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How To Turn Lactic Acid Buildup Into Runners High

Warning: Do Not Push To This Intensity Without An Experienced Coach Guiding You

If you’ve ever been in a workout and felt a wave of nausea, this post is for you. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling to have pushed past your physical limitation and into the pukey zone. Most people see nausea as a sign to slow down, or stop.

Experienced coaches, such as myself, see nausea as a controlled symptom that can be extremely beneficial in fitness progression. In just two minutes, your body will experience a high that only drugs could provide with the benefit of being able to come down with a smooth buzz that will last for days. This is the healthiest way to move into the next level of elation. No words can express the emotion and elation.

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runners high

Ouch those high knee drills….

‘Runners High’ Explained

Runners high can be loosely described as when you have a lot of lactic acid in your system. This causes extreme muscle fatigue. The word ‘lactic acid’ is often misunderstood. I usually explain it as being a metabolic byproduct that causes muscle fatigue in the moment. This makes you first light headed, then dizzy… than nauseas.

It doesn’t cause muscle soreness, which is what scientists once thought (see recent report in Scientific American). Athletes do everything to reduce and avoid it where possible….it’s nasty stuff that your muscles produce during intense exercise. The body is breathing faster in an attempt to move more oxygen to your muscles.

Sometimes this happens in my fitness class, and I ask my clients to stand up straight. This is so that their airways are clear, and they can transport air better. When they can transport air better, they’ll be able to generate the energy through aerobic method – which is much more comfortable than anaerobic because they are working with more oxygen.

Aerobic is Latin for oxygen, an is Latin for without. So working anaerobically means working without oxygen – “can’t breathe” “I’ve got to catch my breath” “I need to stop for a minute to breathe” in other words, the new feeling of working without oxygen is frequently scary for those who have always tapped into their red muscle fibers to exercise (aerobic conditioning).

runners high

Spin class is a powerful place to travel into the pukey zone

The Process Of Training Without Oxygen

At my boot camp classes, often the workouts go into the anaerobic zone and this is scary in the beginning before your body is being forced to find the energy to workout from stored glucose. The body will break down this glucose when it finds it (if you let it, and trust the process of going through the dizzy, light headed zone, or 85% of heart rate (HR) or more ) as this is it’s series of steps.

The first message to your brain to stop and stay in the red muscle fiber zone, or aerobic zone, is to be light headed. You’ll be uncomfortable being out of breath. This is where the athletic mentality needs to train your brain to keep going. Change your inner dialogue.

Its tough because without much oxygen, the body is needing to change that stored glucose into a chemical substance. This is called LACTATE – the thing that will break down the glucose. The process of bringing yourself into a runners high is only possible when you train beyond 85% of your maximum heart rate. This is the platform needed to create lactic acid.

runners high

But you feel so good afterwards

This Too Shall Pass

The body hates this lactic acid and will try to remove it through making you ‘fake throwup’. Unless you have been drinking the night before you’ll only feel sick. It’s extremely rare that you’ll actually get sick. This is just the bodies way to try to punish you to let you know that it didn’t like that big workout and would rather you stayed on the couch tomorrow and ate pies. So don’t listen to it, go through the nausea if it comes in tonight, and deal with that knowing it will pass. 

For safety reasons, avoid agility work when training anaerobically if you are still at the beginner stages of fitness. One of the symptoms of training at this intensity is clumsiness. Wait until you can run a mile faster than 10 minutes on an outdoor trail. This is a good marker of being at intermediate fitness level. The fitter you are, the more you can handle!

Have you ever trained into a runners high? What motivated you to push yourself into it? 

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Cat Smiley

Cat Smiley

Fitness Director at Whistler Fitness Vacations
Cat Smiley is a certified Life Coach, Master Trainer, Wilderness Guide and Sports Nutritionist (author of The Planet Friendly Diet). She has been named 3-time Canadian Trainer of the Year by the International Sports Science Association and is a former professional athlete. Follow her on Linkedin or Facebook - and of course, sign up for a fitness program with us to work with her in Whistler!
Cat Smiley
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