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Does ultrarunning make you smarter?

A new study looks at the effect of ultrarunning on your brain

There are plenty of reasons why ultrarunners do what they do: to challenge themselves mentally and physically, to explore a new area and to enjoy the great outdoors are just a few of the more common ones. Thanks to a group of scientists, ultrarunners everywhere can add one more item to that list: it’s good for your brain.

Ruth Croft on course at the Tarawera Ultramarathon. Photo: Graeme Murray

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The authors of the study, which was published in June in the scientific journal Medical Science Monitor, wanted to find out how ultrarunning affects brain tissue. Specifically, they wanted to investigate if running long distances had an impact on brain volume. To do so, they recruited 23 healthy males runners, who they classified as either short-trail or ultra-trail endurance runners. They then had the short-trail group run a 38.6K mountain race, while the ultra trail group ran a 119.8K mountain race.

The researchers took MRI scans of the brains of each participant both before and after their races. They found that the volume of gray matter in the brains of both the short trail and long trail runners had significantly increased after their races.

The gray matter in your brain plays a role in memory and executive function, which affects your cognitive performance, balance and co-ordination. Additionally, studies have shown that having more gray matter in your brain is linked to a greater level of intelligence. As we age, we tend to lose brain volume and gray matter, which leads to age-related cognitive diseases like dementia.

Richard Lee Yuen. Photo: The Golden Ultra

The authors of this study concluded that endurance running may help prevent a loss of brain volume and gray matter as you age. It appears that ultrarunners experience the most significant effects, but even runners who go out for 50 kilometres or more can reap the brain-boosting benefits of running. As for whether ultrarunning makes you smarter, the authors didn’t say, but boosting your brain volume certainly won’t do the opposite.

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