By: Frederick C. Surgent
What is it about running that allows the brain to wander about things you normally would not think about and come up with creative ways to look at problems, in some cases, solve life’s problems and in other cases to just come up with new ideas? All runners experience this but not on every run and usually on a run that does not have a real competitive purpose or goal – just going out and enjoying the run. This whole idea is present in the words of Henry David Thoreau when he said, “Me thinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Why you might ask does this happen? First, running is a closed skill. This means that the skill is predictable (no object, ball, club being used in the performance of the skill) and does not take a lot of thought or dexterity to produce. In other words, once you learn how to put one foot in front of the other, you are on your way to running. It is a basic movement pattern which everyone can master. Along with being a closed skill, running becomes an automatic process that is repeated over and over so thoughts about what the runner is doing in terms of the movements in the run are no longer important. Of course, the runner needs to be aware of what the environment presents to prevent injuries and continue to move in an efficient manner. If the runner wants to be great, he/she needs to be endowed with the God-given talent, personality, ability and heredity to extend the limits of human achievement. Very few individuals have all these qualities. But for most runners, they will never be great, yet they can reap the benefits of this fundamental movement.
Of course, we all know the physiological benefits of running; improved lung capacity, stronger heart, stronger bone mass, increased strength and flexibility and so much more. Sometimes, what we do not recognize is the psychological benefits of running. Reduction in stress, anxiety and depression, along with mood enhancement, are just a few of them. Together with these benefits, recent research has provided us with startling new evidence about the benefits to the brain. Seeing these kinds of benefits demonstrates the importance of moving in some form or other, with running being one of the primary ways to reap these benefits. But with all these benefits, is there still more that comes from this simple form of moving? The answer is yes. As alluded to early on in this article, one of the unique benefits produced by running is allowing the brain to free itself from the everyday thoughts of the world. The runner’s brain goes to new thoughts not previously recognized and creates a new vision of what was and eventually could be. How is this done? Remember running is a closed skill, so if you are not thinking about what must be done each time you take a stride, then your brain is free to wander. Prior to this wandering, the runner may go into what has been described as a trance-like state and experience a feeling of euphoria. This is sometimes referred to as the runner’s high. A runner’s high has been theorized to be caused by the release of endorphins in the brain. The release of these endorphins mitigates pain, enhances mood and allows the brain to create new thoughts. This state is not always achieved on a run but has a better chance of being accomplished if the runner is absorbed in the run so much so that they are in the moment. Furthermore, the longer the run the better the chance of experiencing this state.
Another variable to enter what sometimes feels like a trance-like state is to be in solitude as the run progresses and becomes one with the environment. Running in a pristine natural environment with trees, rocks, flowers, fauna and flowing water can further enhance this so-called trance-like state. This type of environment calms the runner and gradually the runner becomes a part of the environment. This feeling of becoming a part of nature leaves the runner open to create whatever thoughts may enter the brain. Depending on what is going on during the day, or what tangled problems the runner is having or has had or what new thoughts they wish to consider, they will eventually enter his/her brain.
Summing up, the creation of free-flowing thoughts in the brain during a run are augmented with the repetitious movements of the run, the automatic nature of the run, the solitude of the run and the freedom of the brain to leave behind concentrating on the movement itself. Combining these aspects with the run will most likely free the brain up to wander off into ideas not previously encountered.