Someone recently shared with me a video call The Runners.  In the video, the filmmakers spontaneously interview runners mid-run about life, relationships, why they run, and a number of other tough, personal topics.

The answers are profound, meaningful, and an incredibly open look into that person’s life.

It would have probably made for an interesting video had they just stopped random people while walking down the street, but because they were interviewed mid-run, you felt a rawness that could have only been found during an activity that leaves you so vulnerable, both mentally and physically, as running.

It’s a beautiful film, worth watching all the way through:

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Ed Note: If you’re reading this in an email, visit the post to watch the video.

Thinking While We Run

I know I’m not alone when I say that I do some of my best thinking during a run.

When I’m stumped on a project, concerned about something going on in life, or just thinking something through, I find that my most creative and thoughtful ideas come while mid-mile.

Hell, many of my best posts have come from ideas that happened during a run.

And I’ve learned over the years to actually use running as a tool for brainstorming or problem solving. If I’m stumped, and have the option to log a few miles, I often will.  Running has become a tool not just for fitness and health, but mental rejuvenation, problem solving, and brain stimulation.

Science: Why Excise Makes Us Better Thinkers

It turns out that science backs us up on this.  Not to sound obvious here, but during exercise blood pressure and flow increase, sending more energy and oxygen to muscles and organs.  That’s how we’re able to keep moving quickly and efficiently.

That includes sending good energy and oxygen to the brain.  And the result is better brain performance.

But of course, there is more to it than just that.

According to an article by the Scientific American, we’re actually thinking and remembering better due to heightened activity in the hippocampus as well:

Another explanation for why working up a sweat enhances our mental capacity is that the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for learning and memory, is highly active during exercise. When the neurons in this structure rev up, research shows that our cognitive function improves. For instance, studies in mice have revealed that running enhances spatial learning. Other recent work indicates that aerobic exercise can actually reverse hippocampal shrinkage, which occurs naturally with age, and consequently boost memory in older adults. Yet another study found that students who exercise perform better on tests than their less athletic peers.

As I’m sure it does for many of you, this all makes perfect sense to me.  Why?  Because I’ve experienced it regularly.  But I’ve also experienced effects on how I think mid or post-run that I’m not sure this science explains.

The Not-So-Scientific Effects of Thinking on a Run

The science seems pretty obvious and clear as to why we think sharper and more creatively during and after exercise, but what about the type of thinking that doesn’t require heightened awareness or memory.

I’m talking, of course, about the contemplating or getting lost in thought type of thinking that so often happens to runners mid workout.

This type of thinking seems to come from forces other than just the biological effects of exercise.

Forces like:

  • The simple, repetitive act of your running stride.
  • Removing yourself from screens and other distractions.
  • The loneliness that comes from running solo.
  • Calming effects of deep breathing.

This is some of my favorite type of thinking, and is probably, at least partially, responsible for keeping me sane.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Hyper-Alert Brain

Here are a few easy ways to eliminate distractions when it comes to thinking on the run:

  1. Ditch the Music: It doesn’t have to be all the time, and certainly music can have a calming effect on most people, but the brain doesn’t handle multitasking well, so the more we can cut out the better.  If you’re an iPod addicted runner, try running your shorter runs without music, or pausing the music for a significant portion of your long run.
  2. Know Your Route: The less you have to focus on the better.  Know the route ahead of time so you aren’t always concerned about where to go next.  I find that I do some of my best thinking when running routes I’ve run 100 times before.  Of course you don’t want to do this all the time, but making effort to do it more frequently might be a good consequence.
  3. Run Solo: Running with friends or groups is great and has many wonderful effects on your training.  But running by yourself allows your mind to break free and open up to thought processing.  You can hang out with your friend over coffee (or beer) after the run.
  4. Actively Focus on a Topic: Many of my most successful mid-run thought sessions happen when I’m actively focusing on a certain topic.  I’ll start the run, get going during a mile or two, then turn my focus to the topic I wish to consider.  It doesn’t always have to come naturally.  Take advantage of your heightened brain for a productive thought session.

When I watch that video above, I have to wonder what those people were thinking about before someone stopped them to chat.  Were they thinking about their family?  Were they thinking about work?  Maybe they were just thinking about their splits.

When runners get asked that silly question, “What are you running from?” most wouldn’t say their thoughts.  Because for many of us, that’s a big part of why we’re running in the first place. 

Call for Comments: Do you find yourself thinking morning productively during a run?  Are those thought sessions part of the reason why you run? Let us know in the comments!

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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3 thoughts on “Running and Thinking: Why We Do Our Best Thinking During Exercise

  1. I definitely do my best thinking while running! I didn’t start running for the opportunity to think, but often now find myself needing a run in order to calm my brain and work through overwhelming thoughts. This is a great post Doug, thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Ideal post for me to read. I started my blog to try and help me put down thoughts and ideas just like this one. I’m a blogger learner so that should improve. I travel a lot and really like to get out and run wherever I go before the day starts. It is great prep for a work away trip. Thank you Doug. I especially like the ‘drop the music’ part. I dropped it and immediately started listening to my body. Much more useful.

  3. Excellent post! I compose some of my best legal arguments while running, untangle story plots for whatever I’m writing, and solve personal problems while I run. Running is my release and my relaxation. Thanks for sharing the video.

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