Long-Distance Runners Mostly Think About How Hard Long-Distance Running Is

Marathon Runners In Motion
Photo: Terraxplorer/Getty Images

Long-distance running can be a lonely hobby. You’re out there for hours, with only the voices in your head — whether your own or those pumped in through your earbuds — for company. What do runners think about during all those solitary hours on the road? 

Writing for BPS Research Digest, psychologist and Science of Us pal Christian Jarrett explains that researchers have tried to study this question before, by asking runners to jot down summaries of their thoughts after they completed their runs. The problem with this, of course, is that by the time the runners sat down to do this, they’d mostly forgotten their thoughts already. So now new research published recently in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology tries a different tactic: The researchers gave the runners recording equipment and asked them to “think aloud” their thoughts as they ran. 

In the end, this gave the researchers more than 18 hours of audio from the ten runners in their study, who ranged in age from 29 to 52. Each of them was training for a long-distance race, either a half-marathon or longer, and they recorded their thoughts on a run that was at least seven miles long. Mostly, their thoughts focused on the here and now, things like their pace or their surroundings. But they also spent a lot of time thinking about how much everything hurt: “My hips are a little tight. I’m stiff, my feet, my ankles, just killing me this morning.” “Hill, you’re a bitch … it’s long and hot — God damn it, mother eff-er.” “That sucked, but it’s going to be an awesome run on the way back.” 

So they didn’t really do much of what I spend most of my long runs doing — that is, attempting to think of anything and everything but running. This might have been influenced by the study setup itself, specifically the use of the recording device. Speaking your thoughts aloud is an odd and unfamiliar thing to do, and as such it might have forced the runners to stay in the moment, noticing their surroundings and their physical sensations rather than drifting off into daydream-land.

Incidentally, in an interview with Science of Us last fall, Dr. Michael Joyner, a researcher who has studied elite long-distance runners, said that daydreaming is the opposite of what the professionals do. “The non-elites tend to disassociate, to try to distract themselves,” Joyner said. “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.” Disassociation, in other words, is amateur stuff, but staying present is a strategy the pros use to encourage better performance. Good to know, but let’s remember that there are some real, psychological benefits to spacing out, too. 

Runners Mostly Think About How Hard Running Is