Running on plenty

Mon, Oct 1, 2012, 01:00

Moving towards better motor memory:CAN YOU IMPROVE your body’s ability to remember by making it move? That rather odd-seeming question led researchers at the University of Copenhagen to undertake a reverberant new examination of just how the body creates specific muscle memories and what role, if any, exercise plays (

They first asked a group of young, healthy right-handed men to master a complicated tracking skill on a computer. Sitting before the screen with their right arm on an armrest and a controller similar to a joystick in their right hand, the men watched a red line squiggle across the screen and had to use the controller to trace the same line with a white cursor. Keeping as close to the red squiggle as possible required input from both the muscles and the mind.

The men repeated the task many times, until the motion necessary to track the red line became ingrained, almost automatic. They were creating a short-term muscle memory.

The term “muscle memory” is something of a misnomer. Muscles don’t make or store memories. They respond to signals from the brain, where the actual memories of any particular movement are formed and filed.

But muscle memory – or “motor memory,” as it is more correctly referred to among scientists – exists and can be quite potent. Learn to ride a bicycle as a youngster, abandon the pastime and, 20 years later, you’ll be able to hop on a bicycle and pedal off.

To date, most studies of the effect of exercise on memory have looked at more intellectual tasks, such as memorising lists of words. In those cases, regular exercise appears to improve the brain’s ability to remember.

But the Copenhagen scientists wanted to see how exercise influences the development and consolidation of physical memories. So before having their volunteers master the squiggle test, they first had a third of the group ride a bicycle at an intense but not exhausting pace for 15 minutes. The other two-thirds of the group rested quietly during this time.

Then, after the computer motor-skill testing, a third of those who’d previously rested completed the same strenuous 15-minute bike ride. The others rested.

All of the volunteers then repeated the squiggle test after an hour, a day and a week, to see how well they’d learned and remembered that skill.

Their scores for speed and accuracy were almost identical at the one-hour point, although the group that had ridden the bicycle after the first computer practise session was a bit less accurate.

After a week, things looked different. The men who had exercised just after first learning the motor skill were noticeably better at remembering the task. The men who’d exercised before learning the new skill were not quite as adept now, although they were better than those who hadn’t exercised at all.

What this suggests, says Marc Roig, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen who led the study with Kasper Skriver, is that physical exercise may help the brain consolidate and store physical or motor memories.

It may be that physical, aerobic exercise performed right after a memory has been formed, intensifies the imprinting, Dr Roig says.

In the short term, though, exercise may leave the brain overstimulated, he says, making it less able to pinpoint and access new memories.

The “timing of the exercise is critical,” Dr Roig says. To be maximally effective, it needs to be performed “right after exposure to the information to be remembered”.

Want to remember how to ride that bike, in other words? Then ride it as soon as you have managed to stop wobbling. The exercise seems able then to cement the memory of how to ride. Ditto if you’ve just perfected the snap of your tennis serve or the spin on your soccer kick. Go for a run immediately afterwards and your body may later better remember.

– (New York Times)

Blogger's body cramps his style

AMONG THE VERY good Irish running blogs is Get Under That 210 Minutes, which charts Cathal Daly’s attempt to break three hours and 30 minutes for the marathon.

You can keep track of his training, but also the detailed and entertaining accounts of his races.

Most recently, he did the Charleville Half Marathon, coming in at a strong 1.36, but his adventures over the last couple of miles gave a great insight into the pain so many ordinary runners put themselves through.

“My time was a PB, just not the PB I was looking forward for but a PB is a PB. [There is no] getting away from the fact that I was disappointed with the cramping at mile 11 onwards and the falling pace for the last two miles. It cost me probably 40-odd seconds. When I crossed the line I headed over to the green, lay down and lifted the legs on to the tree stump.”

See getunderthat210minutes.

Races of the week

We’d have recommended the Galway Bay Half Marathon and 10km, which takes place on Saturday, except that it sold out last week when the 3,000th entry came in.

Instead, there are a great range of different races over the next week.

Most obviously, for those going long right now, is the Athlone 3 Quarter Marathon on Sunday, which measures in at a precise 19.664 miles. It should be a popular event, and follows the 20 milers over the weekend in Dublin and Kilcock: €49 per entry.

In Annaduff, Co Leitrim, there’s the 5/10km After Mass run/jog/walk, which we like for the name as much as anything else. Details are at

And if you just want to do something silly, then try out the Oh Muck! Mud Run in Rostrevor, Co Down on Saturday. It costs €15 an entry for an “immensely mucky, fun-run experience. Run, crawl, slide, and plod your way through a course of mud-pits, obstacles, streams, and slippy-slopes.”

These are the big weeks for those training for the Dublin Marathon with the long runs being pounded out before the tapering begins.

For those who have done this before, perhaps there is no surprise in just how tough it is when you get to 18-22 miles, but for us newbies it’s still quite a shock when you go from feeling pretty good around the 13-mile mark to feeling like someone is eating your legs from the inside out over the last couple of miles.

Still, no one said it would be easy.

Tapering for most people will start after this weekend, so that’s something to look forward to.

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