What Do You Think About When You Run

As a long-distance runner, I am constantly asked by people who don’t run long distances, “what do you think about when you run?” I’m always polite and give some shallow, easy answer. Something to the effect that I think about whatever it is that people think about when they are doing anything that they do. I also often respond that I think about running a lot when I am running. These answers are certainly truthful, but they only scratch the surface of the question. I’ve never fully attempted to explore this question because it feels like one of those things that is nearly impossible to put into words. Recently though, on a long run (of course), I was thinking about what it is that I think about when I’m running, and decided to tackle the task of explaining my response to this question in further detail.

Running for a long time is much like doing any one thing for a long time. The more that you do it, the more that it becomes natural for your body, and the more that you can do it and feel relaxed. The most obvious correlation is to relate it to a meditative practice. The goal of many meditation practices is to find a way to think about nothing. As you notice thoughts, you simply notice them and then let them go. This is all much easier to do if you don’t feel shooting pain in your knees, back, or hips because of the position you are sitting in. The same thing occurs in running. When you are out of shape and it hurts to run just a few miles, you end up spending most of your time thinking about how much your body hurts.

Let’s assume you take the time and have the stubbornness to get beyond this initial painful phase. When you no longer spend most of a run thinking about the pains in your body, what then? In my experience, it is true that you then spend most of the time thinking about whatever it is you would think about doing anything. In this sense, running really isn’t that unique. Sometimes the thoughts can be as boring as the list of errands you have to run later in the day, or what you are going to cook for dinner that night. Other times, you are in a more reflective space, and maybe you think about things you can do to be a better friend, a better partner, or a better parent. Then there are the more contemplative phases. In these moments, maybe you even go so far as to think about the meaning of life, the existence of a god, or what happens when we die. Again, none of this is really all that different than things we might think about at other times throughout a typical day.

The difference, though, for me, and I assume for a lot of people, is that outside of my running I don’t often have regular chunks of long uninterrupted time to really dive into prolonged thought about any one thing. In this sense, it’s not so much that running leads directly to more precise thoughts, but that running is one of the only times in a typical day that we have the time to move into prolonged awareness of anything going on inside ourselves. It’s the practice and routine that creates the special mind space, not the actual activity of running.

If your life is like mine, you don’t often have stretches of several hours of uninterrupted mental space. Outside of my running, I think it is common for me to go weeks at a time without more than 30 minutes of pure head space in which I’m not interrupted by someone else’s thoughts, needs, or words. Running has, thus, become my routine that I use to get this individual space. If I’m feeling crowded in by other people’s agendas, I can always put on the shoes, head out into the mountains, and be guaranteed a lot of space to be myself, and to be true to myself.

Without question, a huge percentage of the clear and satisfying thoughts that I ever have are while I am out running. The landscapes that I run through are inspiring, and being out in these amazing places under the power of my own body is a huge catalyst for some very pure, positive, and deep thinking. More than anything, though, it is simply the practice I have developed of getting out and doing one uninterrupted thing for several hours at a time that has allowed me to have so many satisfying thoughts while running.

Going back then to the question, “what do you think about when you run?” It is correct for me that when I run I pretty much think about the same things that I think about when I am doing anything. In this regard, running really isn’t all that special. The special thing is that running is the only thing that I regularly do for such long uninterrupted stretches, and this affords me the opportunity to experience the majority of my most substantial thinking while running.

I’m certainly aware that running long distances is not for everyone, but I do encourage everyone to try to find some routine or some practice in their lives that regularly gives them the space to do more than just scratch the surface of where our minds are willing to take us if given enough time and space.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think about when you run?
  • Do you find yourself seeking out the peace and quiet of your running time each day to, like Geoff, think a little “further?”
  • We often associate running with positive intellectual experiences, but that’s not always the case. Have the thought processes of running ever taken your mind to a place you maybe didn’t want it to go?

There are 71 comments

  1. MortenFH

    Spot on! That is a very good explanation I think. One that I really can relate to.

    The meditative nature of a good long run is also perfect for helping you to let go of all the day-to-day noise in your brain. That way I think running helps us to get to what you call "the more contemplative phases" of thinking a lot faster than other daily activities does.

  2. Jeff

    I think in our noise-filled society people don't know what to do with quiet. People are astounded when I tell them I don't take music with me at all on an 5-hour trail run.

  3. Anonymous

    I find I often work out any challenges I'm having during my runs. For example, when I'm stuck with writing a report at work, I try to put it off for a day – so that my run that evening can be used to organize my thoughts. The report is always easier to write after I've thrown it around in my head during some miles.

    But, like you said, I think about anything one would during their 'free mental space'. Working out family issues, dreaming about the next big adventure, conteplating an article I recently read…whatever.

  4. Charlie M.

    On today's morning run I thought about:

    (1) What will Geoff and AJW write about this week?

    (2) Is ultrarunning going down the wrong road?

    (3) Will the Americans bust some good races at UTMB?

    (4) Will I ever win my weight in wine?

    (5) When will my kids start beating me in races?

    (6) Should I try to buy another pair of Hokas without my wife noticing?

