Archive for April, 2008
Qualifying for the Boston Marathon was my finish line. Running the Boston Marathon… This is my victory lap.
And a slow victory lap, at that. More on the actual race in a bit. But first…
In it’s entirety, this weekend was nothing short of a life-affirming experience.
Boston is an incredible city. I have never been to a place where people have so much pride in their hometown. Everyone I met or passed on the street – they all love “Baaston, baby! For life.”
With the Red Sox at the top of their division, the Celtics a serious contender for the NBA Championship, and the Bruins winning in the Stanley Cup play-offs, B-Town natives were in especially high spirit.
Which brings me to a second quick note about Boston, or rather, the people of Boston. A couple friends of my friends who attended school in Massachusetts warned me that Boston could be a cold, dark, lonely, urban scene filled with jerks and “Massholes.” Nothing could have been further from the truth!
Maybe a memo went out in the Globe telling people to be on their best behavior, especially with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials held on Sunday and the 112th running of the Boston Marathon earlier today.
Or maybe it was the fact that a three-day weekend brings out the best in people (most of Boston – all of Massachusetts? – had the day off today to celebrate Patriot’s Day).
No matter, the people are some of the friendliest of any city I have visited. Random locals struck-up conversations with me about the marathon, offered to take my picture when I was attempting self-portraits in front of the library at Harvard and inside historic Faneuil Hall, and provided top-notch directions around town when they saw me fumbling with my city map.
In addition to being wooed by the locals, I fell in love with the architecture and history of the city itself. It’s a powerful thing, upon reflection, to sit in the first town hall of America, which is more than 150 years older than the state of California, and where our founders debated the values, ideals, and vision that gave birth to our country.
So my news and notes from the weekend…
I took a direct red-eye from SFO to Boston on Thursday night, arriving way-too-early Friday morning. I rode the T (subway) into town and hung out for a bit at the Boston Hostel until my room was ready.
Quick note on staying in a hostel: wonderful idea! Not only is it a more affordable lodging option than a traditional hotel, but the design of the hostel, and the ethos of hosteling, fosters a wonderful little community of like-minded souls. In the community rooms, I met and talked with backpackers from throughout Europe, self-employed budget business travelers, and a handful of fellow runners who were more than welcome to share their war stories and advice from previous races. (I stayed in a co-ed dorm room for the first two nights and was fortunate to secure a private room for the night before and after the big race.)
After dropping my gear on my bunk bed (another cool thing about hostels — you get to sleep in a bunk bed!), I headed over to the Marathon Expo at the Hynes Convention Center, just a few short city-blocks from my hostel.
For an athlete-geek like me, these expos are awesome: the buzz of the race, all the latest gear and products… It makes for a fun scene. It is also a bit like a casino. There are no clocks anywhere (I easily spent half the day inside), and the mix of fancy-colored shoes, the weirdly intoxicating smell of specifically-engineered food products for athletes, and the swarms of short-shorts clad runners overwhelms the senses.
I splurged on a nifty Boston Marathon zip-up fleece, bought a new pair of race shorts, and then swung by the Nuun booth where I had an opportunity to hang with Eric, one of my regular training buddies from the Endurance Running Club (ERC) last year. Right after our big December race – I did a 50K, Eric doubled-down and tackled the 50 Mile course – he moved from San Francisco to Seattle. It was great to see a familiar face in Boston and after the Expo that evening, I met-up with him and one of his co-workers at one of the uber-trendy and fun bar/bistros on tony Newbury Street. I ordered myself a chocolate milk – with extra chocolate. Mmmm mmmm good.
I slept-in on Saturday morning; there was no where in particular I had to go to and I needed to let my body recharge after a week where I had averaged less than five hours of rest a night. After a quick breakfast with some new friends at the hostel, I jumped on the T again and explored Harvard and Cambridge, an awesome college community that rivals any I have visited. The weather begged for some sun-soaking, so I joined the masses in Harvard Square with my books, alternating between reading and people-watching.
