David Krakauer

May the Smartest Runner Win

A few years ago, New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds penned an interesting article titled “Running as the Thinking Person’s Sport.” It focused on a then-recent study by neuroscientists at the University of Arizona in which it was shown that high-level distance runners had significantly higher levels of connectivity in certain parts of the brain compared to nonrunners.

In interpreting these findings, Reynolds wrote that “running seems to be a kind of mobile math puzzle,” an idea that the study’s lead author, Gene Alexander, expanded upon, saying, “It requires complex navigational skills plus an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment, juggle memories of past runs and current conditions, and also continue with all of the sequential motor activities of running, which are, themselves, very complicated.”

If it’s true that, as this study indicates, running makes people smarter, then it must also be true that smarter people make better runners. There is no consensus definition of “intelligence” among scientists, but I like the one proposed by David Krakauer, an evolutionary biologist and president of the Santa Fe Institute, who has said, “Intelligence is making hard problems easy.” The reason  this way of looking at the phenomenon appeals to me is that it’s inclusive and pragmatic. It recognizes that intelligence is not some global aptitude that one either has or doesn’t have but is rather a diverse collection of mental skills, which different people have in different degrees. No person is capable of making all types of hard problems easy, and very few people are incapable of making at least one type of hard problem easy.

Top athletes are among those who count as highly intelligent by Krakauer’s definition. As he explained in a 2015 interview for Nautilus, “Something that we’d find tremendously difficult—skiing downhill at a very high velocity or getting a small ball into a basket or getting a ball over a net at over 70 miles an hour, things that we struggle with . . . they make look effortless. And that’s not really that different from a mathematician effortlessly solving a theorem, or a musician remembering a symphony. The difference [exists in] the part of the brain that stores the relevant information, and for some reason when we’re talking about the motor system, it’s not intelligence. I think part of the reason for that is because it’s not exclusively human, because marine mammals make swimming look effortless. Birds make flying look effortless—we can’t do that. And surely that can’t be intelligence because we can’t do it.”

Krakauer continues, “If you reduce the theory to intelligence to, on the one hand, this notion of efficient solutions to hard problems, and simultaneously think about it in terms of the energy and resources that neurons require to solve the problem, then in fact, the motor system is arguably more intelligent than the frontal cortex.”

Long before I met David Krakauer at the 2015 Goldlab Symposium and learned about his take on intelligence, I had already become convinced that certain types of intelligence are vital to success in endurance sports. Pacing is arguably the defining mental skill in endurance racing. It is not easy to get from the start line to the finish line of a 10K or a marathon in the least time possible. While physical fitness determines the highest velocity you can sustain over a given distance on a given course on a given day, this number is fundamentally unknowable. Discovering it as you go is the job of your brain, and it is a job that most athletes suck at. Effective pacing requires intentional practice, but it’s also a matter of natural aptitude, as is the case with all mental skills. My advice to athletes is that you exploit the advantage of natural pacing ability if you have it and that you take pacing skill development more seriously than most athletes do regardless of your innate aptitude.

Pacing is one form of self-regulation. Another form of self-regulation that impacts endurance performance is restraint. All athletes understand the value of hard work, and a majority of serious racers are willing to work hard, but in my experience, relatively few of those who are willing to work hard have the restraint to consistently resist working hard when doing so is unwise. Forcing it in workouts where the target splits are out of reach, sticking to the training plan instead of dialing back in the face of excessive fatigue, grinding out the last mile of a 20-miler despite red-flag pain in your knee—such behaviors are the norm among competitive runners, not the exception.

As the saying goes, “It’s easy to train hard, but hard to train smart.” Hard trainers are a dime a dozen, but where smart training is concerned, the bar is low. This state of affairs represents a golden opportunity to gain an advantage over other athletes by taking pride in exercising restraint throughout the training process. It can be hard at first, but if you persist in the effort it can become your special thing. Instead of rushing to reclaim a Strava segment from a local rival who makes a point of taking it from you, laugh privately and take your revenge in the next race.

A third form of intelligence that aids the athlete is the ability to learn and adapt through trial and error. Athletes who are smart in this way pay attention to cause and effect in their training, figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, and adjust accordingly. I can think of a number of noteworthy examples of athletes whose training evolved over the course of their career and who performed better because of the changes they made. One example is the legendary triathlete Mark Allen, who overcame a propensity toward injury early in his career by swapping his favored low-volume, high-intensity training approach for a high-volume, low-intensity approach under the guidance of coach Phil Maffetone.

In summary, if you’re smart, take full advantage of this gift in your training and racing. And if you’re not so smart (and let’s face it, most of us aren’t so smart), emulate those who are and you’ll at least have an advantage over other not-so-smart runners who make no effort to get smarter.