What Do Runners Think About When They Run?

I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state because it was such a joy to run. Louisa May Alcott

What do runners think about when they run? Kathryn Schulz asked this question in her article on the New Yorker website. She posed this question as she began reflecting about the more than 50,000 runners who recently ran the New York Marathon, an ordeal of 26.2 miles, from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the finish line in Central Park

Some of the fastest runners completed the distance in a little over 2 hours, others around 6, while others didn't finish at all. She said asking about what runners are thinking during this grueling race is a reasonable question, since running 26.2 miles inevitably involves a great deal of time to think. She writes,

“To run five or ten or twenty-six miles is, as much as anything else, to engage in a sustained way with the deep strangeness that is the human mind.”

Is it really such a reasonable question? I imagine the thoughts of runners of any distance vary as much as the number of runners. I say this in light of the fact that I was once a runner, each day of the week, no matter the weather, hot or cold, sunny or cloudy, humid or dry. My thoughts while running were never the same from one day to the next.

I am also uncertain if it is a reasonable question knowing how difficult it is to measure the thoughts of runners while running or doing anything else for that matter. Schulz cites a study that attempted to do this.

The study, conducted by Ashley Samson and three colleagues, was published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Each of the ten runners were asked to describe what what they were thinking while running. Shultz writes “Afterward, the researchers transcribed those monologues, identified the thoughts they contained, and divided them up into three categories: Pace and Distance, Pain and Discomfort, and Environment.”

What is one to make of this study? The group was rather small (10), only one run was measured, and from Schulz’s description we know nothing about how long they ran, the gender of the runners or the weather conditions the day the study was conducted. With these caveats, the results indicated the runners spent most of their time thinking about their pace and how long the distance was.

The researchers wrote, “pain and discomfort were never far from their thoughts…all told, fully a third of runners’ thoughts concerned the downsides of running. The remaining thoughts pertained to the runners’ immediate environment…terrain and wildlife, and thoughts about weather, traffic, and the other people around them.”

In general, my experience confirms these findings. Some days I fretted about how cold or windy it was, other days I thought about the classes I was to teach, and then some days I worried about the dog racing after me, if he would jump on my back, crashing me to the pavement as he had done once before.

Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running answered Schulz’s question as clearly as anyone when he wrote: “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.” He also added that he would never know what he was thinking while running unless he put his thoughts in writing, as he did in those two sentences.

Regardless of all these weighty particulars, countless research studies have demonstrated that exercise seems to stimulate our neurons and synapses. So throw away those crossword and Sudoku puzzles and go for a swim, walk, bike ride, or run. You’ll be healthier, feel better, loose some weight, and power-up your brain.


Stefanie said...

Sounds like runners think about the same kinds of things I think about when I am cycling long distances -- I have no idea! But that's not completely true. Sometimes I think oh my legs hurt or have I gone far enough yet that I need to snack or oh wow is it a beautiful day. But most of the time I couldn't tell you what I thought about for four hours!

Richard Katzev said...

After I wrote the blog, I wondered about the thoughts of bicyclers too. It was after I read your blog about biking. Just think of those grueling long distance races that last for days. I imagine you have to turn off your mind and keep moving as fast as you can. Can you turn off your mind?

Linda said...

I took up running a long time ago, not marathon running or any kind of competitive running. I was curious about the "runner's high" I had read about. I guess I didn't run fast or long enough, because I never experienced that high, but I do remember feeling a sense of freedom. It felt good to get out of the house and away from the domestic obligations. It felt like . . . well, running away, and I liked that at the time. I would get up early in the morning while everyone else in the house was still asleep and run away. Other than that, no memory of what I thought about while I ran.

A dog knocked you down? Was it your dog or a stray dog?

Sheila Brifman said...

Dear Richard,

It is so nice to read your blog entries once again. I hope that you are feeling healthy and happy.
When I walk for long periods of time, I recreate in my mind situations that happened yesterday and years ago. I change the endings or the emotions that surfaced during those situations. If one became angry and hurt one can think about what happened and change the feelings or situations in order to bring some relief and/or understanding. One can rethink, reevaluate and understand another's feelings and judgments. This can result in a totally new viewpoint and appreciation of a situation or a person. Your thoughts?

Richard Katzev said...

Hi Sheila:

It is good to hear from you again. And thank you for your comment on my blog.

My thoughts: I don't feel you can change the feelings or responses you made in the past. You are only fooling yourself if you try.

But you can try to change your future emotions or responses the next time you are in a similar situation. Perhaps that's what you were suggesting?

I hope that answers your question.

Best, Richard

Richard Katzev said...


I hope you are continuing to run. Once in a while, I felt great after a run. Maybe that was a runner's high. I do know that if I hurt anywhere when I started a run, the hurt eventually went away. It is said that endorphins kick in to reduce pain. Who knows?

The dog was not my dog; I've never run with a dog. The dog that knock me down came out of the blue. Must have been from someone's home. Fortunately I was not badly injured and continued on my way.


Sheila Brifman said...

Dear Richard,
Good to hear from you as well. Thanks for your response. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.
However, I have to respectfully disagree. When thinking about situations that happened in the past, I have been able to let go of the anger that encircled me at the time. Now, I often experience a mixture of understanding and at times ,sympathy for the other person involved. This results in dissolved anger and an acceptance of a situation that was once very painful for me.
Not an easy process to say the least... but, one that has many benefits.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Sheila. No harm in disagreeing. I think we have much to learn from your success in overcoming past anger. I can appreciate its benefits. And no doubt it isn't easy. I imagine it takes a good deal of concentration and freedom from distractions. So I understand why you approach the problem while taking long walks. Be safe over there. Richard

crofter said...

I cycle now, and enjoy it very much, 120 to 140 miles per week. Running, not so much. After college level sports, and having to train 11 months per year, now whenever I get the urge to jog, I just set down until it passes!

Richard Katzev said...

Bicycling is every bit as aerobic as running. But like running, it's subject to difficult weather conditions. I have an indoor bike now that gives a pretty good workout. Very funny ending, crofter. Also good advice.