Then it was time to head to the North End of the city of Boston, where I marched down the Freedom Trail, saw Paul Revere’s house, and battled tourists at Quincy Market, a San Francisco-like Fisherman’s Wharf where you can eat a wicked good bowl of chowda while taking in one of the many street performances. I also spent some time at Faneuil Hall, which I referenced above. An absolute must! Be sure to sit-in on one of the free National Park Service lectures, held every half-hour. Boston: The cradle of liberty.
Saturday evening I met-up with a couple more guys from the ERC who were also running the Boston Marathon – Kendall and Elliott, along with Elliott’s wife and sister-in-law. We dined at Limoncello Ristaurante, which offered one of the best Italian food experiences in my life. Mama mia!
Usually, those of us in the ERC never see each other in anything but our sweaty running gear, and while conversations dip in-and-out of life in general, most of our Saturday morning trail runs are filled with chatter about all things running related: upcoming races, shoes and various gear, and hydration and nutrition plans. That night, we had a great conversation and shared many a-laughs about our personal lives: relationships, school, work, hopes and aspirations. We continued our hedonistic feeding adventures by stocking-up on some scrumptious desserts at the famous bakery Mike’s Pastry. I myself brought home $20 of home-baked cookies and pastries that night, all of which were gone within 24-hours. (Part of my carbo-loading process, I told myself.)
Sunday was a whirl-wind of day. I joined the thousands of people on the streets of downtown Boston to cheer-on the top 200 elite women marathoners in the country, all vying for one of three spots on the U.S. Olympic team. The race was a beautiful, powerful, inspiring demonstration of the awesomeness of the human spirit. American-record holder and crowd favorite Deena Kastor, within the last two miles of the 26.2 mile run, chased-down Magdalena Lewy Boulet, who ran a gutsy race and had established a near-two minute lead over the first two-thirds of the race, to win the race. The battle for third-place and fourth (the first-alternate spot on the U.S. team) was epic.
Most special for me, however, was watching the women towards the back of the race – those whom had qualified, perhaps by just-barely satisfying the ‘B’ requirements to get to the trials, but had no chance of winning. They were all incredible athletes; on my best day, I aspire to run like them on their worst day. And most of them were wearing smiles, taking in the experience of being on a national stage with the best runners in the world! What an incredible thrill to participate in the U.S. Olympic Trials. And no matter how far back they might have been from the lead-group, they ran hard, with determination, focus, and intense energy. The entire scene was simply inspiring. I watched the race with Kendall, Elliott, and Sandy, another awesome member of the ERC and veteran runner of the Boston Marathon.
I sought more inspiration by attending the annual Blessing of the Athletes mass at Old South Church, which, along with the Boston Public Library, sandwiches the finish line of the Women’s Trials and the Boston Marathon. The service was beautiful and allowed for some further reflection on the purpose of faith when embarking on a physical or spiritual marathon.
After a quick check-in at the Expo (I wanted to pick-up a singlet as the weather forecast called for clear skies), where I bumped into Steven, another good bud and former training companion who was also running the marathon (what a small world Boston is!), I dashed over to historic Fenway Park to catch the afternoon Red Sox-Tigers game.
Oh, man… What a thrill. The Green Monster. Fenway Franks. And Red Sox fans everywhere! Seeing a game here was the highlight of my Boston weekend and the best way to experience the people, sights, sounds, and pride of B-Town.
Fenway is an old park – 96 years old, if I recall – and its charm, its history gave me goosebumps: Williams; Yastrzemski; Boggs; the heartache of Buckner’s error; the awesomeness of Schilling’s blood-stained sock; the high-flying victory penants for winning the very first, in 1901 over Pittsburgh, and most recent, in 2007, World Series Championships; and of course, the Curse of the Bambino which broke the hearts of all Bostonians for most iof the years in between.
THIS is a baseball town. THIS is a baseball stadium. No flashy scoreboards or ridiculous mid-inning entertainment that distracts from the game at hand. No bottles of wine or sushi are sold at the concession stands… Just baseball, baby. (The scoreboard at the base of the Green Monster that keeps track of other MLB games and scores is managed by a guy who takes a little ladder out to it every three-outs to update it with hand-painted signs.)
