As a runner, your biggest asset (or sometimes your greatest enemy) is your brain. What you think and feel on and off the road also has a huge influence over how you perform once you lace up. In his latest book The Runner’s Brain by Dr. Jeff Brown - the psychologist for the Boston Marathon medical team and member of Runner’s World magazine’s scientific advisory board, outlines how you can literally rewire your mind for a lifetime of athletic success.
Full of fascinating insights from runners of all abilities-including champion marathoner Meb Keflezighi and other greats….the book includes key information that's been proven to work both in the lab and on the road. We are therefore delighted that Dr. Brown, Liz Neporent, Rodale Books and Runner’s World have agreed to share an excerpt.
How the brain forms your identity as a runner
Imagine you are at a noisy cocktail party. The packed room is so boisterous you can barely have a conversation with the other guests crowded around the crab dip. Suddenly, someone across the room mentions your name. The noise is snuffed out like a candle, and the crowd seems to part. As if by magic, you are able to filter out all distractions and train your ears on the source of the name-check.
Why does your brain do this? If someone is speaking about you, you probably want to pay attention. They might be complimenting you, talking about something you need to know, or attacking your reputation. You don’t know unless you listen in.
But how does your brain do this? Anytime your brain shoves irrelevant data aside to focus attention on significant information (like your name) it owes it to a neural region called the reticular activating system.
RAS for short, this loose network of neurons and neural fibers originates at the brain stem, in the very back of your brain, and winds its way through the rest of your gray matter to help manage sleep, breathing, and heart rate. But its real superpower is sifting through incoming information todecide which bits get attention and which bits are ignored. This is really good news for new runners, seasoned runners, or anyone in between.
Think of your RAS as your brain’s speed dial, programmed with all the important phone numbers. If it hears any of those numbers dialed such as your name in the example of the cocktail party, or some novel feedback like the tickle of a spider crawling up your leg-it shuffles that information between your conscious and subconscious to ensure your brain is listening in on the call. If it weren’t for your brain’s RAS circuitry, your consciousness would be deluged by an incoming sensory overload and you would have trouble sorting immediate considerations. By amplifying pertinent factors within your environment to the top of your attention, the RAS helps you prioritize and direct your concentration to where it’s needed.
Say, for example, you are searching through your computer for one file in particular. On some level you sense everything around you: the hum of the air conditioner, your coworkers chatting, the feel of your fingertips on the keyboard, the dozens of file names that come up on your search. It’s the job of the RAS to filter out all that background noise to allow you to scan for the relevant words without distraction. If the file you’re looking for seems to jump right out at you, that’s the RAS success- fully doing its job.
What the RAS has to do with running?
Perhaps this has happened to you: You’re standing in line at a grocery store in your running tights and sneakers. You strike up an idle chat with the person in line behind you about the price of broccoli or what have you, and after some time, the person points to your outfit and asks if you’re a runner.
“Well, you know, I run but I’m not really a runner,” you might sputter.
Or you might say: “I run but I’m really, really slow.”
Or: “I’ve done a couple races but I wouldn’t consider myself a runner.”
Francie Larrieu Smith told me that she sometimes doesn’t know how to respond when someone introduces her as a runner-even though she’s a five-time track and field Olympian and a successful coach who considers herself a lifelong runner.
Before you build the confidence to respond with a “heck yeah I’m a runner,” your RAS needs to believe. And it needs to send a message to the rest of your brain that it, too, should believe. Your job is to throw the RAS as much and as many different types of information you can about your being a runner. This is how you can strengthen your identity as a runner.
It works like this: The RAS influences so many different parts of who you are. One more important piece the RAS influences heavily is cognitive function, which in turn directly influences your belief system. One of its most essential jobs is to spot, select, and retain any information that supports your view of the world and of yourself. Think about everything you’ve experienced in your life related to running: the first pair of running shoes you bought, the first time you did speed work, the first time you ran a race, the first time you ran 10 miles.
"All of these 'firsts' were probably pretty engaging as they were happening. You likely felt a high level of enthusiasm because these occurrences were fresh and interesting."
Woven into the fabric of your identity as you buy shoes routinely, run track workouts twice a week, enter races all the time, and do a weekend 10-miler every month.
The building of these routines and rituals happen by instinct because you have formed a belief system. Negative thoughts undermine the belief system, while positive ones reinforce it. So if you are able to strengthen your beliefs by filling up the RAS with constructive, confidence-building experiences and information, you start to feel and act the part of a runner.
The greater the number of reinforcing episodes, the more powerful these beliefs become. And by the way, the RAS can only hold so much information, so that’s why you want to deliberately send “I’m a runner!” messages to it over a lengthy period of time.
Now, if you have doubts or feel you don’t deserve to call yourself a runner, you’ll look for all sorts of evidence to support that idea: You’re too slow; your body isn’t the right shape; you don’t run enough. Your RAS can be tempted to accept all of these thoughts as irrefutable proof you’re notworthy to call yourself a runner. Often runners tell me they believe all the negatives and setbacks because they haven’t achieved much with their running yet. Usually it works the opposite way: You believe first, then you achieve. And remember, the RAS can only hold so much information, sochoose that information wisely.
You need to send very specific cues of your goals and identity-to-be to your conscious mind to solidify your confidence. The RAS will pass these notes on to your subconscious, and a cycle of conscious to subconscious and back again will fortify the information you want to preserve. So when you believe you are a runner, you become one. This will remain true despite evidence to the contrary that can sometimes happen even to the best of us.
Say, for example, you’ve been injured for a couple of weeks and haven’t been able to run. You may start to feel discouraged and possibly consider giving up on a running career. But if your brain’s RAS is bursting with affirmative thoughts, the right environmental cues, and secure behaviors, your identity will be much less likely to waiver. Rather than giving up, your RAS will help you make it through tough times and pick right back up as soon as your body is ready.
I had a talk recently with Amby Burfoot, a Boston Marathon winner and editor-at-large for Runner’s World, that perfectly summed up why you shouldn’t let setbacks dictate how you feel about yourself as a runner. As he points out, when he was competing he didn’t win every race and hedidn’t set a world record every time out.
“I had more good days than bad days. The trick is to keep the good days in the front of your mind and remember that your achievements aren’t a fluke.”
According to Amby, your best days represent your potential, and that’s often reason enough to keep running. I think this is wise advice.
So when you’re asked the question, do you hesitate to admit you’re a runner? If so, your RAS needs a pep talk. Let’s flood it with all the right thoughts and fill it up with proof that you’ve earned the right to that identity. But remember, even a hard-working editor like the RAS can only process so much before hitting overload. That’s why you must be selective and intentional about the neural text messages you send it. Satisfied, successful runners of all levels deliberately fill their RAS with good vibrations.
Reprinted from RUNNER’S WORLD - THE RUNNER’S BRAIN by Dr. Jeff Brown with Liz Neporent (foreword by Meb Keflezighi), (c) 2015 by Rodale Inc. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.
"I had more good days than bad days....the trick is to keep the good days in the front of your mind and remember your achievements aren't a fluke".
Boston Winner and Editor-at-large