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Feature: This is your brain on running

By Dan Way

“When I first started running cross country in Grade 5, I was told that running was 10 per cent physical and 90 per cent mental. I thought that was kind of silly until my illness became more severe.”

67076 WEBYou wouldn’t have any idea if you saw him flying around a track or running at the front of the pack in a local road race, but 26 year-old Cole Czuchnicki suffers from Major Depressive Disorder, a mental illness characterized by a persistent low mood and decreased self-esteem. He has been on and off treatment, including antidepressant medication, for the past ten years. Having also been previously clinically diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Czuchnicki has spent much of his life dealing with the struggles and stigma of mental illness. “When I am in a depressed state it is easy to slip into bad habits – not eating well, not sleeping properly,” says Czuchnicki. “It can be a dark place that is hard to get out of.”

Czuchnicki is also a former collegiate runner who knows all too well how the demands and expectations of being both an aspiring young athlete and a dedicated student can create stressful and sometimes unmanageable life situations. “If I haven’t been sleeping or eating properly or I’m carrying a lot of un-addressed emotional baggage and attempt a hard run or workout, I am often in for a rude awakening.”

No longer a college runner, Czuchnicki now continues to train both alone and with a group, and considers his running to be not only a serious hobby, but the primary tool of positive self-care. “Running allows me to gain what I call an acute awareness of my current physical and mental state,” he explains. “My little bit of success as a runner also helps me when I struggle with self-confidence and identity issues.” Czuchnicki says that he strongly identifies as a runner and uses this role to constantly work towards one goal or another, which helps him to channel his energy and focus on his running and other pursuits.

While running itself is beneficial for his mental health, Czuchnicki says that it is the lifestyle that comes with training that helps him most with his struggles with mental illness. “Routine, nutrition, consistency, recovery, and goal setting are all things I have been encouraged to do by both my track coaches and my mental health professionals,” Czuchnicki says, reflecting on the similarity between the structure provided to him through both running and the strategies that have been recommended by mental health professionals over the years. “Running, and specifically competing, allows me to get into that headspace to exercise my confidence and determination muscles.”

In it for the long run

Running is undoubtedly and almost universally good for us. Few would argue with the endless amount of physical health and fitness benefits it affords. Running strengthens our muscles, bones and joints and provides strength and endurance to our heart and lungs. It boosts our metabolism, regulates appetite, and helps control our body weight and composition. Running also decreases our blood pressure and resting heart rate, leading to improved cardiovascular fitness.  Running pretty much benefits every part of the body.

This is no less true than of our brain – and our mind.

Although an understanding of exactly how and what running does to our brains is an area still relatively unexplained and poorly understood, there is growing evidence to support the positive role that running can have on our mental, psychological and emotional health. From warding off age-related dementia, improving memory and cognition, to stimulating the growth and longevity of new brain cells, running has been shown to provide important benefits for our brains’ health.

Most runners are quick to affirm this and can add ample evidence to show that running provides an incredible effect on how they feel both in the short-term, as well as in the long-term.

My own graduate research at the University of Toronto in the Department of Exercise Sciences was conducted on this very subject. For my Master of Science thesis I sought to explore the psychological and social benefits of distance running from the perspectives of recreational yet highly committed runners.

Runners of various ages and abilities who all belonged to a local running club were followed over the course of a year. They shared their insights on some of the many mental benefits of their running. Their self-reporting revealed that many effectively use running to moderate their mood and emotional states.

For many runners, a commitment to distance running is effective for fulfilling a number of seemingly universal human needs, a concept made famous by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. He suggested that these needs existed in a hierarchy, often portrayed as a pyramid or triangle, with the more basic needs (e.g. food, shelter and sleep) on the bottom and the higher order, more sophisticated and complex needs (e.g. a sense of morality, creativity and self-actualization) towards the top.

The needs found to be fulfilled by running included bottom of the pyramid stuff, such as basic physical health, wellness and fitness. But many also benefit from running as a form of identity. This aspect of the sport provides us with acceptance, belonging and recognition as part of a larger social group. Running also delivers other higher order aspects of Maslow’s pyramid, including the feeling of autonomy and independence that comes with those solo runs and our need to be competent and have specific skills and knowledge in a particular milieu. Running also satisfies our need for competition, both against our peers and ourselves.

