Saturday, April 15, 2006

Does ultrarunning improve memory skills? (article by Nobel laureate, James Watson)

Dr. James Watson, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the double helix, recently wrote an article for Seed Magazine that talked about the latest studies regarding memory loss. One study he cited showed may show that distance running can reduce memory loss.

Here's a quick recap of the article:

* Storage of new information in your brain is based on a process called "neurogenesis", which produces new neurons in your brain to store information.

* You've heard that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks". It turns out that age does limit your ability to learn new things, because post-adolescence, the brain stops growing and neurogenesis only happens in the hippocampus (where memories are formed). A key part of retaining the ability to learn is to maximize the rate with which we can generate new neurons (nerve cells) as we get older.

* An experiment with mice has shown that when mice use treadmills to run long distances each day, they make new nerve cells at double the rate of their sedentary peers. This had yet to be tested on humans, but it is encouraging.

Please do go read Dr. Watson's article here. Even when he's pushing 80 years of age, he proves to be one of the most thought-provoking scientists of our time. Now if we can just get him to sign up for an ultra. ;-)

Takeaway - can't remember what to do today? Then GO RUN!

- SD


  1. The Takeaway is the best!

  2. Great blog! I just got started on my personal fitness blog. I go trail running often, I'll have to drop by to keep up with what you're doing.

    Good reading. :)

  3. Hi Scott,

    Didn't see your email so posting this here for everybody. I came across your blog which struck very resonant inside of me and encouraged me to try something I have sometimes considered, trail running. One time last summer I ran off-road in Yellowstone and found it strangely exhilarating. This weekend I found a race called the MuddySneaker ( in upstate NY where I was going to spend a weekend before doing business this week in Rochester. It was too late too take part in the race but I took your advice off your blog and went and learned something. The community of people was great and watching the race was very inspiring. I asked lots of questions and learned a lot about the sport. After the race I ran part of the trail to try it myself and loved it. Today, Easter Sunday, I tried trail running for the third time, on a beautiful stretch out here by Watkins Glen, NY where there are dozens of waterfalls falling into Seneca Lake. I am now hooked for life I think. Here is a poem about my experience for which I thank you.

    I am not a poet so this could be crap but I wanted to capture a little of the experience. Its called:

    My First Muddy Sneakers

    A nice flat camping access road
    Sun on my face
    I am over 20% body fat
    Here comes a hill

    I can’t finish the hill
    I walk to the top and
    Fall down the other side
    Gradually running again

    Marks take me left,
    Into the trees
    Trees surround me
    Shield me, but don’t suffocate me.

    The trail is windy
    The trail is straight
    The trail shrinks
    The trail fattens.

    Root ridges,
    Slog, mud, gunk
    Dead leaves.
    A soft wind

    An open field
    A back road
    Beatiful crashing waterfalls,
    Into the woods again.

    Across a bridge
    And all around slate.
    Water pouing down.
    I climb out and splash myself.

    Again I run, I feel cold and damp.
    But I feel fine, I am getting stronger.
    I jump over a felled log.
    I run along a pond.

    I reach the end
    It is 2:15, time to turn around.
    I have 3 swallows left.
    One now, one at a spot on the way back.

    I stop. I take it in.
    I ran until 2:15.
    What a beautiful site, a huge waterfall below.
    I notice the water is green and ugly.

    I head back and on the way back something unexpected.

    After my last swallow
    I am noticing that I am gaining speed.
    I am feeling better and better.
    I am running hard and I don’t feel pain.

    I run faster and faster,
    I consume hills up and down
    But with respect both ways
    Running more carefully and more aggressively.

    And then there is a stretch…
    A stretch where the orange pine needles make soft the way,

    I land soft and firm on the earth
    Which now is not taking but giving

    Giving more and more to each step,
    My eyes get wide,
    My chest fills up,
    My head goes back

    I want to run!
    I want to jump, I want to land
    I want to switch directions.
    I don’t want anything else but this trail.

    Chills go up my back
    I hit a long straight path again.
    The excitement is over
    But only in degree.

    I run strong and true
    I feel everything I have ever felt
    I have dozens of gears
    I slowly come to a stop.

    I smile at a family getting out of their car
    Ready to walk the trail.
    “We drove 3 hours so it better be beautiful’ he says
    “Don’t worry its worth it” I say.

    - John Wright
    New trailrunner

  4. Good to meet you, Tim and John! And thanks for the poem. I'm glad to hear you guys are getting outside.

    Cheers, SD

  5. Hi Scott!

    I´m writting from Patagonia Argentina! How about an Ultra here?
    Come on! Join us!!

    Take care and happy trails!

  6. Just wanted you to know i love your blog and it's helping me in my own training.

    Btw, i've met Watson. Brilliant man but a dick in real life. :-/

    Keep on blogging! (and running)

  7. That is amazing at 80 and still brilliant. Maybe he can pass on how to memorize for test taking to our kids. Getting them to run, heck just getting them out of bed is a feat in its own.

  8. I knew that doing some aerobic exercises such as jogging will help to improve memory. Your post gave me further evidence that it really works. Keeping a daily routine of running should be the thing to do to keep the brain kicking.


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