Last night, I fielded some calls of good luck and cheer from friends and family and turned-in early.
Today… Marathon morning.
Pre-dawn, I took the T a few stops north to Boston Common where I loaded one of dozens of school buses headed for a high school in Hopkinton, site of Athletes Village and start of the 112th Boston Marathon. On the bus ride out of Boston, I couldn’t help but think, “Dang, this is a long drive. And we have to run this?! Twenty-six miles is… far!”
Eventually we got to Hopkinton “It all starts here!” a welcome sign announced.
At Athletes Village, I visited the Port-o-Johns, strolled the grounds, grabbed a bagel, a banana, and a few PowerBars, and huddled with other cold athletes under the big white tents. We still had a good two-plus hours to kill before the start of the race. (Note for next time: bring something to read and a few extra blankets to sit on while passing time at Athletes Village.)
One hour till go-time, and after one last bathroom break, I shed my sweats and walked/jogged a mile or so to the start of the race. I settled into Coral 4 and was a bit intimidated by the toned bodies around me. Minutes before the gun sounded, the sun came out of hiding from behind the clouds and lifted the temperature a few degrees. I got plenty of rest last night; the weather was perfect this morning. All that was left to do was to run.
Boom. And we were off.
I’ll spare the mile-by-mile rundown of the race, but I do want to share one thought that kept running through my mind: Wow! Wow to the incredible crowd support. Wow to the thousands of talented and awesome runners that stretched in front and behind me as far as I could see. Wow for the hills.
The first few miles are downhill, which to a non-runner seems like a great way to kick things off. It’s not. Coupled with the thousands of people screaming and cheering for you, a downhill start pushes people out of the gate fast – too fast. And the hills take a brutal toll on the quads and hamstrings. I usually bolt from the start, only to fatigue mid-race, and applauded myself for exercising restraint today. My first two miles were right on pace for a 2:59 marathon.
As were the rest of the 11.1 miles of the first-half of the marathon. I was feeling good and strong, clocking sub 6:45 miles. And that crowd… Not enough can be said to capture what it’s like. Every mile is lined with the most supportive bunch of people I have ever seen attend a sporting event. Never, for more than twenty feet, is there an empty stretch of road. They crowd in tight, forming a narrow tunnel on the two-lane country road to Boston for us runners to pass through, many of them passing out water, juice, fruit, and other goodies to us hungry and thirsty athletes. And they scream. Loudly. It’s awesome.
At the half-marathon point, while feeling good, I knew that I had not invested the necessary training to keep-up a sub-three hour pace. And wanting to experience Boston, I slowed waaaaay down. My goal became to high-five as many people as possible, which after a mile of doing, my scrawny arms were no longer to do pain-free.
I walked-through every water and aid station those last 13 miles, thanking the volunteers and taking in the scene. The sky was blue, the sun was out, and it seemed as if every person in Massachusetts had decided to spend their Patriots Day holiday cheering us 25,000 runners to the finish line.
Ashland, Farmingham, Natick, and Wellesley – each community along Route 135 was an idyllic and picture-perfect postcard image of New England. Small and stately brick and wood-sided homes sat on large plots of grass on which kids had set-up free lemonade stands for runners, passed out frozen Otter Pops, and offered us cold-water soaked sponges to dab the sweat and salt from our faces.
Around the 16-mile mark, my body started to crash. Keeping a 9-minute pace was taking way too much effort than it should, and I couldn’t get my grubby hands on enough water and Gatorade to satisfy the deep thirst in my throat and pain in my stomach.
My hammies were screaming for the race to be over – so loudly that they nearly drowned-out the deafening wall of women from Wellesley College, hundreds of whom were screaming their lungs out underneath signs advertising “free kisses for runner.”
Heartbreak Hill didn’t break anything of mine… After all the early downhills and my familiarity with the hills of San Francisco, it was nice to run up for a change, no matter how slowly. At the mid-race mark I had abandoned any hope for a PR and was content to wave and cheer and flash thumb’s up or pump a fist to the incredible crowd, some whom were blaring motivational music from the roofs of their homes.
