Neuroscience of Ultrarunning
The Neuroscience of Ultrarunning
by Claire Nana
by Claire Nana
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 15 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
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.
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.
T. 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.
Claire Dorotik-Nana frequently writes for professional organizations such as the International Sport Science Association and Professional Development Resources. She is also the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards, now available on Amazon.