This Is Your Brain on Running
Ready, set, go!
Did you know that your brain benefits from your run before you even begin running? Yep. While the physical benefits of running are often talked about, the mental benefits are just as impressive. At ChiRunning, we often discuss the integration of running with your mind, body and spirit. Today, we’ll be looking at the “mind” in running, and what your brain experiences during each and every step.
Your brain at 0:00:00
Right from the get go your brain begins anticipating a challenge, and has signaled to your nervous system that it’s time to begin conserving energy and resources. Due to this, your heart begins to beat faster and also some of the blood is diverted from your stomach and digestive tract to your limbs. This pumps your muscles full of oxygen and all of the nutrients your body needs to get the job done.
The diversion of blood away from your gut can come in the form of butterflies in your stomach, or even tingling in your arms or legs. So, before you even take your first step — your mind is preparing you for a good, solid run.
Your brain at 0:05:00
At this point, your brain begins to receive signals from your body that it’s getting a workout, which it interprets as a type of stress, according to research from Brazil’s Federal University. For new or out-of-shape runners, this stress can trigger a larger release of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol. However, more experienced runners have a dampened cortisol response, at least in the earlier stages of a long run, Federal University explains. That’s why we always suggest you start every run slowly and build from there.
No matter if your stress reactions are mild or intense, your nervous system releases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates certain regions of your brain that are related to learning, memory and higher cognitive functions like decision making, as shown in a study from Texas Tech University. This helps you better interpret the information you’re receiving from your body (ie. I’m working hard!) and to make decisions about what to do next (ie. Keep going? Slow down? Stop?). To put this even more simply, your brain recognizes that your body is under stress, so it takes a step to maintain normal conditions.
Your brain at 0:15:00
As a response to continuous exertion, your brain experiences a flood of neurotransmitters whose type and amount depend on your training level. If you’re not used to running long distances, elevated levels of cortisol will be telling you to give it a rest. But, if you’re more used to running, these neurotransmitters actually exert chemicals like serotonin and dopamine which give you a sense of pleasure and dull your sensitivity to pain, studies show.
Your brain may also be enjoying an influx of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which increases alertness. So, the more you run, the more the stress reactors turn to pleasure reactors!
At this stage, it’s also common to experience some muscle cramping. While a lot of runners believe this is caused by dehydration, it could also be an issue of your brain directing secondary muscles to fire more forcefully, research suggests. As your main running muscles weaken (and your form goes off a bit) your brain tells your surround muscle groups to chip in a bit. But those muscles aren’t accustomed to working so hard, so, they cramp. That’s why good running technique and relaxation in your movement are key principles in ChiRunning designed to help you never experience cramping.
Your brain at 1:00:00
Whether you’re a new runner, or experienced — your elevated heart rate and your blood pressure will continue to pump oxygen to your brain and body, even if you’re done with your running session. This will leave you feeling sharp and energized.
As noted before, the longer you run, the less the stress hormones are in control (cortisol) and the more pleasure hormones are released (dopamine). So, unless you’ve overworked yourself and depleted those hormones, these levels will remain elevated for a long time leaving you with a sense of pleasure, alertness and calm. You should aim to finish every workout “pleasantly fatigued” and not overworked or weakened. The more you practice the relaxation and efficiency of the ChiRunning technique, the less your body will have to produce stress-related hormones. It’s a win, win!
By focusing your mind on your body and the ChiRunning techniques, your mind gets another kind of workout, strengthening your ability to lazer in on a specific topic or project for longer periods of time. Focusing on learning something new while being physically actice is particularly good for the brain. This kind of “training” for your brain also adds to that feeling of calm and relaxation. Your mind is often jumping from one topic to another, giving you a feeling of overwhelm, confusion or lack of ability to focus. ChiRunning increases the positive brain activity of running.
This story from a psychologist gives you a sense of the possibilities:
I was in the later miles of the run and was feeling a little tired. I found myself having to be more cognizant of my posture and then I took some breaths and connected inwards to Chi. I got the thought I was on one of those moving sidewalks (like in the airport), I pulled my core in focused on just lifting my feet. I got the sense that I did not have to ‘work’, I just had to relax and let the world come to me. Instead of pushing myself forward, I just focused on lifting and lowering my legs, moving my arms to the beat of the metronome (which became the rhythm of life) and holding my core (my center/peace). Universe/chi took care of the rest and moved me forward. Things came to me, I didn’t move to them.
It was beautiful and I was so grateful for the experience – Read Full Testimonial
A clear, focused mind – one of the gifts of ChiRunning.