How to Use Your Run to Power Up Your Brain

Feeling stuck? Going for a run often makes it easier to solve challenges and come up with fresh ideas. Now research from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland is offering some explanation. Two studies conducted by psychology lecturer Lynden Miles, Ph.D., indicate that your mind associates forward motion with the future. As your body gains ground, it preps your brain to think ahead, which can trigger creative thinking. “When we move in a particular direction, our thoughts tend to spontaneously align with that direction,” Miles says. “As you move forward, your thoughts about the future may also become more fluid and clear, making it more likely that you’ll come up with your next big idea.” Here’s how to take advantage on your next run.



When you think about something before you go out on a run, it can give your brain a head start, says Judy Van Raalte, Ph.D., a professor specialising in sports and exercise psychology. While lacing up or setting your watch, spend about 30 seconds to a minute thinking about a question or topic that you want to focus on during your workout.



Stick with a tried-and-true route and head out at a time when you feel most mentally alert. “If you’re worried about directions, you can’t have the freedom for your mind to wander,” Van Raalte says. If you’re a bright-eyed, energised morning runner, great. But if your body typically goes through the motions while your head stays in a sleepy fog, you may not have the best problem-solving success. A run later in the day could be more mentally productive.



If you’re running hard or doing a time-based workout, you’ll be too distracted by maintaining speed and tracking your splits. Designate an easy workout as your thinking run, and give yourself a chance to warm up and get into a rhythm before you circle back to the topic you want to contemplate, Van Raalte says.



Don’t shy away from difficult topics. “When you sit around and think about something that worries you, your heart rate may increase, you may start sweating, and it feels physically uncomfortable,” Van Raalte says. “If you think about the same thing when you’re running, you may attribute the physical sensations to the run, allowing you to feel more mentally relaxed while tackling tough issues.”



Try to limit anxiety-inducing issues to a few minutes at the beginning of your run. Spending too much time on worrisome topics can make you tense up, which can lead to premature fatigue and lowered endurance, says Keith Kaufman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. To help you end your run feeling calm and refreshed, Kaufman suggests closing out your workout by focusing on your breathing or the sound of your footfalls.



While a solo run gives you an opportunity to focus on your thoughts, sometimes talking with a running partner will give you a fresh perspective. “If you’re looking for creative solutions to a problem, having input from others can be helpful,” Van Raalte says. Let your friend know in advance that you plan to run easy and want a chance to talk. Say, “Hey, I could use your help thinking about something on this run. Is that okay with you?” Clarifying what kind of insight you’re looking for during the run makes it more likely that you’ll get it, Van Raalte says.

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