Toys Don’t Matter

AJW looks at how running can make you smarter… and why it’s the running and not its accoutrements that provide the benefit.

By on May 4, 2012 | 27 comments

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?
Andy Jones-Wilkins
finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.