Running Smart

It would come as no surprise to most runners that a study would find that exercise helps our brains work better…

I know I’m always thinking more clearly when I’ve been running and even during a run I often come up with ideas or solutions to problems. There is a measurable increase in blood supply to the brain during exercise and links between exercise and improved mental state of health are also well documented.

But how much exercise is the optimal amount to get your noggin working at its best?

Researchers at the National Taiwan Sport University conducted research on what happens to cognition over time during exercise to hopefully ascertain how long we need to sweat it up for to be the smartest we can be.

The test they used involved a computer screen that would flash colour words that were either the actual colour of the word or another colour, for example RED or RED. Our ability to quickly decide what is correct engages a higher function in our brains which can be measured via the speed of the response and the accuracy.

The study did have some limitations in that the intensity of the exercise was only measured at 65% of heart rate reserve, so findings may have been different at higher or lower intensities. It does however give us a ballpark idea of what happens at a moderate intensity. Another issue with the study is that it only included generally healthy university students but not individuals that exercise regularly or that were highly trained. It would be reasonable to assume that findings may have been different for people with different levels of fitness.

The outcome of the study was that moderate intensity exercise conducted for approximately 30 minutes increases cognitive function considerably but even 10-15minutes more than that may decrease brain function to lower than the starting point… Interesting!

Using this information from a practical perspective, we can say that adding in a 30 minute run during your lunch break should make you more productive at work. Heading out for a quick trot before coming home to the family may make you better in your communication and more present in your relationships. Even going for a run before a stressful situation that will require you to be at your mental best, may be a great idea.

The stats around decreasing brain function over longer bouts of exercise doesn’t bode well for us Ultra-Runners now does it?! Does that mean that if I run for 20+ hours my brain will turn to mush and I’ll be a blubbering mess? Actually, I already know the answer to that. 🙂

But, as with all research, there are limitations and the findings should be seen for what they are and not the final word. With this in mind, we can use this information to our advantage when needed. So give it a try! When you next need to be firing on all brain cylinders, go out for a run for half an hour first and see how you perform.


Run long,

Shaun Brewster.

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