    (7) Why didn't minimalism work for me? Was I too old? Too out of shape?

    (8) Why do I run the same marathon each year?

    (9) Why did I ask for a tax extension, and why have I still not filed?

    (10) Lift knees, watch the breath, was that a dog barking, watch out for that car, time to take a gel, slow it down, speed it up, easy does it, nice rhythm, how much farther, wonder if they'll pave this road soon, man I wish I was sponsored, sure glad I'm not sponsored, does this ever get any easier, man it feels easier today!

    1. Andy

      (11) Wouldn't it be cool if Charlie M and countless others are having exactly the same stream of semi-consciousness I am while running!

    2. AJW

      Charlie, this is awesome. Some answers (even though you didn't ask):

      1. AC100

      2. Perhaps

      3. Only if it actually ends up being 100 miles

      4. Probably not, unless you lose a lot of weight

      5. If you're like me, any day now

      6. Absolutely, most people hardly notice them.

  5. Andrew

    When ever it is a long run i always think of have much I love my wife and two kids.

    Sounds corny but true

    Occasionally and at different times it is SEX!!!

  6. jennypenny

    I try not to think too much. That's usually when I end up on my ass for not paying attention.

    I agree with Andrew. Sex pops up more often than usual on the longer runs. Wonder why that is?

  7. Shelby

    On my runs, I think about my form, cadence, pace, how happy I am to run pain-free or dream about places and races I'd like to run someday. I also take stock of my life and assess where changes need to be made. On a long run about eight months ago, I found the courage to leave a very stressful job and choose indefinite unemployment. On subsequent runs, as I have contemplated this change, I have received confirmation that I did the right thing. Yesterday, I couldn't help but count all the ways in which I've been blessed as I was running around a local reservoir.

    For me, being in nature reflects the glory of the Creator and I can't help but pray when I'm out there. Sometimes I just say thanks for all the beauty that exists in the world and in my life. Sometimes I pray for runners that come to mind. Sometimes I work out questions and frustrations I'm dealing with. My brain feels cleansed and aired out in order to gain a proper perspective being away from the daily distractions and stressors of life.

    If I get too deep in thought however, I end up with bloody joints, flappers and a mouthful of dirt, so I try not to get too absorbed in thought and save it for when I stop and enjoy the views. :-)

    1. Ryan

      This is a great comment, especially your second paragraph. While I usually don't think about anything on a run, when I get to the top of a peak on a mountain or a place that is stunningly beautiful, I can't help but thank a Creator for giving us the ability to enjoy His creation.

  8. Berger Mousse

    Apparently, if you drum at 180 to 200 beats per minute for over 15 minutes, you will induce alpha waves in your brain. These are the same alpha waves that have been measured in the brains of some Buddhist monks when they meditate. By my thinking, this means that if I manage to hold 180 steps per minute, I am inducing alpha waves as a run. This is my excuse for turning off my mind almost completely and focusing as much as possible on nothing other than the run.

    Then again, it can be hard to keep those eureka moments from popping into my head and presenting solutions to problems that seemed intractable. Perhaps this is a by-product of the meditative effects. Either way: yay for running!

  9. Ryan

    I don't take music with me at all. When I think about it – when I'm running for a long time (over 2 hours), I find myself not thinking about anything. Just listening to the nature around me, my breathing and my footsteps hitting the ground. And I'm content with that. I feel as if I'm relaxed, and all the stress and troubles in life are not present with me at the time. Although, If I do think about someting, it's usually what I'm going to eat after my run.

    Anyway – this is a great article.

  10. B-rad

    Jesus and this entire universe he created. That gives my mind and soul plenty to contemplate and be thankful for while running.

  11. Brian

    I like to make lists of five. Any more and I loose count. For example: five things I need to do around the house, five favorite beers, five goals for race season, five habits I need to drop, etc…

  12. Dean G

    Mostly what I think when I run is…

    How radically different my every day life is from the life my body and brain were designed for.

    I spend most of my time indoors. I'm sure I'm sitting 70% of the time I'm awake. I can't fathom a view without at least one building or sign of man on it somewhere. Even if I walk around barefoot, I still hardly feel the earth… I live in a world filled with abstractions like careers and money…Things that have become so important yet would be nonsense terms to humans even 10,000 year ago.

    In other words, what I think when I run is… "Now this is more like it. Yeah… This feels like I'm opening up to all that I don't get to see and feel… This is REALITY. No wonder I like doing it for hours in a row. It's not a work-out, it's a wake-up"

    1. Yeti

      Yes! Very well said. I spend most of my time outside but I completely relate to your sentiment. It is, more than anything, just like waking up.

