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The Art of Running: Training your Body and your Brain

Running is a mental sport. Of course, it requires significant time and energy in physical training as well, but most runners will agree that the body will only carry you a short way if your mind is not on board. For many people, this becomes apparent when they forget to bring their headphones on a run. Rather than enjoying music as a pleasant distraction, the mind will focus on the more uncomfortable aspects of running.

Common thoughts that a runner may experience, even with music playing in the background, are “How much farther do I have to run?”, “My calves are aching” or “I just can’t run any farther”. Not only are they negative and unhelpful, but thoughts like these can be difficult to banish once they appear. Runners may notice that when these thoughts appear, their run seems to get increasingly more difficult and unpleasant, their heart rate may increase, and their mind may focus even more on negative thoughts. This is completely normal!

In fact, Cognitive Theory posits that our thoughts impact our emotions, our physical reactions and our behaviors, which in turn also impact our thoughts. For a non-running example of this: Sally is going to interview for a job. During the interview she thinks “Wow- I am completely unqualified for this and the interviewers know it”. This thought leads her to feel nervous and embarrassed. As she becomes nervous, her palms begin to sweat and her voice becomes shaky. Then, her thoughts spin further down this negative path, “They see I am sweaty and shaky, they probably think I am a loser!” This cycle probably led her to perform more poorly as she is focusing on these negative thoughts and feelings, which likely negatively affected her performance in the interview.

This cycle happens similarly with running: On his first mile, Paul thinks “I do not feel like running, this is going to be bad”. This causes him to feel frustration and annoyance about his run, which leads his heart rate to increase and his face to feel warm. His increased heart rate and warm face lead him to think “I am already feeling winded and overheated- I had better stop running.” These thoughts can quickly end a run that may have otherwise been fine.

So how do runners combat these negative thoughts? Changing thinking patterns and relaxation techniques can challenge these negative thoughts and help replace them with more balanced, productive thoughts! First, one can start by logging the thoughts they have most during their runs. At the end of each run, write them down so that you can more easily evaluate them and look for patterns. Next, notice how the thought made you feel and how you reacted. The next important step is to consider alternative evidence which means to look for evidence that challenges the validity of your thought. If Paul’s thought was “I do not feel like running, so this is going to be a bad run”, then alternative evidence that the run may not be bad, which may include the healthy, fueling breakfast he ate, or the nice running weather, or the fact that his endurance has been improving over the past few weeks of training. Using the alternative evidence, a new, more balanced thought can be created. For Paul, this may be “I do not feel like running right now, but I have fueled and trained my body well for this run, and the weather is perfect for a run today, so this run will be manageable.” Notice that this is not an overly positive or unrealistic thought, but rather it is one that is balanced and believable, and therefore may have a real impact on Paul. Restructuring your thoughts takes practice, so using the log over a few weeks is more effective than a single attempt.

Relaxation techniques can also help with discomfort management during running. First, a simple technique called Visualization. This involves the runner thoroughly visualizing a relaxing location, maybe the beach or a coffee shop. It can be helpful to name specific sights, smells, and sensations that they experience in that location, like smelling coffee beans, watching the waves, or feeling the sand between their toes, in order to fully engage in the relaxing place. Secondly, runners can use Progressive Relaxation as a daily relaxation regime following runs. This involved slowly tensing and releasing muscles. Step by step instructions for this technique can be found online or on podcast streaming sites, such as on Spotify. By doing this daily, runners train their bodies and minds to relax and this deep relaxation has been shown to improve running endurance and may decrease recovery time.

Lastly, it is important to note that one should always notice when discomfort turns into pain. While discomfort is a normal part of training the body and expanding running ability, pain is not. If your mind is telling you that you are in pain, stop running and rest. You should evaluate your pain and may want to seek medical consultation. The art of running involves both training the body and training the brain. Give these techniques a good effort-try and see if they help improve your running!

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