When I was a young lad, I participated in many different sports. Soccer, basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and even wrestling. After riding the bench for the second year in a row in JV football, I realised any sport involving a ball, or bat, or physical prowess, or any remote sense of coordination was not the Good Lord’s intention for me. But in the midst of every sport I participated in, the aspect I always enjoyed most was running.
I am a runner in the truest sense of the word. It is not just something I do, but a person I am. I have enjoyed running since I was about five years old. I ran track and field from 3rd through 11th grade. In my early 20s, I evolved from sprint to distance running and have loved running long distances ever since. I love it for the mood-boosting and waistline-slimming effects. But only recently have I started to think of running in terms of cognitive improvement and productivity.
Long distance running produces endorphins. There are many, many studies linking endorphins with improved cognitive performance. Better cognitive performance means you can do mental work better, for longer periods of time. Additionally, endorphins relieve stress and anxiety. A productive person can still work effectively during times of intense stress like deadlines and presentations. From my own personal experience, my productivity has always been best when I have a regular running routine in my life.
As I was out for a run today (to the beautiful Balmoral Beach) I began to think about getting the most out of running for its brain-enhancing, body-rejuvenating, spirit-lifting benefits. The point of this article is not how to be a great runner. If it was, I would be posting this blog to Runner’s World, not a productivity site. I am more concerned withrunning the optimal amount, in the optimal way, to become the most productive version of myself. As much as I’d love to train for half and full marathons, those aren’t my highest goals right now. Performing well in my scholastic endeavors is. I want to run just enough to obtain peak performance in my studies. If you’re of like mind, then keep reading.
The main idea behind optimal running is to run just enough to keep a regular flow of endorphins in your neurochemistry, but not too much or too intensely that it causes injury or gets in the way of highest goals. Of course, if one of your highest goals is to run a half or full marathon, you will likely need to run more and further, but even then your running can be optimised (seek out a running coach for that, not a productivity blog). Here are a few points:
Run slower, rather than faster
In my late 20s I was an active member of the Orlando Runners Club. Being of that age meant I was likely at my peak athletic performance and so I ran hard. Over and over again I’d hear from older, far-wiser members of the ORC “Slow down, you don’t need to run that fast.” Of course, I didn’t listen, and of course, I injured my body. And again. And again. Yet I continued to run at an accelerated pace.
I don’t know why it took a decade for the message of those older, far-wiser members of ORC to sink in, but I realised a week ago (after another bout of leg and knee pain) that I could indeed slow my pace down. I don’t have to run as fast. While running, if I feel myself accelerating, I make a point to slow my pace and take smaller strides. By slowing down, I put less stress on my body, recover faster, and can run pain free sooner (think ‘next day’ vs ‘next week’). To get the most from running, run slower rather than faster. The slower you run, the more frequently you can run. The more frequently you can run, the better supply of endorphins to your brain. Which brings me to my next point…
Run frequently, but not too much.
Frequency is key to optimised running. As I have suggested in one of my earliest blogs, I suggest three to four days a week of distance running. Time and distance aren’t important. What is important is the frequent production of endorphins in your brain. The important part is not speed, but frequency. Its far better for me to run three or four days a week slowly than three or four days a month fast. At the same time, don’t over do it. Running every day will quickly lead to injury and simultaneously take you away from other priorities. Again, the point is to run the optimal amount to maximise the benefits – endorphins, weight loss, improved cognitive function – while minimising the costs – time away from highest goals, pain to the body, risk of injury. Part of your weekly running routine should include….
One solid ‘long’ run per week
If possible, make one of your weekly runs a long run. What is ‘long’ is up to you, but it should be further then any of your other runs that week, if only slightly. This long run should be at even more relaxed pace. The idea is to get a heavy load of endorphins in the brain once per week. If the other, shorter runs are mental spot washes, then the weekly long run is the full rinse-repeat cycle. In addition to mental clarity, a weekly long run provides your brain an opportunity to organise all the information you may have been processing throughout the week. If you really want to make the most of the long run for productivity benefits, run through natural settings (a park, a beach, etc) as opposed to city streets.
If learning something new, run 4 hours after studying.
A study was recently published that looked at the memory/recall benefits of running. Researchers from the Netherlands found that running four hours after learning time actually helps encode the new information in long term memory. Other results of the study suggest that running immediately after learning something new shows no improvement in memory recall. Using these results, you may want to organise your running schedule to coincide with study/learning time.