Bodywork

The Science Behind the Existentially Minded Runner

Why your thoughts go from brilliant to batty on your run

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There's science behind a good runner's high.     Photo: Getty Images/Comstock

You may doubt the numbers, but according to neuroscientist and philosopher Deepak Chopra, you have 60 to 80 thousand thoughts running through your mind every single day. That’s somewhere between 42 and 56 thoughts a minute. Which means that a half-hour run gives you at least 1,260 opportunities to think about whatever you want to. Talk about mind power.

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are running-appropriate: “If I tuck my hips in like Pre, I can run as fast as Pre.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are worth millions: “What if the next special-edition Oreo were s’more-flavored? Hell, yes.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are freaking existential: “Expecting the unexpected is impossible. It can’t be unexpected if you’re expecting it.”

Having thoughts is one thing, but controlling them is another. “It’s common for thoughts to bounce around,” says Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist and mental-training consultant for U.S. Olympic teams and USA Triathlon. “You go from ‘What am I doing out here?’ to ‘Hey, I’m working hard, I’m reaching my goals, I’m doing this!’” Taylor says that the key to keeping your mind on your run is to successfully manage what’s going on in there. Just as with running, this takes training. “You have to learn to master positive thinking,” Taylor explains. “That’s where it gets hard. It’s a skill you have to work at.”

When you do master your mind, you also maximize your fitness level. “You may have the physical ability to run a certain pace or distance, but if you aren’t in the right state of mind, then, mentally, you won’t be able to do it,” says Taylor.

Once you home in and focus, there’s a reason why that half-hour jaunt seems to produce cranial gems: It does. A study conducted by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia shows that exercise promotes memory function and information processing by speeding cell growth in the hippocampus, the memory and learning center of the brain. A running-induced increased heart rate pumps extra oxygen into your noggin’s lobes, also producing a drop in stress hormones. All of which means that that legendary, clear-headed runner’s high is the real thing. 

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