The last four or five miles of the Boston Marathon are a punishing downhill. Entering Boston, the crowds get wider, deeper, stronger, louder. I had my name on a fabric sticker on my shirt and it seemed every 20 seconds I was being encouraged by spectators: “Let’s go Jay Ar’!” (Love that Boston accent.) It was radically encouraging, but there were a few short moments where I wish there was no crowds: I did not want to, was not able to, go any faster, and I felt as if I was disappointing the cheering crowd with my humble crawl through the neighborhoods.
My legs were hurting. I wanted to stop. Wanted to walk. Wanted to hop the metro rail that rambled past and tooted its horn, leading the mass of runners towards the finish line. But there were thousands of people saying, “You can do it! Almost there! Looking great!” I wasn’t sure I could; I didn’t think I was; I knew I didn’t. But there’s a funny thing that happens in marathon: a suspension of belief. Just. A few. More. Miles. Hurts. So. Bad. Hurts. So. Good. Soldier on! Shuffle on! No matter how — onwards we go!
At the famous Citgo sign, signaling one mile to the finish, most of the runners around me dug deep and left me in their final-stretch dust. I started counting in my head. Anything to take the mind off the pain. Just don’t stop now. Not when so close. Steady, baby. Slow is okay.
Entering Boyleston Avenue, 800 meters till the end of the course, I looked up at the blue skies, over at the throngs of Bostonians, at the thousands of family members and friends of runners lining the homestretch, down at my shuffling feet, and then ahead towards the finish line.
I have two goals in every race: (1) To finish. And (2) to do so with a smile on my face. I was going to do it!
I crossed the line, smiling. I high-fived the people with whom I entered the finisher’s corral. I oh-so-painfully stumbled to gather my sweat bag. I collapsed on the ground, tried to down some food, took out my cell phone, and called home. I talked to my mom. It was so good to hear her voice. When I tried to tell her about my run, I had to stop talking in mid-sentence. I was choked up. Tears came to my eyes.
At first I thought they were tears of disappointment. This was my fourth road marathon in 12 months and my slowest by over 25 minutes. Just a month prior I had run almost half-an-hour faster. I started the day racing, aiming for a PR; I ended with a tired and broken body.
But then I realized no, I wasn’t disappointed. These were tears of awe, of inspiration, of insight. I had swallowed my ego at the half-marathon mark and was forced to run a different type of race than I had ever run before. A race where I was passed by many thousands of runners of all ages and shapes… and this was okay! A race where I was slowed to a humble shuffle… And this was okay!
For it was a race, too, where I got to truly experience all that makes the Boston Marathon such an incredibly awesome event. Never I have I been a part of something so big, in the middle of something so special.
Twenty-six and two-tenths of a mile. Ugh. Wow.
Run with it!
In my very first post on this blog, I referenced a book called Spark, the most successful and accessible mass-market publication that explains the science of, and relationship between, physical exercise and overall mental health.
John Ratey, the book’s author and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “[I] cannot underestimate how important regular exercise is in improving the function and performance of the brain. … Exercise stimulates our gray matter to produce Miracle-Gro for the brain. It’s such a wonderful medicine.”
The more rigorous the physical exercise, the better it is for your brain. But as noted in “Train Your Brain: Can Jogging Make You Smarter?“, an article by Simon Usborne in The Independent (UK), “Even regular brisk walks can books memory, alleviate stress, enhance intelligence, and allay aggression.”
The short article provides a fantastic CliffsNotes summary of Spark. Some excerpts:
Evidence suggests that pounding the pavement can change the way our brains work to make us happier, or even stave off depression. “Exercise is as good as any anti-depressant I know,” Ratey claims.
Last December, scientists from Yale University wrote in the journal Nature Medicine that regular exertion affects the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for mood. Tests on mice showed that exercise activated a gene there called VGF, which is linked to a “growth factor” chemical involved in the development of new nerve cells. Tests show that this brain activation lifts a person’s mood.
