For optimal results, it’s recommended that you adopt a weekly fitness routine that includes a variety of physical activities. You should also adjust your workout program over time to ensure that you get sustained physical and mental health benefits. 

Post-Marathon Blues

The term “post-marathon blues” was coined to describe the negative emotions that can be felt in the aftermath of a major athletic performance. The post-marathon blues commonly occurs in the days or weeks after an event that has been trained for for months, such as a marathon or big playoff game. These experiences are all part of the post-marathon blues: 

  • Emotional Dip — Post-marathon blues encompass the emotional drop experienced after the exhilaration of completing a marathon, often leading to feelings of emptiness or mild depression.
  • Physical Fatigue — The intense physical exertion of a marathon can leave runners with sore muscles, joint pain, and overall fatigue, contributing to the post-race blues during the recovery period.
  • Goal Achievement Void — After achieving the significant milestone of completing a marathon, runners may face a temporary sense of purposelessness, as the goal they've been diligently working towards has been accomplished.
  • Community Disconnection — The camaraderie formed during marathon training creates a strong sense of community, and the post-race period may bring feelings of social disconnection as the shared experience comes to an end.

From a physiological perspective, the post-marathon blues can be due to a sudden decline in the release of feel-good chemicals that naturally occurs as peak training declines. In the months leading up to a big event or performance, the body regularly receives a steady influx of endorphins, endocannabinoids, and other neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Training efforts are often pared back during recovery. As the body adjusts to this sudden drop in neurotransmitter release, a variety of negative emotions can be experienced. 

There is also a large psychological and social component to the post-marathon blues. During the recovery period and off-season, the brain doesn’t get the addicting sense of achievement and accomplishment from a great performance. This can contribute to lower feelings of self-esteem and cause feelings of depression. Reduced social interactions following the race can also contribute to a decline in mood and feelings of isolation. 

Tips for Enhancing Exercise-Induced Experiences

The psychological experiences that can result from the physiological changes brought about by exercise run the gamut from extremely positive to very negative. Fortunately, there are ways to increase your chances of experiencing the positive emotional benefits of exercise without all of the potential negatives. Here are some tips for making the most of your workouts:

Prioritize Consistent Exercise

In order to experience lasting mental health benefits, it’s essential to exercise regularly. When coming up with training plans, include sustainable workouts that you can see yourself performing in the long-run. You should also take measures to prevent overtraining and injuries, which can disrupt your training schedule and lead to dips in your mental health.

Build Community

The camaraderies associated with athletics and exercise can be a seriously positive bonus of working out. Feeling like you’re part of a community can boost mood, improve feelings of self-esteem, and help you form lasting relationships with others. The key here is forming lasting connections. Try finding workout buddies that aren’t just training for a single event, but that are looking to make long-term health changes. You can also try asking close friends and loved ones to join you on your fitness journey. 

Vary Your Workouts

It’s easy to start to feel burnt out by a fitness program when you’re performing the same workout again and again. Workout variety can help prevent this from occurring and ensure you get to feel all of the positive emotions exercise can offer for many years to come. You may also find that certain workout types offer more positive experiences than others. For example, running might make you feel more euphoric than lifting weights. Embrace workout variety to find the types of exercise that are best for you. 

Set Achievable Goals

Setting yourself up for success with exercise starts with the kinds of goals you set out to achieve. Instead of just focusing on one huge goal for your fitness efforts, plan out a series of smaller, more achievable goals. This is a more manageable approach in the long-term, and can help you celebrate the little wins along the way. With each goal you check off, you’ll be reminded of all the positive emotions that come along with exercise achievements. 

Stay Mindful

Incorporating mindfulness practices into your workout routine can help you get more out of your fitness efforts. Instead of being focused entirely on the end goal, you’ll get to experience the actual process of working out. You’ll be much more in tune with the changes occurring in your body during exercise. As a result, you’ll be in a much better frame of mind to recognize and experience positive emotional changes such as endorphin release, elevated mood, and stress relief.

Track Your Highs and Lows with WHOOP

As you move forward on your fitness journey and experience all of the emotional highs and lows that exercise has to offer, you can keep track of your progress with WHOOP. WHOOP tracks key fitness metrics including recovery, strain, and sleep that can help you adjust your fitness routine and guide your recovery efforts to make the most of your performance. Rely on WHOOP for personalized fitness data that can help reflect the ups and downs of your exercise efforts.