Ask a runner what they think about as they log mile after mile, and it’s likely that you’ll get a response of, “Uh, I don’t know” or a vague, “Life, you know.” Now, new research provides insight into the true mind of a runner. In the study, which was published in a recent issue of the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, asked runners to record their thoughts via recording equipment as they thought out loud during their runs.
While the study only captured the thoughts from 10 runners, the data has given a good indication of what runners commonly think about on those long runs — and why they often can’t tell you what those thoughts are. Most of the runner thoughts focused on what they were currently enduring, such as their surroundings or their pace. The study also found that runners spent a lot of time dedicated to thinking about how much everything hurt.
However, the research isn’t perfect. Since runners were forced to think out loud, knowing that it was being recorded, they could have focused more on their current state versus entering a land of daydreams, which is a where many recreational runners head.
In a previous interview with Science of Us, Dr. Michael Joyner, said that professionals tend to focus on the feelings at hand, rather than drifting away to more pleasant thoughts.
“The non-elites tend to disassociate, to try to distract themselves,” Joyner said in the interview. “But the elite athletes tend to consciously focus on how they’re doing: what their legs are doing, how much the muscles in their legs are burning, how fast they’re running.”
Of course, this isn’t new: Bill Morgan and Michael Pollock researched this in the late 1970s, publishing one of the first papers on sports psychology. In their analysis, they looked at what elite runners and middle-of-the-pack runners thought about while running.
They found that elite runners focused on monitoring their body throughout the race, while the average runners tried to distract themselves from the exercise — or otherwise, putting themselves in a voluntary disassociative state.
On the other hand, a 2009 study found that an external focus — or on their surroundings — helped improve running economy. Unless you’re fit enough to keep pace with the elites, maybe dreaming about what you’d do if you hit the lottery isn’t such a bad idea.
Lora is an RRCA certified running coach and blogger at Crazy Running Girl. Since she started running more than 15 years ago in a quest to lose weight, she has run 18 marathons. This fall, she will complete her 19th at the Santa Rosa Marathon. Follow her on Twitter.