Chemically, running does a lot for your brain—it may stimulate more brain tissue, and over time, more than just your body changes. (Read more about the powerful benefits of running on the brain here.) And beyond the physical, what happens to your brain when you run can improve your mental health, as well.
A Timeline of Your Brain When You Run
Have you ever wondered why running can make you feel so good? We’ve broken down exactly what’s happening up there, stride by stride.
As you get ready to head out …
Depending on how long since your last run, you have still have some feel-good chemicals hanging around. (The acute mood-boosting benefits of exercise might last a day or even two.)
If not, you have the memory of the high you’ve felt before, which can motivate you to get you out the door.
Once you begin running …
Your muscles, organs, and other tissues—including liver and fat cells—release chemicals called cytokines.
Endocannabanoids flow, triggering a euphoric feeling.
So do endorphins, decreasing perception of pain.
Levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine stabilize, enhancing mood, motivation, and memory.
When you form a running habit …
Your levels of BDNF—brain derived neurotrophic factor, a compound that protects existing neurons and promotes the growth of new ones—increase.
You’ll sprout new blood vessels to shuttle more oxygen-rich blood to the brain.
Your hippocampus—important in emotion, learning, and memory—grows.
If rodent research carries over to humans, this is due to neurogenesis, or the development of new neurons. (It’s thought that MAP training, or combining meditation and aerobic exercise like running, works the same way—and can change your brain enough to fight off depression).
How Real Runners Benefit
The physiological effects running has on your brain can help you be more creative, resilient, and maybe even smarter. Here’s how four women use running to boost their brain power.
“I’m working on a fantasy novel about running. When I get stuck with it, I go to the woods for a trail run, pretend to be my main character, and work through the plot point that’s giving me trouble, all while listening to epic fantasy music. It’s amazing how well it works!”
—Julie Verone, author, Merrick, New York
“I use running as an escape from thinking or processing. Running allows me to just exist without having to face any of the potentially hard things in my life for just a moment. If anything, it helps me pause and clear my head so that I can come back to my emotions or whatever issue might be at hand from a much more grounded place.”
—Carmen Knowles, running coach, Indianapolis
“I use runs to practice for presentations at work! I look and sound crazy to anyone I pass but it helps me get my nervous energy out and I definitely notice that I am more confident and relaxed when delivering a presentation I’ve practiced while running. I’m also able to remember my talking points better.”
—Molly Bankuti, public accountant, Boston
“After a brief hospitalization for depression and anxiety, I discovered the benefits of running for mental health. It’s now a part of my toolkit, which includes medication and therapy. I started a whole non-profit on the connection of running and mental health—and to this day we’re the only non-profit and running community in the country to do so.”
—Sasha Wolff, founder of Still I Run, Hudsonville, Michigan