The Power Of The Brain

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Running is the ultimate power vacation – no cellphones, no kids, no bosses. But all’’s not quiet in the brain while you’’re pounding the pavement. In fact, you’’re performing mind acrobatics: problem-solving, making your to-do list, even drifting to a calm state. – By Gigi Douban


“Running gives you the freedom to access those inner processes that the busy outer world often robs you of,” says James P. Brennan, a professor of human behaviour.

Studies show that elite runners tend to stay focussed on the run -– on things like form, pace and the way their bodies feel. The rest of us flit around four major thought bubbles: organising, problem-solving, wandering and pondering.

A lot of people will shift back and forth during a run, depending on the day. Each thought pattern has its pros and cons. Recognising them helps you get the most out of your workouts.

Think About It: Organising

Most days, Lindsay Decken, 24, wakes up at 5am to run 8 to 10km. By the time she’’s done, she has a pretty clear idea what she’’ll be doing the rest of the day. Between 10-hour days at work and evenings – and weekends packed with volunteering gigs and home renovations,  her runs provide a much-needed chance to see the big picture.

““It’s a time to get away from everything”,” she says. ““I have complete solitude.””

It’’s great when the organising leaves you with a sense of accomplishment. But experts say that if taking inventory starts to be a source of tension, then you’’ve taken it too far.

Set a time limit, maybe 15 minutes, to think about all the tasks piling up.

“You don’’t want to shackle yourself when one of the things you get out of running is a great release,” Brennan says.

Think About It: Problem-Solving

Jim Mallory, a 42-year-old network technician, often spends several frustrated hours at his desk trying to figure out what’’s tripping up a customer’s data network. Then he’’ll put in 16km at lunch. “While running, or shortly afterwards, I’’ll think of some new angle and end up fixing it right away”,” he says.

Running has a way of untying some huge brain knots. Because we’’re stepping out of our task-oriented days during a run, we’re subconsciously turning off creativity-killers like distractions and blame. Add in feel-good brain chemicals triggered by running, and your brain is at its best.

What’’s more, experts say, running is a right-brain activity. Most of the day, whether we’re poring over documents at work or shopping lists at home, we’re in left-brain territory. If you’’re working your left side really hard, you might not give the right side a chance to come up with something.

Think About It: Wandering

If you were to listen in on Aaron Cunningham’s thoughts during his 8km loops, you might hear this: “Oh, that restaurant looks interesting. I wonder if it’s any good? That runner looks fast. There’’s the new outdoor centre. I haven’’t been canoeing in a long time.”

Cunningham, a 36-year-old software engineer, says letting his mind roam keeps him relaxed when he wants to maintain a moderate pace. ““If I start thinking fast thoughts, I’’ll run too fast and start pushing harder than I should”,” he says. Plus, a wandering mind helps him pass the time.

““Part of it is just being in the moment”,” Cunningham says.

Letting your mind go walkabout offers a tremendous release -– part of the reason many of us run. Rather than taxing your brain by focussing on work stress or the kids’’ busy schedule, you’’re giving it a chance to meditate or float. It’’s rejuvenating. But that’’s not a pass to stay in la-la land for the duration of your run. Doing so can detract from your performance, so check in with your body every few minutes. Otherwise, you risk blowing your workout – failing to maintain a certain pace for tempo runs, for example, or not feeling any warning pain from an injury.

Think About It: Pondering

When she’’s facing a packed day at work, Lindsay Decken postpones her morning run until afternoon. By then, the day, with all it’s stresses, is well under way. And rather than building a to-do list, she spends a lot of her quiet time with raging thoughts about work pressures.

“”I’’ll get frustrated, go for a run, and talk myself down”,” she says. “”You don’’t necessarily solve anything, but everything that bothered me at work is erased from my memory, at least until the next day.””

Experts say it’’s okay to feel anxious or angry during a run, but if it consumes you, set it aside.

Put your life in compartments. Say to yourself, ”I’m going to take everything that happened at work, put it in a drawer, and I’m not going to think about it.”” After all, ruminating endlessly won’’t just suck the fun out of your run. Those negative vibes can also compromise your performance.

Wrong Headed: How to figure out – and avoid -– mind problems
Letting your thoughts turn a stellar run into a drag? Human performance consultant James Brennan gives three signs it’s time to switch head gears.

You’’re not happy
We run to feel good. So if you notice your thoughts bringing you down, give yourself permission to leave your woes behind until after your run.
“If our thoughts are negative, we’re going to be in a poorer physiological state,” Brennan says. That means you’’re more likely to huff up that hill or putter out early on a long run.

You’’re tense
Running provides a release, but overthinking a problem can start to show in your form –- shoulders up to your ears or shallow breathing, for example. Brennan recommends taking a mental inventory of your body, starting at your head and working down.

You’’re slower
Who doesn’’t love a little daydream on a run? That’’s fine, but if you have goals, don’’t stay on autopilot the entire time. Check in every few minutes, or tell yourself you’’ll let your mind go after this split. Until then, stay focused on your pace, Brennan says.

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