The Psychology of Running

Me, post-today's hill run.

For all the half marathons that I have done, I’ve followed the Running Room’s Book on Running‘s training plan.  And by “follow” I mean I start training with the intention of doing all (or at least the majority of) the scheduled runs, but then life happens and I usually do the Sunday long runs and then some of the shorter weekday runs when I can.  This year, I decided that I will make a concerted effort to do both the Wednesday hill runs, which I have tended to avoid in the past because I have such a bad attitude towards hills runs, and the long runs, which I usually do, as my bare minimum.  The hill run consists of a 3 km warm up, then running up a ~600 m hill a set number of times1, then a 3 km cool down. On my last few hill runs, it struck me that these hill runs are so much more like “training” than my other runs.  I usually do the long runs with Alicia, so although it’s a workout, I think of it more like a social event, sort of like going out for coffee, but covering 10 (or 12 or 18) km with water bottles and synchronized stopwatches rather than a cup of caffeine.  And my non-hill runs2, they feel more like “getting outside” or just “physical activity” than they do “training.”  Anyway, as I was thinking about all this it got me to thinking about how important psychology is to running3.  So, since my blog is kind of my brain dump, here are those thoughts:

The Power of Positive Thinking

More often than not, if I have what I call a “bad run” day, it’s because I’m not in a good running frame of mind.  Generally, it’s not my legs or my lungs that gives up on a run, but my mind. Two examples:

  1. The despised-beloved hills.  I have a bad attitude towards running up hills.  Poor Alicia has had to put up with my whining about hills for as long as we’ve been running together. Every time I run up a hill, it just sucks the life right out of me.  But one day when I was out for a run after having read to a bunch of “success/productivity” type of books that talk a lot about the importance of attitude and choices and out of nowhere I thought, “Why am I choosing to hate hills?  I live in a very hilly region and if I want to run, I will have to face hills.  So why make myself miserable by dreading the hills?” And I had an amazing run that day – running up the hills seemed like no effort at all! Now, I must admit that that was an exceptional day – not all my hills have been so easy since then, but when I catch myself settling into my old “I hate hills” attitude, I correct myself – as cheesy as it sounds, I’ll say “I love hills!” And rather than thinking “my legs are burning! my lungs are dying!” like I used to, I try to envision my legs become stronger with each step. And, as crazy as it sounds, it’s working. My runs are more fun and Alicia doesn’t have to listen to as much whining from me!  Fake it ’til you make it, baby!
  2. Music makes my run. I have a very long playlist of songs that I run to.  I’ve chosen songs that I like and that are just the right tempo for my running.  But even though they are all songs I like, there are some that are extra special, that can instantly energize me the moment I hear the first few notes of the song.  For example, if I’m doing a long run and feeling like I can barely take another step and, again revealing my cheesiness, Eye of the Tiger comes on, you couldn’t get me to stop running if you tried!  And so I know that my body wasn’t really as tired as I was letting myself believe – it was all in my head!

The Power of Being Present

This one may be different for others, but I find that running is one time when I love to be in the present moment.  If, at the start of an 18 km run, I think about how far I have to go, it makes it very, very difficult for me to get going!  I mean, how the heck am I supposed to run THAT far?  That’s a HUGE distance!  But if I just think about taking the first few steps – well, I know I can do that.  And then I know I can take the next step… and then the next one.  This is actually one thing where Alicia and I differ in our running.  Alicia gets energized by goals – she’ll say, “We are almost at the half way  – see those lights up there? When we reach that, we are halfway done our run!”  And that gets her inspired to get to that point. But for me, all I hear is “I have to run 4 more blocks before I’m at the halfway mark! That’s so far!” I never want to acknowledge a running milestone until I’m actually there and I can say “I’ve reached the halfway mark. Yay me!”  And neither way is better than the other, but I think it’s useful that we’ve both identified what works for each of us, so we know how to stay inspired when we run.

I’m sure I had a million more ideas when I was running, but since (a) I still don’t have that mind reading app I’ve been asking for, and (b) I’m exhausted and can barely keep my eyes open, I think I shall leave it at that.

  1. starts with 3, then 4 the next week, etc. []
  2. though really, you can’t call anything in a Vancouver a “non-hill” run as you will inevitably encounter a hill if you run any reasonable distance.  It’s a hilly region! []
  3. hey, what can I say? Running for an hour or more gives you a lot of time to do some thinking! []

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