climbing mountains photo

 

Ultrarunning is, quite literally, a physical journey – from point A to point B. But it is also a metaphysical journey. Sometimes that journey travels outward – like when we realize that the challenges in our lives pale in comparison to what we have already faced while running – and sometimes it travels inward – like when we find ourselves struggling, deep into a race and fighting hard to find the strength to continue. Yet the journey, whether it be physical, metaphysical, or even spiritual, is always accompanied by a neurological change.

 

“I feel like my mind is free when I run,” Gilles Pallaruelo, a finisher of an astounding 19 Spartathlon races (a 153 mile race from Athens to Sparta) told me a few years ago. Well according to a recent study at the University of Arizona, the mind isn’t just free while running, it is also laying down some very distinct neurological patterns. Comparing the brain scans of young adult cross country runners to young adults who don’t engage in regular physical activity, researchers found that the runners, overall, showed greater functional connectivity – or connections between distinct brain regions – within several areas of the brain, including the frontal cortex, which is important for cognitive functions such as planning, decision-making and the ability to switch attention between tasks (Raichlen, et al, 2016).

 

Planning, decision making, and the ability to control and focus attention when needed – what Tim Harford, author of the brilliant book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure might call the ingredients for success. According to Harford, who traced the success patterns of several of the world’s largest businesses and compared them to the patterns of evolution – following the survival rate of several different species – found that in successful businesses and successful species no pattern exists at all. The takeaway is that more than avoiding failures, success depends not just on having them, but rather, learning to adapt to them. Adapting, Harford says, requires three key features: consistently taking measurable risks, learning from your failures, and repeating the pattern.

 

The key lies in repeating the pattern. It is only in the aggregate of our accumulated experiences that we create a model with which we can approach the world. And here, the repetitive pattern of ultrarunning offers a clear neurological advantage: it strengthens the very brain circuitry that allows uninterrupted habits to persevere.

 

But this model, according to Princeton’s Psychology Professor, Elizabeth Gould, has some clear evolutionary roots. In her studies of runners’ brains, Gould found that runners have consistently lower levels of anxiety. Not news really, except when you consider the survival advantage of high anxiety to a less fit individual. As Gould explains, “Anxiety often manifests itself in avoidant behavior and avoiding potentially dangerous situations would increase the likelihood of survival, particularly for those less capable of responding with a “fight or flight” reaction” (Gould, 2013).

 

It’s true that fit individuals do have less anxiety, and as far as ultrarunners go, tend to take on more challenges. But it’s not just that they take on more challenges, ultrarunners have a very different attitude toward challenges altogether. Taking on challenges that consistently cultivate strengths, isn’t just rewarding by nature, it also creates a surge of dopamine – the neurochemical most associated with pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction, and reward. And the more runners prime this reward pump, the more the association toward challenge becomes one of approach and reward, not avoid, and well, avoid. As Steven Kotler, the author of The Rise of Superhuman: Decoding The Science of Ultimate Human Performance describes it, “When doing what we love transforms us into the best possible version of ourselves and that version hints at even greater future possibilities, the urge to explore those possibilities becomes feverish compulsion” (Kotler, 2014).

 

Yet we don’t just become more inclined to approach challenges and explore the possibilities that lie therein, we also became more neurologically capable. In a randomized, controlled study of 6,807 subjects, researchers from the University of Georgia demonstrated that after performing an exercise program that challenged them, marked increases in the levels of energy-promoting and mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin were found in their brains. And this is a very consistent effect – as one researcher noted, “It has been demonstrated in more than ninety percent of similar studies” – with a very powerful outcome: reduced fatigue. The act of developing and cultivating our skills to overcome challenges, in fact, was a stronger deterrent of fatigue than the narcolepsy drug modafinil (O’Connor, et.al, 2006).

 

Part of the reason that dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are associated with less pain might also have something to do with a small area of the brain, called the periaqueductal grey (PAG), which is associated with pain sensing – when we feel pain, it is the first area of the brain to become activated. But activation of the PAG also depends on the number of dopamine neurons the PAG has – the less dopamine neurons available to detect pain, the less pain we feel. And when we run, the number of dopamine neurons in the periaqueductal grey (PAG) decreases, which might explain why running makes us feel so good – because we feel less pain (O’Connor, et.al, 2006).

 

Ultrarunning acts upon the brain in fascinating ways. First laying down the neurological circuitry that allows us to persevere in the face of challenges, then rewarding us with a cascade of neurological effects – from increased dopamine and serotonin levels, to decreased anxiety — ultrarunning is like a neurochemical vitamin. And the result is not just that we become the best version of ourselves, but perhaps the most neurologically advanced.

 

 

 

References:

David A. Raichlen, Pradyumna K. Bharadwaj, Megan C. Fitzhugh, Kari A. Haws, Gabrielle-Ann Torre, Theodore P. Trouard, Gene E. Alexander (2016). Differences in Resting State Functional Connectivity between Young Adult Endurance Athletes and Healthy Controls. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2016.

J. Schoenfeld, P. Rada, P. R. Pieruzzini, B. Hsueh, E. Gould (2013). Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanisms in the Dentate Gyrus. Journal of Neuroscience, 2013; 33 (18): 7770

Kotler, S. (2014). The Rise of Superhuman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. New York, New Harvest (2014).

O’Conner, et. al. (2006). Regular Exercise Plays A Consistent And Significant Role In Reducing Fatigue. ScienceDaily, 8 November 2006.