Science on the Run

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I’m a runner. Ok, running addict might be more appropriate.

From grade school to graduate school running has always offered release and relaxation. As a kid I cut a diagonal streak through the neighbors’ backyards to my best friend’s house (her family kept a running tally of my times) and I haven’t slowed down since.  I still get the itch to sprint when jostling my way through Chicago’s crowded rush-hour sidewalks.

I gravitated toward the pull of the pavement like a fish to water when selecting stories for my fitness beat.  But would studying the science behind it all strip away the joy?

Surprisingly, the opposite occurred.  Science opened the door to a question I’ve never been able to put my finger on: why do people run?

I interviewed a 53-year-old woman running her first marathon and 56-year-old man with 84 marathons under his feet.  The first-timer, Chicago radio DJ Karen Williams, told me, “Running 26.2 miles is physical abuse—at least it is for me.” Brendan Cournanne, the 56-year-old, said he runs for the sheer pleasure of it. So what makes individual runners tick? Or more precisely, what moves their feet?  

Robyn Kretschy, a Chicago-based exercise physiologist, suggested that many people are simply looking for a challenge.  Often runners see other people doing it and think, “If they can do it, then so can I,” she said.

Michele Kerulis, a licensed counselor and sports psychology consultant, identified two areas of motivation in recreational runners: the physiological reward and goal fulfillment. The brain releases endorphins and other feel good neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers in the brain, that elevate mood when the body is engaged in physical activity, she said.

From personal experience, I can attest to the power of the post run euphoria.  But it doesn’t happen at the start.  So what prompts people to put on their socks and shoes?

Kerulis added that every time a person runs, he or she has the opportunity to set goals in distance or time.  Goals are a little like running shoes, one-size doesn’t fit all and personal preferences and experiences often shape them. For many runners, the ultimate goal is the marathon, she added.

But what about those folks who aren’t propelled by the thought of breaking through the finish-line tape (me included)?

Well there’s always the social component. Erik VanIterson, an exercise physiologist with the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, said group motivation plays a large role in incentivizing people to exercise.

“One of the things that a lot of people cite as far as a problem in getting motivated to exercise is that they don’t have an exercise partner or it’s not a social situation,” he said.

Enter Chicago Beer Runners Club.  I took one for the team (wink) and went on a run with this highly engaging and, to my surprise, fast-paced group. Whether it was the lure of a pitcher at the end or simply the social component, the group breezed through the three mile run at well under eight minutes a mile. But despite the appeal of a pint, I still prefer to hit the track solo.  So what does running offer the lone wolf?

Cournane (the 84-marathon man) is working toward a goal of 100 races and has completed runs along the Great Wall of China and in Antarctica.  I think he captured it best.

“It’s a way to experience life,” he said.

- blog by Lauren Everitt, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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Comments

I find the thought of a single marathon frightening, let alone 84! I'm much more of a sprinter, however there is something distinctly satisfying about having run a fair few miles at a good pace. You have the sense that you are pushing your body consistently, and can feel yourself improving every time you do :)

Hi Claire,
I hear you! Several experts I interviewed mentioned goal setting and from personal experience it always feels great to gain some traction :)

Cheers!

Lauren

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