Runners Brain

Physiology may set your performance limits, but psychology determines whether you reach those limits.

Positive Mental Benefits of Running

happy-runnersA 2013 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered walking and running actually helps build new neuropathways and thus improves memory. It is thought a protein known as BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor is the reason. This protein helps maintain the health of existing neurons and the formation of new ones. Wow! So, not only keep the neurons healthy which we already possess, but running encourages the creation of new ones. These benefits were noticed with as little as 3 hours per week of cardiovascular exercise.

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Exercise promotes specific neuroplastic changes that boost mood and self-confidence, reduce anxiety, and promote relaxation. This occurs through the effects of endorphins – naturally occurring chemicals which induce a sense of happiness. The effects of endorphins are powerful and responsible for the “happy” feeling or “runner’s high” we experience with exercise. In fact, in one study, researchers found that 60% of subjects with clinical depression were free of that diagnosis after a program that included running.

Running stimulates the reward center in our brain, or more appropriately a center in the brain that is stimulated when we anticipate a reward. The neurotransmitter dopamine is thought to play a role. With repeated exposure to running, our minds will begin to anticipate physical and psychological rewards. As you can imagine, this anticipation can be good or bad. If our running experiences have been a struggle, that is what our minds will come to anticipate each time we head out for a run. Conversely, if we train in a manner that allows us to enjoy running, then our minds will anticipate a positive reward for our efforts. This is likely the genesis of a “runner’s high.” This emphasizes the need to craft and structure our running such that it provides a positive result. Factors such as variability and spontaneity can keep these experiences rewarding. Always remember why you started running in the first place.


The brain possess a system which helps us focus on particular tasks and ignore non-essential information; it’s called the reticular activating system, or RAS. It’s primary role is to help you prioritize tasks and direct your attention to what’s important. Without this system, your brain would be inundated with sensory information and you would have trouble sorting through immediate concerns. Interestingly, the RAS can’t tell the difference between a real or imagined event; it simply pays attention to what you feed it. In this manner, using the power of visualization can positively affect the RAS. Research seems to suggest that visualizing a great performance will nearly match the neural patterns of a real physical performance.

Do you see yourself as a runner? Well, our identity is tied to the RAS. Both positive and negative experiences influence who believe we are through the filter of our RAS. The greater number of reinforcing episodes, the more powerful our beliefs become. In essence, learning to frame our experiences in a positive manner will reinforce our identity. Applied to running, this means we must actively seek to find the positive effects of our training and racing. It’s important to adjust any factor necessary which feeds our belief that we are indeed a runner. Amby Burfoot, a Boston Marathon winner put it this way, “I had more good days than bad days. The trick is to keep the good days in front of your mind and remember that your achievements aren’t a fluke.”

Association and Dissociation

Without thinking about it, our minds tend to adopt one of four strategies to occupy our time while running. Sometimes we switch between these processes during the same activity. Learning to control which strategy our mind adopts will improve our overall performance and lead to a greater sense of enjoyment.

  • External association is a focus on the task at hand while concentrating on factors outside of the body and which are related to the activity. For example, focusing on the sound of your shoes hitting the road, focusing on the surface you are running on, or paying attention to those cheering for you during a race. In this manner, thoughts are focused on running, just not the physical exertion.
  • Internal association is a focus on your running performance. Examples of this are your breathing, heart rate, stride length, cadence, or even pain. This generally involves specific tasks or a check-list of factors you’ve defined as important to your performance.
  • External dissociation is a focus on external factors not related to running. For example, listening to music, involving yourself in a conversation with a running partner, or counting light posts.
  • Internal dissociation focuses your mind inward on issues unrelated to running. You may focus on things that need to be done at work, a to-do list at home, or a grocery list. Essentially, anything that keeps your mind off running.

external-dissociationSports psychologists tend to recommend dissociation as the best strategy for boredom and association as the best for performance. Associative thinkers tend to post faster times than dissociative thinkers. What this suggests is that dissociative thinking is likely the best strategy for novice runners while associative thinking pays dividends the further along in the training that runner advances.

So, in relation to running, how does an associative or dissociative strategy relate to pain? Because, when it all comes down to it, we don’t want to feel pain while we run. Couldn’t a dissociative strategy lead a runner to ignore pain from an injury? The answer may surprise you. Injury rates do not appear to be related to dissociative thinking. Neither does it appear to be related to a history of running-related injuries during training or competition either. The reason is your body can only dissociation so far from pain. At a certain point, the mind will focus on the pain regardless of how distracted we try to be. Interestingly, to some extent association is related to higher injury rates. This is likely the result of an overwhelming focus on the details of running these types of thinkers adopt; essentially they will push through pain more than dissociative thinkers. A “no pain, no gain” mentality.