Knowing how you think on the run can improve your workouts—and your mood.
Running is the ultimate power vacation—no BlackBerrys, no kids, no bosses. But all's not quiet in the brain while you're pounding the pavement. In fact, you're performing mind acrobatics: problem-solving, making your to-do list, even drifting to a calm state. "Running gives you the freedom to access those inner processes that the busy outer world often robs you of," says James P. Brennan, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of human behavior at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Studies show that elite runners tend to stay focused on the run—on things like form, pace, and the way their bodies feel. The rest of us flit around four major thought bubbles: organizing, problem-solving, wandering, and pondering. "A lot of people will shift back and forth during a run, or depending on the day," says Michael Sachs, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Temple University in Philadelphia. Each thought pattern has its pros and cons. Recognizing them will help you get the most out of your workouts.
Think About It: Organizing
Most days, Lindsay Decken, 24, a buyer for an engineering firm in Greenville, South Carolina, wakes up at 5 a.m. to run five to eight miles. By the time she's through, she has a pretty clear idea what she'll be doing the rest of the day. Between 10-hour days at work and evenings and weekends packed with volunteering gigs and a home remodeling project, her runs provide a much-needed chance to see the big picture. "It's just a time to get away from everything," she says. "I have complete solitude."
It's great when the organizing leaves you with a sense of accomplishment. But experts say that if taking inventory starts to be a source of tension, then you've taken it too far. Set a time limit, maybe 15 minutes, to think about all the tasks that are piling up. "You don't want to shackle yourself when one of the things that you get out of running is a great release," Brennan says.
Think About It: Problem-Solving
Jim Mallory, a 42-year-old network technician in Denver, often spends several frustrated hours at his desk trying to figure out what's tripping up a customer's data network. Then he'll put in a 10-miler at lunch. "While running, or shortly afterward, I'll think of some new angle and end up fixing it right away," he says.
Running has a way of untying some huge brain knots. Because we're stepping out of our task-oriented days during a run, we're subconsciously turning off creativity-killers like distractions, rationalization, and blame. Add in feel-good brain chemicals triggered by running, and your brain is at its best.
What's more, experts say, running is a right-brain activity. Most of the day, whether we're poring over documents at work or shopping lists at home, we're in left-brain territory. "If you're working your left side really hard, you might not give the right side a chance to come up with something," Sachs says.
Think About It: Wandering
If you were to listen in on Aaron Cunningham's thoughts during his five-mile loops through Seattle, you might hear this: Oh, there's the China Harbor Restaurant. I wonder if it's good. That runner looks fast. There's the Northwest Outdoor Center. I haven't been kayaking in a long time.
Cunningham, a 36-year-old software engineer, says letting his mind roam keeps him relaxed when he wants to maintain a moderate pace. "If I start thinking fast thoughts, I'll run too fast and start pushing harder than I should," he says. Plus, a wandering mind helps him pass the time. "Part of it is just being in the moment," Cunningham says.
Sachs says that letting your mind go loosey-goosey offers a tremendous release—part of the reason many of us run. Rather than taxing your brain by focusing on work stress or the kids' busy schedule, "you're giving it a chance to meditate or float," Sachs says. "It's rejuvenating."
That's not a pass to stay in la-la land for the duration of your run. Doing so can detract from your performance, Sachs says, so check in with your body every few minutes. Otherwise, you risk blowing your workout—failing to maintain a certain pace for tempo runs, for example, or not feeling pain from an injury.
Think About It: Pondering
When she's facing a packed day at work, Lindsay Decken postpones her morning run until afternoon. By then, the day, with all its stresses, is well under way. And rather than building a to-do list, she spends a lot of her quiet time with raging thoughts about work pressures. "I'll get frustrated, go for a run, and talk myself down," she says. "You don't necessarily solve anything, but everything that bothered me at work is erased from my memory, at least until the next day."
Experts say it's okay to feel anxious or angry during a run, but if it consumes you, set it aside. "Put your life in compartments," Sachs suggests. "Say to yourself, 'I'm going to take this stuff that happened at work, put it in a drawer, and I'm not going to think about it.'" After all, ruminating endlessly won't just suck the fun out of your run. Those negative vibes can also compromise your performance.
How to figure out—and avoid—mind problems
Letting your thoughts turn a stellar run into a drag? Human performance consultant James Brennan gives three signs it's time to switch head gears.
You're Not Happy: We run to feel good. So if you notice your thoughts bringing you down, give yourself permission to leave your woes behind until after your run. "If our thoughts are negative, we're going to be in a poorer physiological state," Brennan says. That means you're more likely to huff up that hill or putter out early on a long run.
You're Tense: Running provides a release, but over-thinking a problem can start to show in your form—shoulders up to your ears or shallow breathing, for example. Brennan recommends taking a mental inventory of your body, starting at your head and working down.
You're Slower: Who doesn't love a little daydream on a run? That's fine, but if you have goals, don't stay on autopilot the entire time. Check in every few minutes, or tell yourself you'll let your mind go after this split. Until then, stay focused on your pace, Brennan says.
Reference: Runners World Magazine, June 2013
Reference: Runners World Magazine, June 2013