Participants in one recent German survey were asked to walk quickly on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day over a 10-day period. At the end of the experiment, researchers recorded a significant drop in depression scores
We respond to stress in the same way our ancestors did – by adopting a “fight or flight” response. Adrenalin and other hormones are released into our bloodstreams and our muscles are primed for response. The problem is that, these days, stress is more likely to be brought on by a tricky PowerPoint presentation or a job interview than an attack by marauding lions, so the toxins that build up for a physical response have no outlet.
The results can be good; the cardiovascular system is accelerated and we can work harder (for a while, at least), but others are not so good; stress slows down the gastrointestinal system and reduces appetite, and can overexcite the brain, fuzzing our thought.
By responding to or anticipating stress with fight (kickboxing or judo, say) or flight (30 minutes on the treadmill, say, or 50 lengths of the pool), blood flow to the brain is increased, allowing the body to purge the potentially toxic by-products of stress.
According to Ratey, exercise also helps in the long term. “It builds up armies of antioxidants such as Vitamins E and C,” he says. “These help brain cells protect us from future stress.
Says Ratey, “Exercise doesn’t make you smarter, but what it does do is optimise the brain for learning.”
Physical activity boosts the flow of blood to the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning, promoting the production of new brain cells. Several schools in the US and the Netherlands have taken note. Pupils at Naperville Central High School near Chicago, for example, start the day with a fitness class they call “Zero Hour PE”. Equipped with heart monitors, they run laps of the playground, and teachers say exam results have soared since the keep-fit initiative kicked off.
Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, a test involving 241 people, aged 15-71, compared physical activity with the results of cognitive tasks. The researchers documented improved results among people who were more active, especially those in younger age groups.
Yet more research suggests that exercise boosts intelligence in the very, very young. Experiments on rats at the Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin showed that baby rats born to mothers who were more active during pregnancy had 40 per cent more cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for intelligence.
“People assume exercise reduces aggression by burning energy. In fact, exercise changes your brain so you don’t feel aggressive in the first place,” says Ratey.
The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that decides whether you throw a punch or take something on the chin. Reduced activity in the region can result in an inability to control violent urges. “This area makes us evaluate the consequences of our actions,” Ratey says. Exercise increases activity in that area, boosting rational thought, which makes us less likely to lash out.
“When we’re exercising, we’re using nerve cells in the brain which help build up what I call brain fertilizer,” Ratey says. He is talking about new research that suggests exercise increases blood flow to the part of the brain responsible for memory, and improves its function.
In MRI scans on mice, conducted last year by neurologists at Columbia University Medical Centre in New York, the animals were shown to grow new brain cells in the dentate gyrus, which is affected in age-related memory decline.
“Exercise does more than anything we know of to boost memory.”
Research by British scientists suggests that as little as five minutes of brisk walking can reduce the intensity of nicotine withdrawal symptoms. In the tests, researchers asked participants to rate their need for a cigarette after various types of physical exertion. Those who had exercised reported a reduced desire to smoke. “If we found the same effects in a drug, it would immediately be sold as an aid to help people quit smoking,” Adrian Taylor, the study’s lead author at the University of Exeter, said last year.
The principle is that exercise can stimulate production of the mood-enhancing hormone dopamine, which can, in turn, reduce smokers’ dependence on nicotine. “Dopamine works by replacing or satisfying the need for nicotine,” Ratey explains
So how much does one have to exercise to realize these results?
In Spark, Ratey advocates that we invest as much time and effort as we reasonably can afford into exercising. But as noted in the article, “You don’t have to become a marathon runner to benefit your brain. The mainstay of exercise is simple, brisk walking.”
Especially beneficial is interval training – “really pushing yourself for between 20 and 30 seconds so that you are momentarily exhausted.” Thirty seconds of sprinting, for example, sandwiched between two minutes of walking, for a total of 20-30 minutes, four-to-five times a day, will radically boost your brain power.
