Monday, December 18, 2006

The runner's high and creativity

Most runners understand the "high" that comes after a run. Even a couple miles out can produce a more relaxed, clear-headed, happy state (sometimes sticking around for hours). As I've learned by running longer distances more consistently, that "runner's high" gets more profound and often materializes at various points during a distance run to produce enhanced creativity and insight.

My body hits its stride - literally - at mile 10 or so. A floodgate is opened and my mood improves, my thoughts become more vibrant, my ideas larger and larger. Yesterday's 22 mile training run (for the Houston Marathon) was a great example. Once we hit about 16 miles, I could have run forever and during the four hours we were out training, I came up with enough relevant thoughts to fill a page in my Moleskine.

The physical part of this makes sense. It's about endurance, proper nutrition and mental toughness. What has baffled me is the increased ability to think clearly and be overly creative during my runs. I've remarked frequently that I'd like to invent a runner's pad and pen to jot random thoughts or simply record the solution to a problem I'd been agonizing over for days. I just read a great post on "A Trail Runner's Blog" about this enhanced creativity and problem-solving ability athletes experience. Scott cites the book The Breakout Principle: How to Activate the Natural Trigger That Maximizes Creativity, Athletic Performance, Productivity and Personal Well-Being. Seems like an interesting read for athletes, creatives and business professionals.

Dig into the links above, but here are some excerpts Scott pulled from the book with his thoughts:
In the book, he (Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson) outlines four critical stages of the relaxation response:
  • First, you must undergo hard mental or physical struggle. A trail run would be a perfect example of such a physical challenge. A period of mental focus, like knitting or a crossword, is an example of a mental challenge.
  • Second, during the period of stress, you pull out the "breakout trigger" that eases the mind away from the day-to-day stresses. Hanson's research shows this is more than just your mind drifting away - it is a biochemical reaction that pumps nitric oxide through the body. Nitric oxide counters the negative effects of the stress hormone (norepinephrine) that comes with step 1, thereby reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and in general lowering the metabolism. Nitric oxide is also associated with increased levels of endorphins and dopamine.
  • Third, your mind makes a clean break (referred to as a "breakout proper") and in that moment, you have a peak experience. What is the peak experience? In general, it's a positive connection of some sort, such as a new way of looking at a problem, a new idea, or perhaps a personal best athletic performance.
  • Lastly, your mind achieves a "new normal state" of mind and body, with improved performance and new brain patterns. I think this is the hour of creative bliss that I feel after my long runs.
Makes more since...I think this theory is also applicable to the prolificness artists experience during stress and struggle. I'll pick up the book, but more importantly, I'll keep running as its benefits continue to collect in my life.

What are your creativity triggers? What acts, places, inspirations or people set off your flurry of ideas?

Listening to - R.E.M., In Time - The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003


Blogger Jeff said...

Being as unbelievably out of shape as I am, my creative triggers tend to come from time with people - over coffee, on the golf course, at dinner - any time that is somewhat unstructured and allows me to just engage with and feed off of others.

I've officially joined the blogosphere -

7:56 AM  
Blogger Esue said...

I'm not nearly as hardcore, but I have yet to find this stride. The further I run, the crankier I seem to become. I was ready to throw my shoes at someone (anyone) by the time the half was over...and not just because they were hurting my feet. I'm just not an inherent runner! Above all, I keep running because I feel like I've accomplished something, gone somewhere...but I'll tell you what, NOT being able to run the last few weeks has about been the end of me! Urgghhhh...

11:39 PM  

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