Sport is healthy, strengthens the body, can slow down the aging process and prevent diseases. So far, so well known. All reasons why MDR WISSEN podcaster Daniela Schmidt – actually more of a member of the “We hate sport” team – has big plans: she wants to run a half marathon! Will she manage it?

Training success is also a question of genes

Kuno Hottenrott, Professor of Training Science and Sports Medicine at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, has good news for Daniela: everyone can be trained. But there are differences in how quickly training progresses and how good you can become at a certain sport: “Genetics play a very big role. We always say: sprinters are born, but endurance athletes are also born,” says Hottenrott. “They have more long muscle fibers, a better oxygen supply, more mitochondria, i.e. cell power plants. That is of course a huge advantage.”

Slow training brings the most

Unfortunately, podcaster Daniela doesn’t feel like a born athlete. One of the key principles of sustainable endurance training is very helpful for her: take it slow at first!

Science distinguishes five different stress zones in which the human body can operate, from “relaxed, zero exertion” at level one to “close to collapse” at level five. Daniela should spend a large part of her running training in stress zones one and two, i.e. running so slowly that she could talk or even sing without any problems.

More courage to take a walking break!

Those who start relaxed will get more out of it later – this applies not only to the training concept, but also to the later runs and competitions, as a study by training scientist Kuno Hottenrott shows: runners in a marathon were divided into two groups. One group jogged the entire route, the other took a one-minute walking break every 2.5 kilometers.

Result: “The group that walked in between was ultimately just as fast as the group that ran through,” reports Hottenrott, adding: “It also has a huge psychological advantage when I know that after 2.5 kilometers I can take a deep breath and walk.”

This is generally a good strategy for long training distances or the race itself: Don’t look at the running route as a whole, but instead divide it into small chunks, for example working your way from supply station to supply station – this helps to maintain motivation.

Limit experiences as a gift to yourself

Constant self-motivation, inner drive and willpower are of course particularly important in endurance sports such as running. And for all those who prefer to stand on the side of the road and watch, clapping and cheering, rather than actively running themselves, the question often arises: Why do runners do this, torturing themselves for several hours, only to end up back at the same point where they started?

“I believe that we need these extreme experiences in order to value life and to value ourselves,” says Stefan Schneider, Professor of Movement Neuroscience at the German Sport University Cologne. “To know that there is a limit, but I am strong enough to go beyond it. And sport enables us to have these extreme experiences that we don’t usually have in life.”

Running as anti-stress medicine

Even if we all find it difficult to overcome our inner demons from time to time, we humans are actually made to exercise regularly. Running in particular is an ancient program that is deeply engraved in our genes: “The rudimentary answer to stress is exercise,” says Stefan Schneider. However, our brain cannot decide what the source of our stress is: Do I have to fear for my life, or is work just piling up on my desk?

“In the old days, we had to fight against saber-toothed tigers or mammoths, or we had to run away from possible dangers. That means that movement is actually the evolutionary-biologically learned reaction of humans to stress, and today we have to channel that somehow. In everyday working life, you could of course punch your colleagues in the face, that would be evolutionarily appropriate. But socially and politically, that is of course not well-received today. Yes, and movement channels this stress,” says Schneider.

The magic of transient hypofrontality

The body rewards us accordingly when we have moved. Daniela from the podcast “My Challenge” quickly realizes that after a good run, her mood is up, her head is relaxed, her thoughts are clear. And indeed: the often-heard story that running is a good way to “switch off” your head is scientifically proven.

“We see that during sport and exercise there is a decrease in activity in those areas that we normally use in everyday life. We are talking about the executive functions, i.e.: taking in information, analyzing it, evaluating it and initiating actions,” explains sports scientist Stefan Schneider.

Instead, the use of energy is shifted to the areas responsible for movement. “And the perception is then: we clear our heads, leave the spirals of rumination of the day behind us.” In research, this principle is referred to as transient hypofrontality.

Exercise is fertilizer for the brain

At the same time, what Stefan Schneider sums up in the title of his book is true: “Movement is neuron fertilizer.” When we move, so-called neurotrophic factors are released in the brain. “This means that learning processes and structural adaptation processes can occur more quickly and efficiently,” explains Schneider. “Neurons connect with each other, communication between neurons becomes possible through synapse sprouting, the brain develops, information can be transmitted more effectively.”

So exercise not only makes us healthy and fit, but also smart? – Stefan Schneider laughs. He is often asked this after lectures and presentations. But unfortunately it doesn’t work that way: “We have a huge field study running with thousands of top athletes who train every day, sometimes several times a day. And if exercise made you very intelligent, that would be the country’s cognitive elite. It isn’t. There are a few very clever ones, there are a few idiots, but most are somehow normally distributed.”

This shows that although movement is an important element, the cognitive areas of our brain need further, different stimulation. “To stay with the example of neuron fertilizer: If I put fertilizer on the field, nothing happens if I haven’t planted seeds first.”

Knowledge as a motivational aid

But even if sport alone doesn’t make us intelligent beasts, it helps our brains to develop the right infrastructure for it. And that, says Schneider, is a wonderful motivation: “Personally, I don’t enjoy training either. I actually have to pull myself together to exercise. But I anticipate that I know that after an hour of training, I’ll feel better mentally, I’ll have cleared my head, I’ll be able to concentrate again. And ultimately, it’s this mental anticipation that motivates me to exercise.”

So, put on your running shoes and just start running! And you can find out what physical and mental challenges Daniela faced on the way to the first half marathon of her life and whether she actually took part in the race in the second part of her half marathon challenge.