“The side effects on the body aren’t bad either – I lost 10 pounds in no time,” Professor Ratey says.
I just arrived in Boston to run the 112th Boston Marathon on Monday, the most historic and famous footrace in the world. With the marathon just a few days around the corner, it seems an appropriate occasion to revisit the opportunity to enlist the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as your new marathon coach…
Last year, PBS’ NOVA documentary series aired a fascinating program, aptly titled Marathon Challenge, that “explores what it takes, physically and mentally, for novice runners to make it through a classic test of endurance [a marathon].”
And not just any marathon. Thirteen newbie runners were put through a nine-month regimen designed to prepare them for the 2007 Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of all road races.
Created in cooperation with the Boston Athletic Association, which granted NOVA unprecedented access during the 111th Boston Marathon (April 16, 2007), and Tufts University, the film takes viewers on a unique adventure inside the human body, tracking changes in the runners’ bodies.
NOVA is the highest rated science series on television and the most watched documentary series on public television. It is also one of television’s most acclaimed series, having won every major television award, most of them many times over.
The series originally aired last year, but is sometimes re-aired on your local PBS affiliate. If you can’t catch it on the boob-tube, you can watch NOVA’s Marathon online.
Boston weekend bonus: Bill Simmons’ “Idiot’s Guide to the Boston Marathon.”
Gretchen Reynolds profiles once national 5K road champion, now champion miler, and maybe-one-day champion marathoner Sara Hall in “Changing Speeds to Go the Distance.”
The takeaways: (1) variety is both the spice of life and of running; and (2) even professional athletes practice, practice, practice basic fundamentals of sport.
My favorite quote from the article, in talking about Sara’s weekly training schedule and her twice weekly fast, hard interval sessions on the track: “These hurt because they are supposed to.”
Get outside, run hard, then long, then hard again. Get hurtin’.
Moderate exercise can help us to sleep better at night.
So a harder workout would help us sleep even more soundly, right?
Uh, not exactly.
If you find yourself tossing and turning after vigorous training sessions, you may want to check out Gina Kolata’s NYT article “Sleep After Hard Workouts? You Must be Dreaming.” An excerpt:
It’s one of the mysteries of sleep: Why is it that mild exercise can be invigorating, but strenuous endurance exercise — whether it’s crew practice, long runs as training for a marathon or juggling back-to-back workouts to prepare for a triathlon — makes people groggy?
Sleep specialists often tell people with insomnia to exercise five to six hours before bedtime. The mild exercise raises the body’s core temperature. When the temperature falls again a few hours later, that signals the body to sleep.
But that is a different sort of exercise from what endurance athletes do, and so what happens to marathoners-in-training must have another explanation. One possibility is that cytokines — hormones that signal the immune system — are making these athletes sleep so much.
Exercise, Dr. Chediak said, prompts muscles to release two cytokines, interleukin 6 and tumor necrosis factor alpha, that make people drowsy and prolong the time they remain sleeping.
It turns out that the single most important factor for increasing the release of those two cytokines is increasing the duration and intensity of exercise, [which is] what happens when endurance athletes train.
The article goes on to explore “whether a sleepless night before the race affects athletic performance.” Give it a read, go fun a run, then take a nap.
From a recent survey published by the journal Nature:
Twenty percent of scientists admit to using performance-enhancing prescription drugs for non-medical reasons. The overwhelming majority of these med-taking brainiacs said they indulged in order to “improve concentration,” and 60 percent said they did so on a daily or weekly basis.
It’s a funny story, kind of. And a sad story, definitely. It’s certainly a concerning story that illustrates a tragic symptom — and cause — of our me-first-gotta-get-ahead-now culture.
The survey reveals that of the 1,400+ scientists who participated in the survey (most of whom live in the United States), “more than a third [!] said that they would feel pressure to give their children such drugs if they knew other kids at school were also taking them.”
Almost 70 percent “said they would be willing to risk mild side effects in order to ‘boost your brain power’ by taking cognitive-enhancing drugs.”
