This Is Your Brain on Running - Chi Living

This Is Your Brain on Running

Posted by Danny Dreyer on Tue Jul 19th, 2016, 4 comments

This Is Your Brain on Running

Ready, set, go!

Did you know that your brain benefits from your run before you even begin running? Yep. While the physical benefits of running are often talked about, the mental benefits are just as impressive. At ChiRunning, we often discuss the integration of running with your mind, body and spirit. Today, we’ll be looking at the “mind” in running, and what your brain experiences during each and every step.

Your Brain At 0:00.

Right from the get go your brain begins anticipating a challenge, and has signaled to your nervous system that it’s time to begin conserving energy and resources. Due to this, your heart begins to beat faster and also some of the blood is diverted from your stomach and digestive tract to your limbs. This pumps your muscles full of oxygen and all of the nutrients your body needs to get the job done.

The diversion of blood away from your gut can come in the form of butterflies in your stomach, or even tingling in your arms or legs. So, before you even take your first step -- your mind is preparing you for a good, solid run.

Your Brain At 0:05:00.

At this point, your brain begins to receive signals from your body that it’s getting a workout, which it interprets as a type of stress, according to research from Brazil’s Federal University. For new or out-of-shape runners, this stress can trigger a larger release of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol. However, more experienced runners have a dampened cortisol response, at least in the earlier stages of a long run, Federal University explains. That’s why we always suggest you start every run slowly and build from there.

No matter if your stress reactions are mild or intense, your nervous system releases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates certain regions of your brain that are related to learning, memory and higher cognitive functions like decision making, as shown in  a study from Texas Tech University. This  helps you better interpret the information you’re receiving from you body (ie. I’m working hard!) and to make decisions about what to do next (ie. Keep going? Slow down? Stop?). To put this even more simply, your brain recognizes that your body is under stress, so it takes a step to maintain normal conditions.

Your Brain At 0:15:00.

As a response to continuous exertion, your brain experiences a flood of neurotransmitters whose type and amount depend on your training level. If you’re not used to running long distances, elevated levels of cortisol will be telling you to give it a rest. But, if you’re more used to running, these neurotransmitters actually exert chemicals like serotonin and dopamine which give you a sense of pleasure and dull your sensitivity to pain, studies show.

Your brain may also be enjoying an influx of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which increases alertness. So, the more you run, the more the stress reactors turn to pleasure reactors!

At this stage, it’s also common to experience some muscle cramping. While a lot of runners believe this is caused by dehydration, it could also be an issue of your brain directing secondary muscles to fire more forcefully, research suggests. As your main running muscles weaken (and your form goes off a bit) your brain tells your surround muscle groups to chip in a bit. But those muscles aren’t accustomed to working so hard, so, they cramp. That’s why good running technique and relaxation in your movement are key principles in ChiRunning designed to help you never experience cramping.

Your Brain At 1:00:00.

Whether you’re a new runner, or experienced -- your elevated heart rate and your blood pressure will continue to pump oxygen to your brain and body, even if you’re done with your running session. This will leave you feeling sharp and energized.

As noted before, the longer you run, the less the stress hormones are in control (cortisol) and the more pleasure hormones are released (dopamine). So, unless you’ve overworked yourself and depleted those hormones, these levels will remain elevated for a long time leaving you with a sense of pleasure, alertness and calm. You should aim to finish every workout “pleasantly fatigued” and not overworked or weakened. The more you practice the relaxation and efficiency of the ChiRunning technique, the less your body will have to produce stress-related hormones. It’s a win, win!


  • running,
  • chirunning,
  • chi running,
  • benefits,
  • running benefits

4 CommentsLeave a comment below

Are the same events to be expected in walking as well?

Really enjoyed reading this and the research to support what we used to call the runner’s high (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine ). Also, like the subtle disclaimer that it helps to be in shape.Also, that state of relaxed attention is enhanced by practicing Chi Running. Thanks for the post!!!

Carrie S Blackwell Nov 15th, 2016 01:30am

Thank you so much for sharing! Did not knew this takes place too.

Dale Hamilton Dec 29th, 2016 12:03pm

and its worth noting that the pleasure effect does not decrease with age. If anything, it becomes more pleasurable- just like drinking whiskey which releases the same neurotransmitters. I’m 75 and have been running mostly 4 miles per day for 45 years. Been drinking longer than that.

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