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What Your Brain Thinks When You Run

Physical activity is necessary for your overall health and well being. You don’t have to join the gym to become more active or do some demanding exercises. One of the simplest ways of improving your fitness levels and health is running. Benefits of running are versatile and they go from health improvement to confidence boost. But, what most people never consider is what’s going on in your brain while you’re running. Series of interesting processes occur at that time and purpose of this article is to shed some light that will help you perceive running from a different angle.

Runners’ Thought Process

A wide range of studies were conducted to inspect the effect of running on brain and its processes such as thinking. For example, Ashley Samson and team of scientists of the California State University conducted a study to evaluate thought process in distance runners. The study included 10 amateur distance runners (6 men and 4 women) with the mean age of 41. All participants were in training for a half-marathon or a longer distance. Runners were given some practice recording their thoughts while on the treadmill. After that, scientists gave them recording equipment which they had to use to record their thoughts while running outside.

In the end, scientists ended up with more than 18 hours of recording. Results of the study were published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology and they showed that runners’ thoughts can be divided into three distinctive categories. They are:
◾Most runners, 40% of them, thought about pace and distance. This shows that calculating the optimum speed, considering energy levels, and distance left to cover is highly important for non-competition runners as well.
◾32% of participants thought about pain and discomfort. This refers to thoughts about injuries, causes of pain and discomfort as well as thoughts about coping including motivational strategies.
◾28% of runners thought about running environment. This includes thoughts about scenery, geography, especially those nasty hills, and the weather.

The importance of this study is in the fact it’s the very first time thoughts of distance runners were analyzed. Researchers hope results will be of huge help for sports psychologists.

How Does Brain Keep Up With Your Feet?

Now that you know what runners usually think about we’re going to discuss what, actually, is going on in your brain when you run. How does your brain manage to keep up with your feet? Ahmed O.J. and Mehta M.R. of the Brown University conducted a study which explains what happens in your brain when you’re on your run. Results of their paper were published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The primary purpose of the study was to discover how place cell firing and neural oscillations vary as you run. To do this, scientists attached electrode arrays into the rats’ hippocampi and monitored the oscillations of their place cells while they ran through a maze. They discovered a correlation between the power of the gamma oscillations of the place neurons and speed of animals meaning as the speed increased there was a strong correlation for the gamma oscillation to increase in power as well. So what does this mean actually? Basically, when you run fast the gamma oscillations in your brain become stronger and more powerful thus allowing the brain to “run faster” as well.

These gamma oscillations are triggered by higher excitatory drive to the interneurons in the hippocampus and this varies in speed as you run. As you can see; a wide array of processes occurs in your brain as you run. These processes are necessary for orientation, calculating your speed, distance etc.

What’s Going On In Your Brain When You Run?

Let’s stick with brain processes now. Above in the article you had the opportunity to read how brain keeps up with your feet. Below, you can see what is really going on while you’re out running. We’re going to provide a brief insight into these processes divided onto different stages of your run. For example:

◾0:00:00 – You are about to start your run and brain anticipates challenge. It has probably signaled your nervous system already to start conserving resources. In turn, your heart beats faster and your blood is diverted to your limbs from stomach and digestive tract. This usually causes the sensation of having butterflies in your stomach when starting your run. Some people experience tingling in arms and legs.
◾0:05:00 – Your brain receives information from your body that it’s getting exercise which is interpreted as a type of stress. In people with low fitness level, this stress releases fight-or-flight hormone cortisol. Then, your nervous system releases a protein called BDNF or brain-derived neurotropic factor which stimulates centers for learning, memory and other cognitive functions in your brain. Basically, since brain interprets running or exercises as stress, it automatically takes necessary measures to maintain normal conditions.
◾0:15:00 – At this point, if you’re not in shape, your brain is probably telling you to stop and take some rest. Again, it happens due to elevated cortisol levels. On the other hand, if you’re in good shape, neurotransmitters associated with reward centers in brain are blocking those stress hormones and releasing hormones that give you sense of pleasure and dull sensitivity to pain.
◾1:00:00 – Elevated blood pressure and heart rate continue to pump oxygen to the brain and body even if you’re not running at this point. In turn, you’re feeling sharp and energized. This is why you feel more energetic after your run than you were before.


As you run different processes occur in your brain. This article aimed to shed some light onto what happens in your brain when you’re physically active. Remember, running is beneficial for your overall health and well being and is definitely something you should do regularly. This article also showed you that running regularly and improving your fitness levels can create a sense of pleasure in your brain and make you feel more energetic.