The Psychological Power of Endurance Sports


, by Chris Case

Photography by: Jakub Lund

Participating in endurance sports improves mental health and psychological skills in myriad ways, from mood to cognition, resilience to motivation.

Why do we like to ride and run fast? Why do we subject ourselves to things that make us sweat? Why do we push ourselves to places that can be mildly uncomfortable or even intolerably painful?

For many people, endurance sports is something they choose to pursue because, at least initially, it simply feels good. Others are motivated by the cardiovascular benefits, the community, or by the potential to enhance performance as the ultimate goal.

But what if we ran, rode, and swam because our brains evolved to thrive while doing these things?


Up until around 12,000 years ago, every human was some form of an endurance athlete. Our distant ancestors, members of hunter-gatherer societies, had to be athletes in order to survive. Life necessitated hard work.

In part, that was because most large mammals alive during those times easily outpaced humans during short bursts of running, but almost none could keep that pace for more than a few minutes. By chasing an animal over long distances without a break, these hunter ancestors forced their prey to overheat and collapse (or at least slowed them down and weakened them enough to quickly kill them).

Humans have been endurance athletes for thousands of years. Photography by: R.M. Nunes

This practice of running an animal to death, formally known as “persistence-hunting,” is still practiced by a few hunter-gatherer societies today, such as the Kalahari bushmen of Africa and the Rarámuri of Mexico, made famous by the popular book Born to Run.

What do we learn from studying those who still choose to endure, albeit under less consequential circumstances? While survival is not at stake in this modern proxy of hunter-gatherer existence, research suggests that endurance athletes improve everything from mood to concentration, cognition to resilience, simply by being active.

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In many instances, particularly in modern life, endurance exercise is our most accessible and most consistently effective form of self-therapy. Don't like what's going on at home? Go for a run. Frustrated with a job? Take a ride. A relationship ends? You’ll probably be on a running, riding, or exercising binge.

Why is it so powerful? There are myriad chemical and physiological responses taking place in our bodies every time we break a sweat. Indeed, an increasing amount of research is illustrating just how much we gain from exercise and how powerfully it impacts our mental health. Evidence suggests that exercise promotes changes in the brain due to increases in metabolism, oxygenation, and blood flow.

Photography by: PA Studio

Other neurochemical factors may be released during physical activities, including opioids and endocannabinoids, which promote a sense of euphoria and well-being, possess anti-anxiety effects, promote sedation, and decrease sensitivity to pain.

Endorphins, hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system, activate the body's opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect. This so-called “runner’s high” first became popular among athletes in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until much later, in the mid 2000s, that a strong correlation between endorphin levels and improved mood was shown.

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Much like endorphins, research suggests that endocannabinoid levels are also affected by exercise. David Raichlen, a professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California, has suggested two theories on why exercise, generally, and running, specifically, causes increased levels of endorphins, endocannabinoids, and other brain chemicals.

First, when humans initially became hunter/gatherers close to two million years ago, they became more active. The release of these endogenous pain relievers may have evolved to allow for humans to move for longer periods of time, and at a faster pace. In this theory, the mood enhancement is simply a positive side effect.

In the second scenario, the release of more of these chemicals while active could have motivated continued movement, which could have led to increased chances of garnering more food and, therefore, higher survival rates.

Research suggests that endurance athletes improve everything from mood to concentration, cognition to resilience, simply by being active.

These theories might help explain why so many of us get so much enjoyment from endurance sports. And this is the key: Perhaps we are filling a physiological and biological void left behind when we abandoned that hunter-gatherer way of life.

Indeed, Raichlen suggests his results provide the framework for a new way of understanding the evolution of endurance exercise in humans and other mammals.

“The fact that running, and endurance exercise in general, remains an enjoyable and psychologically beneficial recreational activity for tens of millions of humans today suggests that we still may respond to a neurobiological trait that evolved early in our lineage,” he concludes in his 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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That’s just the start. Research also has shown that physical exercise modulates the major neurotransmitters that are associated with an individual's state of alertness (norepinephrine), the pleasure and reward system (dopamine), and the level of anxiety (serotonin). Another theory suggests exercise helps by normalizing sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain.

Others have shown exercise’s effects on brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which supports the growth of neurons. Ready for some acronyms? Studies in animals have shown that the expression levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), neurotrophin-3 (NT3), fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2), glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), epidermal growth factor (EGF), and nerve growth factor (NGF) all appear to increase after exercise. What’s all that mean? To simplify, these chemicals help specific cells in the brain survive, proliferate, and mature.

Photography by: BublikHaus

And those are just the short-term effects. In research terms, these acute effects are typically observed after only one session. Now, the long-term effects are becoming much more clear. For example, research shows that exercise can help alleviate long-term depression. Other evidence for exercise’s positive impact on mood is backed by a host of randomized controlled trials. In fact, some findings suggest that endurance exercise is not only important for treating depression, but also in preventing relapse.

A body of evidence also continues to develop for the role exercise can play in treating—and perhaps preventing—anxiety. When we're threatened or frightened, our nervous system launches into a state of alertness, setting off a cascade of reactions such as sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. Individuals with a heightened sensitivity to these feelings of anxiety respond to those sensations with fear.

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Some researchers suggest that regular exercise might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations. That follows logic, since the body produces many of the same physical reactions—heavy sweating, increased heart rate—in response to exercise.

The long-term effects of prolonged participation in endurance sports suggests it is a powerful, brain-enhancing tool. Indeed, research suggests that increases in cerebral blood flow, the expression of a number of trophic factors, and the induction of pro-inflammatory processes promote neurogenesis, angiogenesis, and synaptogenesis. All that to say, chronic exercise yields more brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels, and an increase in connections between neurons in your brain. We want all of those things.

It’s clear: the chemical changes brought about by aerobic movement profoundly impact psychological enhancements. So get out there and endure.

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