Learning on the Run
Andrew Lovering, associate professor of Human Physiology, leads a pace group at a Run with a Researcher event on the University of Oregon campus.

If you’re interested in learning something new, go for a run at the University of Oregon

Eugene, Oregon-based Meghan Tuttle considers herself a fairly casual runner, hitting a local 5K or 10K every month or so. She has done most of her running solo, and until recently, had not taken in most of what “Track Town USA” has to offer local runners. When the 34-year old forester saw a Facebook post about a chance to run with a University of Oregon researcher, however, she jumped at the chance to expand her horizons.

“I thought this would be a great way to get involved in the local running scene, as well as try some of the trails around here,” she says. “Plus, I was intrigued to meet and learn from the researchers.”

Tuttle took advantage of a growing program at the university that began in 2016 during the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field. Since then, the “Run with a Researcher” program has offered up the combination of running and learning on the first Saturday of every month. While the school has a long history of producing top-caliber college runners and serves as a training ground for numerous pros, this program is gaining popularity for the slow to moderately paced jaunts—which are free—through its campus and adjacent trails.

“We thought this was a good chance to make some of our researchers’ work accessible when people were here for the trials,” says Molly Blancett, spokesperson for the program. “We all know researchers who run or walk, so we put a call out to them to gauge interest.”

Turns out, the researchers loved the idea, and so did the public.

“Our original goal was to have 15 attendees at each session, but we ended up closer to 60,” Blancett says. “Once the Olympic Trials were over, we decided to extend the program into the academic year.”

Leah Middlebrook, associate professor of Comparative Literature and Spanish, talks to a group of runners before a recent Run with a Researcher run on University of Oregon campus. Photo: Courtesy of University of Oregon

Today, the monthly program (on hiatus for the winter) involves about 15 different researchers whose areas of expertise span a wide range of topics. From ecology to chemistry, human physiology, physics and journalism/communication, attending runners can dig into whatever topic is of interest by running alongside or chatting with a specific researcher before/after the run.

As with any running group, the involved researchers run a spectrum of paces and runners can fall in step with the speed that fits their ability or desire for the day. There are typically between five and 10 paces offered and the runs cover a 4-mile loop that integrates Pre’s Trail, inspired by perhaps the university’s most famous runner, Steve Prefontaine. For those more interested in a slower go of it, the university also offers a 3.1-mile walk.

Tuttle’s first run with the group was led by a physics researcher at a 10-minute pace. “It was relaxing and we could chat and I was really impressed by the variety of topics we could learn about,” she says. “It was also meaningful to run along Pre’s Trail.”

A Perfect Match

Richard Taylor, a 54-year old physics professor is one of the regular researchers involved in the program, and it combines his two passions. “I love giving lectures anyhow, so when I was given the opportunity to combine running and sharing my research, I knew it would be great,” he says.

Taylor, a lifelong runner from England, finds that running is a perfect way to “go out and empty my brain.” This, he says, is helpful to him as a researcher. “I can get into a meditative state and when I return to my work, I am refreshed,” he says.

Turns out he, and the university, are onto something. Years of research have demonstrated the synergies between exercise and learning. Marcus Conyers, PhD, co-developer of the BrainSMART Health Wise program has made a career out of studying the powerful connection between movement and learning and has shared his methods with millions of professionals and educators. “There are so many reasons why exercise and learning work well together,” he says.

Conyers points out that the brain’s central processor of learning and memory—the hippocampus—is larger among people who exercise regularly. “When we exercise our brains release BDNF, a key protein that creates new cells,” he explains. “Studies suggest that we return from exercise with a euphoria for learning.”

A runner himself, Conyers says that he likes to read research and then head out on a run. “I think through the information and process it while I’m out there,” he says. “I find that I come back with the information clearly embedded.”

He also points to studies that support the social side of exercising and learning, reinforcing the idea that group runs like that at the University of Oregon further enhance absorption of information. “Our default network is social and it powers learning,” Conyers explains. “For instance, when your return from a race, you’re likely to remember the conversations you had with other runners. These interactions are very important to our ability to learn.”

Read More: Group Workouts Are Good For Your Health

It would seem, then, that the Run with a Researcher program is offering up all the essential components for absorbing the information the researchers present. “If you go out and focus on enjoying the social aspect of a program like this, you’ll process the conversations so differently than sitting in a lecture hall,” Conyers says.

Blancett says she has been pleased by the variety of demographics represented at each run and it has helped build bonds in the community. “The program has broad appeal,” she says. “We see attendees making meaningful connections in addition to learning new things.”

For her part, Tuttle says the program offered up all she could want. “I really enjoyed not only the learning and running, but getting to know other members of the community,” she says. “I’ll be back.”

Amanda Loudin
Amanda Loudin is a Maryland-based freelancer with a focus on health and fitness. When she's not on the trails with two- or four-legged friends, you can find her on Twitter at @misszippy1.