2011-06-13

The Running Mind

It has been brought to my attention that my blog is long on technical information and short on what I will describe as motivational theory. Yet a large part of running - some might even argue the great majority of running - involves feelings of motivation, accomplishment, self-determination, self-reflection, and the simple joy of motion.

One of the best aspects of Sean Burch's Hyperfitness program is that it's more than a workout schedule and a set of workouts. That aspect of the program is what he calles "Hyperstrength." The other components of Hyperfitness, are "Hyperfare" (healthy food, done the Burch way) and - more importantly - "Hypermind." Never in any other fitness regimen have I ever seen this concept addressed as completely as Burch addresses it in his book. The concept of Hypermind sets Hyperfitness apart from its competitors, because it presents the whole concept of elite fitness as a holistic life change, starting wtih an attitude change.

It has always been my intention to include the psychological and motivational aspects of running on this blog. In the spirit of that endeavor, I thought I'd take some time today to cover this in greater specificity. Unlike Sean Burch, I don't have a gimmick or an underlying framework with which to present the idea of the Running Mind, but it is such an important part of running, that I need to at least try.

Psychiatric Benefits of Running
I won't spend too much time on this, because it's almost beside the point. But it does come into play on motivational issues, so it's worth mentioning briefly.

Like any activity the human body enjoys, running causes a release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. In very loose terms, dopamine is the brain's primary "reward" chemical, and serotonin is one of the brain's "satisfaction" chemicals. Knowing that running stimulates the release of both chemicals, it is not difficult to understand why running tends to induce feelings of:
  • Achievement
  • Pride or self-esteem
  • Relaxation
  • The desire to repeat the behavior
Many, many people have reported both clinically and anecdotally that running has helped them overcome feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, boredom, apathy, and so forth. Understanding the impact exercise has on brain chemistry, it's easy to see why people feel this way.

To be clear, I'm not referring to a "runner's high" here. This runs much deeper, and longer-term than a temporary endorphin rush. Running creates a self-perpetuating cycle of positive anticipation, reward, self-esteem, and mental relaxation. Some people may experience an endorphin rush immediately following a run, but that is actually a separate phenomenon than the major psychiatric benefits of running (and all exercise, really).

Opportunity to Meditate
One of the best aspects of running is that it gets you outside, by yourself, for a significant amount of time, often in a regularly scheduled context. Due to the gradual decline of organized religion in modern society and the poor quality of philosophy education in modern schools, very few people these days actually set aside time to reflect on their lives, their problems, and their day in general.

I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me, "What do you think about when you're out there running for so long?" The answer is literally everything. All runners are the same in this regard. The simple fact is, when you're out running for 30+ minutes every day, your mind will wander. If you do this regularly, it will start to wander in predictable ways.

Runners, therefore, find themselves drawn to their run not just for the physical and psychiatric benefits, but also because it is a form of soothing meditation. Whether you subscribe to the kind of active, logical meditative analysis that I do, or practice the less computative meditation that Buddhists do, running offers you a chance to get your fill.

So, as you can see, running is much more than technique and physical accomplishment. It is a much-needed psychological reprieve from the day's hassles, with proven brain-chemistry benefits.