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.