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  • Writer's pictureNeuropsychology Dorset

The Neuropsychology of Running

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

There’s a common saying in the runner's community that you ‘never regret a run’. Even when you really don’t want to get off from the sofa, lace up your shoes and leave your front door, you usually feel better for doing so. But why? Because of your brain. Any changes to your thinking patterns, your mind, your motivation, or emotions ultimately comes from what your brain is doing. Your mind is the by-product of your brain. Neuroscientists have studied the effects of running on the brain and the results explain why we often feel so good during and after we've laced up and gone for a run.

The research is somewhat limited due to it being a tad difficult to run with a brain scanner attached around your head, so neuroscientists have studied the brain at rest after a run. First, they saw increased co-ordinated activity mainly at the front of the brain, an area known to be involved in executive functions and working memory. These are key parts of the brain that we use every day as they are involved in problem solving, attention and planning. A 2018 experiment from West Michigan University, also showed that running quickly for half an hour (tempo quick) improves your “cortical flicker frequency” threshold. This is associated with the ability to better process information. Think about how you function at work after you managed a morning run, you usually feel more alert and focussed. This isn’t just a feeling, this is in-part the result of areas in your brain involved in cognition changing due to the run. Maybe it was worth getting out of bed for then…

Other than cognitive abilities, running can help improve your mood and ease the ever-wandering mind we have. A study has shown that running led to a calming down of the “default mode network”, which is a series of linked brain regions that spring into action whenever we are idle or distracted. Your default mode network is the source of your inner (sometimes annoying) monologue, the instigator of worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. What happens when the default mode network is at play isn’t always helpful, and it has been associated with clinical depression. But, going for a run means that when your brain falls into the default mode network it will be a little quieter and hopefully kinder to you.

Unlike other chemical shortcuts to happiness, running does not lead to a quick comedown. In fact, research shows that regular running reduces stress and elevates mood over the long term. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise identified increased levels of tryptophan in runners. Elevated tryptophan is typically paralleled by increased levels of the mood-elevating neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is typically the neurotransmitter that a lot of prescribed anti-depressants attempt to increase and make them hang around for longer in your brain. Some research has shown that exercise can be just as effective as anti-depressants at improving mood, and this could be why, as running increases serotonin levels. Think of serotonin as the feeling of being content… not worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, not striving for change or seeking a dopamine hit, not feeling irritable or on edge, but instead just at ease.

Now the runner's high, have you experienced this? That feeling like you're just floating along and could run all day and you are invincible. What’s that all about? It’s got to be something that is changing in your brain. Something really, really good. In 2008, German neuroscientists wanted to find out. They used functional brain imaging to show that, in trained runners, beta-endorphin levels do indeed spike in the brain after a two-hour run. Increased levels of endorphin activity in the brain correlated with the runners’ self-reported feelings of euphoria. Now you don’t have to run two hours to get a runner's high, but it does seem like the likelihood of it happening during the run increases as the time on your feet extends.

Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and cookie hampers… research has shown that excessive running can negatively impact the brain. German neuroscientists scanned the brains of some of the competitors before, during, and after the TransEurope Foot Race, in which competitors endure 3,000 miles, over 64 consecutive days. In the middle of this extreme ultramarathon, the runners’ grey matter had shrunk in volume by 6%: the ‘normal’ shrinkage associated with old age is just 0.2% each year. Thankfully, eight months later the runners’ brains were back to normal. Although the findings from this study are specific to an excessive level of running, it does remind us of the importance of rest and recovery for your brain, especially if you are an all year-round ultra-runner. Your body may feel physically fine after consecutive 100 mile weeks, however your brains grey matter may need a bit more downtime. Grey matter is pretty important, as it a major component of your central nervous system. The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control.

It is important to acknowledge that running alone is not the solution to mental distress, and it should not replace whatever you already use to help maintain your psychological well-being. However, going by the research (and there is a lot more of it), it can be positive for our brains and an essential tool in our toolkit to help enhance our cognitive abilities, reduce stress, and improve our overall neuropsychology and mental health.

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