As the boundary between treating illness and enhancing wellbeing continues to blur, taking performance-boosting products continues to gain in cultural acceptance.
“Like the rise in cosmetic surgery, use of cognitive enhancers is likely to increase as bioethical and psychological concerns are overcome,” opined Nature in a commentary.
In the survey, 80 percent of all the scientists — even those who did not use these drugs — defended the right of “healthy humans” to take them as work boosters, and more than half said their use should not be restricted, even for university entrance exams.
More than 57 percent of the respondents were 35 years old or younger.
Was it utterly naive of me to expect that professional academics and researchers would think differently, and act differently, than professional athletes when presented with the opportunity to cut-corners by engaging in substance abuse?
Here’s a long excerpt from “Lobes of Steel,” a fascinating story by Gretchen Reynolds in the NYT that (1) explores the relationship between exercise and neurogenesis and (2) explains how engaging in physical fitness might have as many benefits for your brain as it does for your body:
The Morris water maze is the rodent equivalent of an I.Q. test: mice are placed in a tank filled with water dyed an opaque color. Beneath a small area of the surface is a platform, which the mice can’t see. Despite what you’ve heard about rodents and sinking ships, mice hate water; those that blunder upon the platform climb onto it immediately. Scientists have long agreed that a mouse’s spatial memory can be inferred by how quickly the animal finds its way in subsequent dunkings. A “smart” mouse remembers the platform and swims right to it.
In the late 1990s, one group of mice at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, near San Diego, blew away the others in the Morris maze. The difference between the smart mice and those that floundered? Exercise. The brainy mice had running wheels in their cages, and the others didn’t.
Scientists have suspected for decades that exercise, particularly regular aerobic exercise, can affect the brain. But they could only speculate as to how. Now an expanding body of research shows that exercise can improve the performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. Exercise can, in fact, create a stronger, faster brain.
This theory emerged from those mouse studies at the Salk Institute. After conducting maze tests, the neuroscientist Fred H. Gage and his colleagues examined brain samples from the mice. Conventional wisdom had long held that animal (and human) brains weren’t malleable: after a brief window early in life, the brain could no longer grow or renew itself. The supply of neurons — the brain cells that enable us to think — was believed to be fixed almost from birth. As the cells died through aging, mental function declined. The damage couldn’t be staved off or repaired.
Gage’s mice proved otherwise. Before being euthanized, the animals had been injected with a chemical compound that incorporates itself into actively dividing cells. During autopsy, those cells could be identified by using a dye. Gage and his team presumed they wouldn’t find such cells in the mice’s brain tissue, but to their astonishment, they did. Up until the point of death, the mice were creating fresh neurons. Their brains were regenerating themselves.
All of the mice showed this vivid proof of what’s known as “neurogenesis,” or the creation of new neurons. But the brains of the athletic mice in particular showed many more. These mice, the ones that scampered on running wheels, were producing two to three times as many new neurons as the mice that didn’t exercise.
But did neurogenesis also happen in the human brain? To find out, Gage and his colleagues had obtained brain tissue from deceased cancer patients who had donated their bodies to research. While still living, these people were injected with the same type of compound used on Gage’s mice. (Pathologists were hoping to learn more about how quickly the patients’ tumor cells were growing.) When Gage dyed their brain samples, he again saw new neurons. Like the mice, the humans showed evidence of neurogenesis.
Gage’s discovery hit the world of neurological research like a thunderclap. Since then, scientists have been finding more evidence that the human brain is not only capable of renewing itself but that exercise speeds the process.
This spring, neuroscientists at Columbia University in New York City published a study in which a group of men and women, ranging in age from 21 to 45, began working out for one hour four times a week. After 12 weeks, the test subjects, predictably, became more fit. Their VO2 max, the standard measure of how much oxygen a person takes in while exercising, rose significantly.
But something else happened as a result of all those workouts: blood flowed at a much higher volume to a part of the brain responsible for neurogenesis. Functional M.R.I.’s showed that a portion of each person’s hippocampus received almost twice the blood volume as it did before. Scientists suspect that the blood pumping into that part of the brain was helping to produce fresh neurons.
