Toys Don’t Matter

AJWs TaproomA few months ago I wrote about the importance of training the brain to contend with the challenges that face us when we struggle with the ups and downs of ultramarathon running. In that column, I reflected on a variety of different experiences I have had and how those experiences have helped me prepare for the inevitable and painful reality of the last 20 miles of a 100-mile race. A recent New York Times article on how exercise, and running in particular, helps develop the brain, considers this idea from another direction. While my earlier column suggested we need to train our brains to achieve a successful level of optimal physical exertion, this article points to specific scientific research that proves optimal physical exertion actually improves our brain function.

In the article, the author cites an extraordinary experiment in which mice were divided into four distinct control groups: The first group was placed in an empty, barren cage. The second group was placed in a cage filled with colorful, stimulating toys that would appeal to mice. The third group was placed in a cage filled with colorful, stimulating toys that would appeal to mice and a running wheel, essentially, a mouse treadmill. The fourth group was placed in an empty barren cage with nothing but a mouse treadmill.

As the experiment unfolded, it was clear that the mouse treadmill easily trumped the colorful, stimulating toys as the activity of choice for the mice. Additionally, the brain development of the mice who were caged with the treadmills was measured to be significantly better than the brain development of those mice caged without access to running. And, perhaps most remarkably, the brain development of the mice in the two cages with the treadmills was equally significant and not at all affected by the presence of, or absence of, stimulating toys. In other words, the extra stuff didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the running!

Of course, this got me thinking about what this might mean to us as ultrarunners. I think it goes without saying that we all have felt, from time to time, as though we are all smarter and more evolved than our non-running brethren and now, thanks to studies like this, we have empirical research to back up this opinion. But what does it really mean? And, most notably, why don’t the toys matter?

This stream of consciousness got me thinking about my favorite running experiences. Some of the richest are filled with toys: Western States, Hardrock, Vermont, group adventure runs at the Grand Canyon, in the Sawtooths, along the Appalachian Trail, etc… but most, frankly, are not. Most are simply those runs that fill out the rest of my life. The runs that get me fit, make me happy, keep me sane, and, perhaps now, make me smarter.

I suppose we need both kinds of runs to keep us going. Certainly, hours and hours in the barren cage makes the times with the toys that much sweeter. But for me, and perhaps others out there, I can live without the toys, but what I can’t live without is the running.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Marble Brewery Imperial Red AleThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from the Marble Brewery in Santa Fe, NM. This cozy brewery and tasting room on the plaza in historic Santa Fe pours an impressive set of tasty beers for every palate. When I was there last week, I was able to taste their limited edition Imperial Red that is aged in dried whiskey barrels and tended to quite carefully by the brewery team. It’s one of those beers that is limited enough that you can’t get your growler filled but drinkable enough that you can get, shall we say, full. At 9% ABV you’re assured of that. This is the kind of Imperial Red that you want to save for a special occasion but, at the same time, it goes great with a Breakfast Burrito. :-)

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What auxiliary benefits do you find running has for you?
  • Are there any “toys” that do draw you to running?

There are 27 comments

  1. David T.

    When you refer to "toys" in the following sentance what do you mean? "Some of the richest are filled with toys: Western States, Hardrock, Vermont, group adventure runs at the Grand Canyon, in the Sawtooths, along the Appalachian Trail, etc…"

    Just trying to understand.

  2. Jason

    David T. – I took those toys to mean the luxuries, or rewards for grinding away alone for the majority of our time. It'd be great to run the Grand Canyon everyday, but that's not realistic. Then again, if we don't "get in the cage alone" and grind out the miles, we won't be able to enjoy all the awesome "toys" out there!

    That was my interpretation…and sort of how I feel about races. I'm not competitive, but I enjoy being out there. Racing cool events in awesome places are like toys, but running itself is Still the foundation. Sometimes you have to know how to "play" before you can enjoy a cool toy!

  3. Jim Skaggs

    Good article AJW, I look forward to my everyday runs on the "treadmill" but really enjoy the toys too. I consider runs such as the GC, Zion, etc. to be a reward for the everyday runs. I also enjoy toys with a 9% ABV, especially after enjoying one of my running toys. Definitely looking forward to today's run on a trail that I have run countless times, and is thus a "treadmill".

  4. AJW

    Thanks for the comments. As far as what I meant by "toys" I was attempting to draw a parallel to the mice cage experiment and meant to suggest that races and expedition runs in beautiful places are like the stimulating toys in the cages. But, nonetheless, even with those, what is most alluring (and stimulating to the brain) is not the toys but simply the running. Sorry to be oblique (that's one of my problems).

    AJW

  5. Andy

    The beauty of trail and ultrarunning is that it's always running and toys combined. Even the daily constitutional (for most of us) is far more visually stimulating and beautiful than the dreadmill. Which may not make us smarter — acording to the study — but makes it more likely we'll keep running and enjoy it. As for cause and effect, it's chicken and egg: Are we smarter because we run, or run because we're smarter? Seems like a win-win.

    And what exactly is an ultra distance for a mouse?

