A lot of chatter lately about the impact of exercise on the brain has got me thinking. I used to do that a lot — think, that is — on long training rides. I always had my suspicions that there was some connection for me. Early on, I had found a balance between athletics and academics; I needed one to offset the other, but mostly for “wholeness” of person. But I never expected there to be a proven connection. From Gretchen Reynolds’ recent New York Times Magazine article:
For more than a decade, neuroscientists and physiologists have been gathering evidence of the beneficial relationship between exercise and brainpower. But the newest findings make it clear that this isn’t just a relationship; it is the relationship.
With all the exercise I’m doing, I should be a lot smarter.
On these super-long training rides, my mind would wander and all sorts of incredible thoughts would occur. I believe it was how I learned foreign languages, a combination of subliminal and conscious thought creating and reinforcing new connections in my brain. I was always amazed at how my brain could sub-consciously resolve issues. In college, my brain would offer up story ideas and resolve plot or character conflicts so frequently on the bike that I rode with a notepad in my pocket. Later, as a designer, I used to work 3 or 4 hours in the morning, then go out and ride for 3 or 4 more. While on the ride, without thinking about it actively, all the problems I had got stuck on would get sorted out. The answers would just pop into my head.
This, however, wasn’t what motivated me to exercise; it was just a convenient pay-off and, in some cases, a good excuse not to sit at a desk all day long.
What kept me coming back, at the core of it all, was the “endorphin” high I used to get from training sessions. I recently heard this piece on NPR about the runner’s high:
Endurance athletes sometimes say they’re “addicted” to exercise. In fact, scientists have shown that rhythmic, continuous exercise — aerobic exercise — can in fact produce narcoticlike chemicals in the body.
Now researchers suggest that those chemicals may have helped turn humans, as well as other animals, into long-distance runners.
I guess I’ve evolved into a long-distance runner, too, though I have numerous experiences of exercise-induced euphoria prior to becoming a runner.
Once, I did a 5-hour solo ride up into the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque. I was going through some shit and needed to be alone for a while. Plus I needed some miles. I went out Highway North 14, all the way past Madrid, then turned around and came back. It hit me coming into town through Tijeras Canyon, an exhausted calm, a euphoric sense of well being, what I started to call the “out-of-bike experience”.
Another time, I was racing the A-to-Z in Athens, Ohio. The course was in downtown Athens and the streets were packed with college kids and the noise they made cheering us on was so intense, I could hardly concentrate. I had gone clear in the pro-am criterium and ended up in a 6-man breakaway filled with high-level pros. I was suffering and didn’t think I would make it, until 10 or 15 laps to go. Then I felt that calmness. The pain faded. The focus sharpened. The cheers from the crowd fused to a single enveloping sound.
I’ll admit it. I’m addicted to that feeling. I can’t stop. I won’t stop. Maybe it keeps me from tumbling into depression. Maybe it helps me push me limits even though I’m past the age of use. Or maybe I’m just a junkie looking for the next high.
In addition to the high that comes, there is also the state of “flow”. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it as the “state of effortless concentration and enjoyment” that comes from high skill, high challenge activities. I’ve gotten there, too, from non-exercise activities, too. There are few experiences better than that feeling of flow especially when combined with the euphoria of the runner’s high.
There are other reasons I exercise. I’ll write about those some other time. But this is the big one, why I do it with such passion an dedication.
For me, it is the purity of speed.