Marathon Mind

Monday's Washington Post outpaces the typical Olympic news coverage with a curious story on the neuroscience of running.

The surprising study in “The Sprinter's Brain” suggests that all sprinters take off faster when they position their right-foot on the starter's block. The advantage holds for novice runners and Olympians alike, regardless of their handedness or preferred foot. Researchers chalk up the unexpected results to the asymmetric structure of our brains.

We know that the right hemisphere—which largely controls the left side of the body—plays a central role in reaction time. But because the left hemisphere dominates in overall movement control—especially in moving the right side of the body—the right-foot-back position has, on average, an 80-millisecond advantage. If you've been following the summer games, you know that such slivers of time cleave runners with gold feet from those with lead.

While reading this article and checking my e-mail Monday morning, I leaned awkwardly at my desk, holding an ice pack to my throbbing knee with one hand and typing with the other. After an hour of working diagonally, my work ethic was palling, and I began to wonder whether my decision two months ago to begin training for the Baltimore Marathon signaled some sort of brain disorder.

A quick scan through the Dana Guide to Brain Health failed to confirm this suspicion, but it did console my joints with the fact that regular exercise is linked to enhanced levels of a growth factor in the brain that sustains many types of neurons. News about the beneficial effects of exercise on brain health makes headlines regularly—our August issue of Brain in the News will feature a story focusing on Alzheimer's disease.

Less common are those stories on the neurology of sport. How would the brain scans of these Olympians contrast with mine?

I suppose I can test the movement, balance and coordination of my own motor cortex this October, when the marathon takes place. For now, the neurons are willing, but the knees are weak.

—Ben Mauk

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