  6. Trail Clown

    This is exactly what everyone in the post-modern, industrial, neoliberal, reductionistic world would love to have us believe. That everything about human nature is ultimately reduced to neurological synaptic joy, that we could be happy as clams in cages (i.e. cities) as long as we have a wheel (treadmill) to spin around on. Say it ain't so AJW, just because you're hobbled and probably have to train on a treadmill right now, please don't equate the deadmill with the beauty of the natural world. Neurological studies have also shown that "fractals" impact us–the visual patterns of the natural world–so it's not all inside the brain where the joy lives. Yes, Michael Wardian loves to set treadmill records, but most of us would rather just go find a toy in the mountains.

    1. AJW

      Trail Clown, once again, sorry for being oblique, I didn't mean to suggest running on a treadmill is the key to brain development. Rather, I meant to point out that the study suggests running is what matters for brain stimulation rather than colorful stimulating toys.

      And, just FYI, I've run about 60 MPW for the last three weeks and none of those miles were on the treadmill:) Hobbled no more!

      1. Trail Clown

        Come to think of it, I've had several enjoyable treadmill runs :)

        So does this mean you are WS-ready????

  7. art

    for me, its actually more important where I run than that I run.

    so if the beautiful places are toys, I'll take the toys.

  8. Brent Broome

    As a long-time lover of Marble Brewery, I just thought I'd point out that it is not actually based in Santa Fe. They have a tap room up there, but all the brewing (and their pub, which features a giant patio) is located in downtown Albuquerque. Nice choice on the brew, though! For those times when you aren't up for something quite so strong, their IPA is pretty universally loved, and for good reason. That said, all of their stuff is excellent.

    1. AJW

      Brent, oops, sorry. I should have done my homework on that one. I went to the brew pub in Santa Fe and didn't know about the ABQ location.

      And, I tried the IPA and loved it. However, I have gotten a bit of flak for being such a hophead so I decided to go with the Red.

      1. Jason Patton

        If you make it down to ABQ make sure and try La Cumbre's IPA or anything else they brew for that matter. Cumbre's Elevated IPA is my favorite IPA in the 505 and really anywhere for that matter. It's not available package yet but word is it will be out soon.

  9. Jeremy

    I need toys. Running has very little importance in my life unless it scratches some itch- desire to explore new ground, reach a new summit, look for elk, go for a PR, etc. The only way I can tolerate a run without toys is to know it will make me stronger for real running. I suppose the desire for improvement is a toy itself.

  10. Jason

    Is anybody else wondering how they evaluate the relative brain development of the mice? What's the measure? Mass? They can't exactly give an aptitude test. Maybe it's in the original NYT article…haven't checked yet. I definitely feel sharper after a run, regardless of where it happens.

  11. Kimmiq

    AJW, there is no need to apologies. I don't think the comment was oblique at all – although I had to read it twice to get grasp the context, but that is simply be because I have not spent enough time on the treadmill. Cheers.

  12. Chris

    Nice article….. great perspective. I can't help but be drawn back to running for what it is. Simple, elegant (generally speaking) and all encompassing. Memories are built in day by day and run by run. Who cares about the mice.

  13. ultrarunnergirl

    I thought Andy's comment was spot on: "The beauty of trail and ultrarunning is that it’s always running and toys combined. Even the daily constitutional (for most of us) is far more visually stimulating and beautiful than the dreadmill."

    That being said, I rarely listen to music on my runs, and when I wear my Garmin it's mostly to look at the cool maps I can create in Google Earth. Now that's a stimulating toy!

  14. Dominic

    I think one very positive thing to take away from this study is that maybe if you have a standard run that you do, chose to do it without a watch one day. Just run to run, not to improve on a standard time or to deduce the effect of 10 variables in your life on your performance.

    It's a very abstract thought, but just move for the sake of moving.

  15. Choy

    Hey guys! I grow up in the mountains of Cebu where we ran freely with my friends playing and running in the hills only slipper. Now, I'm in mid-20's and just recently start joining fun runs. Recently, I ran 15km Columbia Eco-Trail run, my 1st long trail run and my 4 running activity since last year. I made it to the finished line in 03:28:00 hours. I don't have any proper training received. MY first eco-trail run is that I was only listening to music while running, but after I was called by a friend and got destructed by that my right leg cramped 4x and I couldn't run back til the finished line.

    Guys, especially the Pro's. Do i still have a chance in this field of running which I really enjoyed most aside from photography? I don't have facilities like treadmill to train myself except for a bottled water, a running trek shoes, and a mountain. What must will I do to avoid such bad experienced and gain more confident in running especially in long distances running?

    Your advise and suggestions would be highly appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Choy

  16. Choy

    (Rewritten)

    Hey guys! I grew up in the mountains of Cebu where we ran freely with my friends playing and running in the hills with only a pair of slippers. Now, I’m in my mid-20′s and I've just recently start joining fun runs. Recently last week, I joined the 15km Columbia Eco-Trail run, my 1st longest and trail run, and my 4th run since last year. I finished the ran in 03:28:00 hours. I don’t have any proper training. MY first eco-trail run was good that I was only listening to music to me to focused on the track while running, but after I was called by a friend who was behind me and got destructed and by that time my right leg had cramped four times as I didn't expected. And I couldn't run again until hitting the finished line.

    Guys, especially the Pro’s. Do i still have the chance in this field of running which I really enjoyed most aside from photography to become a good runner? I don’t have facilities like treadmill to train myself except for a bottled water, a pair of running trek shoes, and our place. What should I do to avoid such bad experienced and gain more confident in running especially in long distances or in marathon?

    Your advise and suggestions would be highly appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Choy

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