A blog by runners. For runners.

Solving problems on the run: how running helps you think

A strong body equals a strong mind: the running and thinking linkI don’t know about you, but running is my secret weapon for more than just physical health and wellness. Running helps sort out ideas in my head and come up with new ideas. It allows me to de-stress and cool off from all the things running through my brain.

In other words: Running helps me think.

Studies show cognition is greatly enhanced by increased blood flow through the brain, which is exactly what happens during any form of exercise, especially vigorous running. As well, the hippocampus – part of the brain responsible for a lot of learning and memory – is highly active during sweat sessions. Strong body = strong mind.

Better yet, exercise can help preserve your brain for decades to come. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 25-year-old participants (average age) were asked to run on a treadmill for as long as possible to assess fitness. Twenty-five years later, these same individuals took a fitness and cognition test. The results? The more active people had better memory and thinking skills.

On your next run, take advantage of your extra mental capacity with these tips:

  • Use a prompt: If you have a big project or big idea, talk to yourself about it before heading out the door. You don’t have to do it out loud if you’re self-conscious, but ruminate. Ask yourself about a particular issue you’re having trouble tackling. Or decide on anything you’d like to accomplish big or small. Typically I find it easier to sort out smaller stuff on runs, but – other times – I’ve come home with sweeping new directions to take myself in.
  • Write it down: Have a pad and paper (or laptop, etc.) at the ready when you return all sweaty and full of ideas. You’ll be surprised how fleeting they can be. I, for example, have gotten great sentence or paragraph ideas for my personal writing, and then I’ve taken a short shower and not been able to capture the wording again.
  • Leave the music at home: And if you want to see how running can improve your thinking skills, you’ll need to leave your iPod behind. Using your other senses can be distracting, especially if you get wrapped up into music. I start singing along versus directing my mental energy to more productive tasks. I personally save music for days when I cannot think while working out (like speedwork!) – otherwise, I run in silence.
  • Pay attention: As a related safety note: Don’t get too caught up in your thoughts. You still need to be alert for traffic and other hazards. Though running outdoors inspires my mind far better than slogging indoors, a treadmill might be a safer option if you often find yourself deep inside your brain and forget to look both ways.
  • Grab a friend: For an extra dose of challenge, bring along a friend so you can bounce ideas. This trick works especially well if you’re dealing with, say, a personal problem and just can’t pick a direction. Your friend can provide sage advice and support and get your neurons firing up, down, and all around to find a solution. Plus, you can do the same for him or her.

Written by Ashley Marcin.