Rather than send students who struggle academically to the principal’s office or to a learning specialist, maybe teachers should send them out on a run with the PE class for a few laps around the baseball and football fields.
Finally, scientific proof that cross-country runners are higher on the food-chain than football players.
Seriously. Kind of.
In doing a bit of research around the ideas discussed in the book The Agony of Victory (of which I wrote a brief post about a few days ago), I stumbled upon a short ABC News article that provided an elementary sketch of the science and psychology of pain, with a bit of attention given to the idea of pain in sport:
Part of one’s ability to block out pain during sporting events or exercise may depend on how an individual perceives athletics.
People who thrive on competition or see athletics as empowering may have little difficulty blocking out pain or finding distractions. However, those who do not enjoy exercise or who have suffered a previous injury will likely be hobbled by pain more easily.
“Some people see exercise as the only time in the day that they’re in total control of their lives. I know that when I’m running, it’s just me and my music,” said John Lefebvre, professor of psychology at Wofford College.
“But others who may have suffered a knee injury may be worried about injuring themselves. There are some people who develop a fear — a kinetic-phobia — a fear of movement.”
The article introduced me to the gate theory of pain management, developed in the 1960s by Ronald Melzack and Patrick David Wall.
Their paper, “Pain Mechanisms: A New Theory,” (Science: 150, 171-179, 1965) has been described as “the most influential ever written in the field of pain.”
Melzack and Wall suggested a gating mechanism within the spinal cord that closed in response to normal stimulation of the fast conducting “touch” nerve fibers; but opened when the slow conducting “pain” fibers transmitted a high volume and intensity of sensory signals.
The gate could be closed again if these signals were countered by renewed stimulation of the large fibers. [Source]
As explained at spine-health.com, the “scientific beauty” of the gate control theory is that it provided “a physiological basis for the complex phenomenon of pain”:
In the gate control theory, the experience of pain depends on a complex interplay of two systems: the central nervous system (the spinal cord and the brain) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord).
[Each of these systems] process pain signals in their own way. Upon injury, pain messages originate in nerves associated with the damaged tissue and flow along the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and on up to the brain.
In the gate control theory, before they can reach the brain these pain messages encounter “nerve gates” in the spinal cord that open or close depending upon a number of factors (possibly including instructions coming down from the brain).
When the gates are opening, pain messages “get through” more or less easily and pain can be intense. When the gates close, pain messages are prevented from reaching the brain and may not even be experienced. [Source]
Is the mind enough to close those gates of pain?
More fascinating mind-over-body literature…
“I’m Not Really Running, I’m Not Really Running…,” is an awesome New York Times article that explores the phenomenon of pseudo-maximum performance. This is a fancy way of saying, “No matter how high you jump, how fast you run or swim, how powerfully you row, you can do better. But sometimes your mind gets in the way.”
Dr. Benjamin Levine, an an exercise researcher and a cardiology professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, notes that no one really knows what limits human performance. There’s the ability of the heart to pump blood to the muscles, there’s the ability of the muscles to contract and respond, there’s the question of muscle fuel, and then, of course, there is the mind.“How does the brain interact with the skeletal muscles and the circulation?” Dr. Levine said. “How much of this is voluntary and how much is involuntary? We just don’t know.”
But since most people can do better, no matter how good their performance, the challenge is to find a safe way to push a little harder. Many ordinary athletes, as well as elites, use a technique known as dissociation.
Dissociation is the mental act of separating one’s self/mind from the physical experience. It can be achieved by deliberately zoning out. Or by engaging in active meditation, such as repeating phrases, concentrating on repeated motions, and settling into a rhythmic breathing pattern.
The volume of our training, the quality of our workouts, and our physiological aerobic capacity help to determine our perceived limits of performance. But it is our mindset that determines whether we will be hamstring by such a preconception or if we will triumph beyond boundaries of perceived physical possibility.
For more mental discipline exercises and techniques, check out the NYT’s complementary article “How to Boost Your Willpower.”