Laura McLean during a 4K time trial along the Toronto Waterfront’s Martin Goodman Trail

Of course, running increases self-esteem, confidence and a healthy body image. Even in a non-competitive environment, runners also derive personal achievement and satisfaction from the act of running itself, as well as being part of a community of runners. And perhaps ultimately, running delivers on the need for self-actualization, which is considered to be the fulfillment of one’s unique potential, or as Maslow famously stated, “to be all that one can be.”

The runners I spoke with reported that running satisfies different roles at different times. On some days it relaxes and calms them, cleansing them of negative thoughts or energy.  As one participant said, “I do know that, generally, you feel a state= of calm and I definitely do notice that after a run.”

For others it helps them to think clearly and concentrate, allowing them to be creative and more productive in their lives. “I find it easy to organize my thoughts and plan,” said another runner. “I am free to be creative and some of my best work comes during my daily morning run.” Others stated that running, particularly racing and hard efforts, were capable of invigorating and energizing them – providing a feeling of significance and psychological flow – a mental state in which the runner is fully and completely immersed and focused on the activity. Sports fans may refer to this as being “in the zone.”

Finally, some of the runners that I tracked over the course of a year were certain that running was capable of affording them with a feeling of elation and effortlessness, sometimes referred to as the elusive runner’s high. As one participant in my study put it, “I’m exhausted, but I’m kind of elated at the same time.” Another described it as,some sort of serenity that is imposed during and post-run. I don’t do it intentionally, but it just happens.  I definitely feel better. If I’m stressed out and I go for a run or things aren’t great at home, things are better after a run.” Some suggest that for them, running even has almost a spiritual component.It provides me with a sense of clarity, serenity and peace of mind; it’s a holistic activity that brings together the body and the mind,” said another member of the group.

Regardless of the individual effects of running, there is little doubt that something is going on up there in our brains, before, after and while we run.

ole Czuchnicki working out at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium track.

Evolved endurance

Despite there being few practical reasons why we humans in the 21st century would choose to cover long distances by foot, the fact that we not only do it, but enjoy it and reap neurological rewards from it, suggests there is something else going on here. As scientists continue to explore the biological and evolutionary reasons why humans love to run, some recent research may now help explain why humans appear wired to run.

An intriguing 2011 study found that a special type of brain molecule was significantly increased in humans and dogs following high-intensity endurance running. But not in animals had the same chemical response. Animals that don’t seem to like to run, such the ferrets used in the study, did not produce the same response in their brains post-workout. These molecules, called endocannabinoids (the same stuff produced from taking marijuana), are neurotransmitters, the brains’ chemical messengers that play a role in the neurobiological rewards and positive feelings we experience following moderate and intense aerobic activity. Essentially, it’s the stuff that makes us want to do it again and again.

The brains of these so-called cursorial animals, who must (or used to) constantly move around to find food and escape danger, evolved to reward endurance exercise despite the high energy costs and injury risks. Because it was essential for the survival of certain species, running around continues to be reinforced and rewarded by our brains.

The authors suggest that this type of species-specific variation in brain signalling may help explain why some animals (and perhaps some people) exhibit differences in voluntary endurance activity.

Chasing the runner’s high

“I don’t even think of it as exercise, to be frank. I think of it as running. I love running to such a degree that I wouldn’t really give it up for much. I get high from running so the value to me is not necessarily physical fitness…” – Participant on a study of commitment to running

We’ve all heard or know of someone who is convinced that they’ve experienced the elusive runner’s high. Often associated with intense feelings of elation, effortlessness, calm, and serenity; the runner’s high is best described as an acute and temporary experience that results in an overwhelmingly positive and pleasurable mood state.

“I don’t feel it anymore – the stress of life and the pain of running. I’m in another dimension where everything slows down and nothing really matters. I can sit and analyze what it is I want to deal with and how I will go about it… it’s hard to be bothered after a wonderful run.”

McLean at the Longboat Toronto Island Run

Although research has been done to investigate if and how this experience is embodied, few studies have been successful at producing or even describing such a state or event.

