Is There a Cyclist’s High?

I went for a ride this afternoon with my friend John T. We agreed to meet at Austin’s Veloway for some slow laps. The ride would be a repeat of one we’d done a few weeks before, with the difference that John has really come back from his cycling layoff and has made rapid progress in endurance and speed.

Neither of us planned to push the pace. He’d just come off a 50-mile ride over the weekend, so was looking for some recovery. I’ve been pushing lately, and needed a break from that. We fell into a comfortable tempo, and chatted about all sorts of things — few of which had to do with biking — as we cruised the three-mile circuit.

But at one point, about halfway through our ride, I gave a start.

“You know,” I said to John, “I ride here a lot. I’m probably familiar not just with every turn of the track, but with every crack in the surface. But today, I have a weird feeling. All the curves and turns look alike. I couldn’t tell you where we’ve been or where we were at a given time.”

I looked at my surroundings, and knew instantly that we were on the backside of the Veloway, approaching a nice straightaway that invites the cyclist to crank up the speed. But before my fresh realization, I hadn’t been aware of where I was. I was caught up in the conversation and the ride.

I glanced at my bike computer. It said we were averaging 14.7 mph.

“Wow,” said John, “that’s pretty good.”

We were almost up to the low 15s that I like to do when I’m out alone. John’s been averaging a little less than that on his rides.

“I’ll tell you what it is,” I said. “It’s the biker’s high.”

Back when I used to run (okay, jog) I remembered experiencing the elusive runner’s high once or twice. Runners love to talk about it, probably because it happens so rarely. Marathoner and former Runner’s World editor Amby Burfoot has computed that he’s had a runner’s high during just .00185 percent of his runs. In fact, it happens so seldom that some scientific researchers have been unable to account for a runner’s high in their data, and have written papers debunking the idea.

The runner’s high is usually described as a sense of euphoria, where the activity one is pursuing happens without effort. That’s what I went through this afternoon. We weren’t burning up the track, but we were pedaling at a good clip. Burfoot says that to experience a runner’s high, you must stress yourself by running a little slower — but not much slower — than your 10K race pace. That produces a fatty acid called anandamide, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause the euphoria runners seek. Anandamide is also called “the brain’s marijuana,” because of its natural high effect. We must have been in that zone. (By the way, that “endorphin rush” people cite during or after workouts is likely something else, because endorphins are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier.)

As I said, it didn’t last long. I could carry on a conversation with John, and maybe it’s because I was paying more attention to what we were saying than where we were going that I had a sense of being disconnected from my riding. But then I snapped out of it. That’s okay. It was a great feeling — one I’ve never had before on a bike. I hope to experience it again.

Have you ever had “biker’s high?” Was it similar to mine, or something completely different?

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8 thoughts on “Is There a Cyclist’s High?

  1. I have had a similar experience with technical mountain biking, I became disconnected with the irritation I usually felt when riding over a particular type of terrain and was only connected to the enjoyment of successfully working my way thru. Once I became aware of what was happening the feeling was lost.

  2. From time to time when I’m mountain biking I’ll just get a sense of intense well-being and enjoyment, and feel full of energy and capability. This sense is frequently followed by a crash (or near-crash) as I lose track of where the boundaries of my capability actually are :)

  3. Coincidentaly my own recolleciton of a runners high was from a 3K race in which I lined up on on the back curve with Amby Burfoot (who, co-coincidentally was barefoot) on my right and Derek Clayton (he set a marathon world best in the Fukuoka Marathon, Japan on 3 December 1967 in 2:09:36.4, in what is considered a classic race, the first marathon race ever run in less than two hours and ten minutes) on my left. My corporate team had qualified to run the race but we didn’t have a racer who was competitive so I offered to do it just to get the 1 point awarded to the finisher. The tension was palpable until the gun went off and then BANG, they were all gone! They were all literally at the end of the front stretch before I came around the bend. Before the 7th lap (3K is a 7.5 lap race, that’s why it starts at the end of the back stretch) all but one of those runners had lapped me but I was NOT letting that guy come by.

    I buried myself to prevent him from passing me on his way to the finish line. That must have made quite a spectacle since the entire stadium (Stanford) was on it’s feet cheering the two heros racing for LAST PLACE. However, most of them had failed to notice that I still had a lap to go so, when I ran straight through the “finish” area to continue my own race, the Stadium did “the wave” to give me a standing O as I passed each part of the grandstands.

    I must have been high.

  4. The best bike buzz I ever got was navigating up a monster hill on a Real Ale ride in Blanco, flying down the other side at 42 MPH, then downing a 1/2 bottle of Nuun water as I rode some of the prettiest riverside scenery I have ridden on. Adreniline? Endorphins, Electrolytes? or a combo of all of it. I’m not sure what but I always want some more of that!

  5. We haven’t gotten this far yet in the chronicles of our Camino de Santiago trip on our blog, but just before our approach to Santiago I definitely experienced a high. It was an overwhelming feeling of happiness, even vergeing on giddiness as I just couldn’t seem to stop smiling and laughing. Alberto says we were going uphill but I really couldn’t tell you — turning the pedals just felt completely effortless. I don’t think I’m the only pilgrim to have had that experience — the last climb before Santiago is called Monte de Gozo, which translates to mountain of joy.

  6. I just did RAIN (Ride Across INdiana) last Saturday … 162 miles in 9:48.
    DEFINITELY a high after riding that ride. There would be miles & miles that I was in ‘the zone’. Just focused on the horizon –spinning. The last 2 hours went by the quickest.
    By the ’5 miles left’ sign I was so pumped I was sprinting –passing several dozen folk.
    Oh, yeah, it was a high.

  7. I think it happens best when you’re distracted, happened to me once on a stationary of all things, I put on an episode of Star Trek: TNG, and 50 minutes later I didn’t even realize that I’d actually pedaled hard all the way through. Never repeated.

  8. Pingback: Does the "Cyclists' High" really exist? | The Cycle Hub

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