What is the one structure in the human body that has the most protection?
If you answered, “the brain,” then you are correct. The brain must be a highly significant organ for it to need to be encased in a hard shield. It even has its own immune system. So, why do we try to ignore it?
The brain is highly involved with checks and balances of movements. It sends out the messages for us to perform an action. It is so sophisticated and intricate, that it sends out messages before we even carry out the action. It anticipates and guesses our next move to prepare the body for action. This is called feedforward. Once the movement is made, it uses feedback systems from the muscles, connective tissue, joints, sensory organs, and the external environment to help make corrections for the next move we take. It has a special talent for analyzing our movements and deciding if the movement was appropriate, could be made better, or was what was intended. All of this is happening with each and every move you make. Something as simple as wind blowing across your skin informs the brain that you may need to lean your body forward a little more to cut through the wind. A change in the running surface informs the brain that the foot may need to be more stable or land differently. That pebble in your shoe may cause the brain to scream pain with each step to cause you to stop and eliminate the rock before you continue on.
Have you ever had a run where you started off very clumsy and it then you slowly began to feel in a rhythm? That is because your brain was analyzing the initial movements trying to decide how the next step should be taken to produce a more effective running pattern. The brain remembers each run and uses previous runs to help guide the next one. The more you run, the more your brain can quickly adjust and create a fluid and memorable stride.
The brain isn’t perfect and may not always make the right decision for your running. The brain can remember bad patterns just as well as good ones. Those who have experienced injuries may not have as good of a feedback system as they did before their injury. Those with imbalances of muscle strength and stability and/or previous injuries can usually still run, but the brain may choose compensatory patterns to carry out the desired action of running. The brain needs tune ups every now and then to re-learn good motor patterns. This may involve having to relearn correct breathing and core activation, muscle activation, and/or building up the strength to better support your run. The good news is that the brain can be trained! You can teach an old dog new tricks. Listening to what your body is telling your brain can be very pertinent for improving your run and for not developing bad habits that can turn in to injuries.
For some more good news, running produces a benefit for your brain health. Numerous studies have been finding that exercising your body also exercises your brain. Running helps release chemicals and/or proteins in the brain that foster memory benefits, mood benefits, and attention. These benefits can last for minutes to hours to days. Long term exercise has the most beneficial benefits for brain health. I already discussed that each run also trains the brain for the next run. The brain works towards achieving efficiency to better support your run. The brain does this through enhancing neural connections, creating better communication with muscles, devising more efficient patterns, and improving your self-satisfaction to encourage that next run. Next time you lace up your running shoes or hit the ground barefoot, make sure that you do more than run your brain, run with it.
Join me in a lecture series about running that will be held once a month from August to November. At the first talk of the series, Running with Your Brain, we will begin our journey discussing the brain’s role in running and how running adds benefit to brain health. Check out the complete educational running seminar series this fall on our website for the dates, times, and location and learn how important your brain is to your run and how it can be used to your advantage.