It’s been known for many years that running is capable of releasing various hormones, including the often accredited endorphins, known for their ability to produce euphoria. Others such as adrenaline (our fight or flight hormone), cortisol (the chemical response to stress), serotonin (a happiness hormone), dopamine (associated with neurological reward pathways), and more recently, cannabinoids have all been used to help explain the runner’s high. To date, no one has been able provide a clear explanation, which means that we will continue to rely on anecdotal claims from euphoric runners like this one from a training partner of mine following a recent long run. Excitedly, he states, “When I’m racing and I’m running really well, there’s just nothing else like it on earth. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. I’m doing what I love to do and doing it exactly as I want to.”

Running from demons

Laura McLean is a dedicated runner with a marathon personal best of 3:06. She also struggles with mental health issues. She developed depression in her early teens, and has been anxious and experiencing panic attacks for as long as she can remember.

“You would be hard pressed to find a teammate, current or former, who hasn’t seen one of my panic attacks,” McLean says candidly. “The attack comes fast and it comes hard.” They are often violent and full of tears. She hyperventilates and becomes filled with “a firestorm of negative self-talk.” They take hours to pass and there is no limitation to where and when they occur. One of her major concerns is how they will be received by the people around her. “Many people with panic disorders become anti-social,” McLean points out. “It’s easy to understand why.”

After many years living in silence and fearing the stigma associated with being a person with a mental illness, Laura is now open and honest about her mental health issues. She acknowledges the impact that her illness has on her life, but doesn’t let it define her. “I identify as mentally ill in the same way I identify as an athlete. Neither is all encompassing, but both are deeply rooted in who I am.”

With one in five Canadians now living with or having experienced some form of mental health issue in their past, it is quite certain that many of today’s booming population of runners count themselves amongst those affected. Many of these people use running as a means to help prevent, cope with or overcome their issues. For people like Laura, running has become an activity of self-expression, where their illness and issues are forced to take the backseat, at least for a little while.” My refuge is the road,” she says. “Anywhere I want to go I can – running will take me there and positivity will follow.”

McLean finds running to be mostly a resolute experience, and admits that she’s never seen it as something beyond a mood stabilizer. “We’ve all heard talk of the runners high,” McLean says. “I’ve never felt that.” While she doesn’t necessarily believe that running can help her reach that elusive state of euphoria, it clearly brings her an invaluable sense of clarity, purpose and meaning to her life. “I’ve felt elated and determined, particularly after a good race,” she says. “I’ve felt sharp and strong after a good workout. But the best feeling for me is calm. When I’m out on the road I’ve outrun my demons. I’m alone, but not lonely.”

Laura also points out how running helps her to be the person she wants to be by training her body and her mind to be at its best while staying within its limitations. Although she doesn’t believe that running should replace medication or counselling, she stresses the value it provides by helping her to be social, to express herself and to see positive improvements in herself and in others. She also draws an interesting comparison. “I’m learning that there isn’t much difference between the hurt in your legs and lungs during a workout and the hurt in your mind and heart during a [panic attack] episode,” she says. “It’s how you perceive that pain, respond to it, and grow from it that matters most.”

For someone like Laura, running seems to help make dealing with this difficult, and at times frightening, world a little more manageable. “My breathing calms, the negativity and worry leave, positive self-talk begins and I feel free. I float to the surface, the run out powers the illness.”

A prescription for running

Many mental health professionals now agree that physical activity participation can play a vital role in both preventing and recovering from mental illness. Dr. Ali Cure is a clinical psychologist working at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She works with individuals, who suffer from a wide range of disorders including physical dependence (i.e. addictions), anxiety and mood disorders such as depression. On the connection between running and mental health she states: “Running is a great way for patients to work out their issues and see immediate improvements to their mood and feeling states.” She is a vocal proponent of physical activity being an important part of positive mental health. “No matter who you are or what your history with mental illness might be, exercise is an effective and hopefully enjoyable way to be and to become a happier, and healthier person.”

Some programs including those used at CAMH now include running as part of the process of overcoming mental illness. “Many of our outpatient programs promote exercise and aerobic activities to help patients channel their negative energy and turn it into something positive, both for the body and for the mind.” Although there is no guarantee that running will help all individuals in their recovery, it seems that is more than enough to warrant keeping running as part of the programming offered by CAMH and other mental health institutions.

And despite the still limited amount of conclusive research, it’s safe to say that running can go far to improve and prolong the physical ability of the brain and a healthy psychological state. And in the end, all that really matters is that running makes us feel good and that we enjoy it enough to want to do it again and again.