  13. Jason

    some of my thoughts from 5.5 hours of running this weekend:

    wow 68 degrees fills great in July

    I need to invent a contraption that knocks down spider webs

    drink

    more thoughts about invention to knock down spider webs

    the Lone peaks fill better with the Drymax trail lites

    hi skunk dont spray me

    more thought about invention to knock down spider webs

    thank you Lord for letting me be able to enjoy running

    crap,why did I stop my watch 20 minutes ago, u still have 1.5 hours to go

    how far did I run with watch stopped

    why cant I divide 1 hour and 25 minutes easily in my head

    at some time I will need to poop on this trail today, were is a good spot

    crap, thats a big Copperhead

    my legs are tired

    1. Shaun

      I used to have the same spider-web-contraption idea, then one day I changed the way I think about spider webs. Now I love getting them, especially across my forehead. I chuckle as I type but now imagine I am wearing a spiders-only headband and for a moment feel like the king of the spiders or maybe their version of Godzilla. They must be watching me running off with their nights work trailing from my head and turn to their spider friend and say, "You'll never believe what I almost caught this morning!"

    2. J9

      Your post cracked me up!

      I try to meditate, pray, etc, but most often my thoughts go just like that. Especially the watch and the math, and the spider webs… (except, instead of an invention to knock them down, it's "why didn't I just wait for (my husband). Really. would it have been so bad to wait awhile? really? look, you just ran through another one. If you would've waited, HE would be getting this goop all over HIM, and You could have clear sailing… ugh, another one? next time I'm waiting. I'm definitely waiting next time.)

  14. Nick

    For me, over the past year and a half, running has become so much more than a way to get outside and enjoy nature (while also reaping the benefits of a stronger, healthier body). For the past 5 years, my dad has run in to some health issues that have really inhibited him-and this has only gotten worse recently. I use running now as a way to pray and meditate, to talk to God about all of the things that have been on my mind.

    On a more positive note though, my wife and I welcomed our little girl into the world back in November, and I like to get all warm and fuzzy on some of my runs just thinking about all of the fun things we'll be able to do. I look back at all of the fond memories I have with my parents and brother, and am left with a feeling of hope that our daughter will have fond memories like those that I have.

    Running for me is a way to meditate and to purge negativity and worry; to leave it out on the trail. Reading this makes me glad I'm not the only one that gets deep into thought and appreciates the meditative power of running trails. Great article, Geoff!

  15. Teresa Smith

    My mind is in ebbs and flows. It wonders through random topics then snaps back to running. (Kind of like a systems check) Is my form good, does everything feel good, do I need to drink or eat, etc. Then trails off to what's going on in my life.

    On my longer runs I like to listen to podcasts – it's an education that I enjoy much better than the yaddy-yaddy music playing over my iPod.

    Our thoughts are personal – yes, I thank God for the strength to run far and the beauty & serenity I appreciate. I'm thankful for the trails and that trails are exclusive to foot traffic.

  16. AV1611-Ben

    I am a Christian, a husband and father, a preacher, an IT nerd, and a runner. Probably in about that order. Because I'm an IT nerd, I "multi-thread" my brain while I'm running.

    I pray for my family, my wife and 2 (soon to be 3) sons. I pray for America, my adopted home country. I meditate *a lot* on what the Bible says about running (for those of you who don't read the Bible, you may be pleasantly surprised to know that it says HEAPS about running), and how the Bible directly relates running to Christian life. I am *so* much a better Christian today for having taken up trail/ultra running 3 years ago.

    And I think about my current form, I *listen* to my body for pain and what that pain might be trying to teach me about how to improve my running form. I think about my current level of fitness, and should I enter a race soon at a reasonable level of fitness, or improve my fitness and then aim to have a great (by my mediocre standards) race a little later.

    And I thank God that in spite of all that mankind has done to screw everything up in this world, it is still quite serene and beautiful out on the trails. And for all of this, I give thanks!

    Finally, sometimes I get "in the zone", and don't think about much of anything.

  17. Alex

    Man, you all have much more transcendent runs than I do. I think about running when I am running. Namely, how I'm doing now, and how it will contribute to racing in the near future. It's a very practical matter, for me.

  18. StephenJ

    For me, it's not what I think about, but what I don't think about that matters. My mind may wonder all other the place, but it never stays anywhere for very long. If thoughts were paintings, instead of being bright and vivid, they become calm pastels.

    Most importantly, I don't think about work. The only time that work cannot invade my mind is when I go running, and when I am backcountry skiing. Software engineering is a lot like playing a game of chess. It requires that you consider multiple levels of different scenarios. It's like juggling dozens of thoughts in your head at the same time, and it's something that I simply cannot do while I'm running. In fact, if I go running for 3 hours, it will take at least an hour after I'm done running before I can focus on work.

    I think it would be interesting to do a test with 100 mile runners that are also chess player, and see how well they play chess a day before a 100-miler, 30 minutes after finishing, 2 hours after finishing, and the next day.

    Great article, by the way.

  19. Jack

    Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger, ohhh coca cola, hamburger, coca cola, hamburger, coke, hamburger, coke, ice cream! oh my god, ice cream!! hamburger, coke, ice cream, hamburger, coke, ice cream, swimming pool, really cold swimming pool with floating hamburger, coke, ice cream, oh my god those flowers are beautiful, stop rising sun, stop rising, ugh it's hot, ice cream, swimming pool, when i finish this run, ice cream, i am floating in the pool the rest of the day, hamburger, after i eat my hamburger, coke, hamburger, coke, ice cream, ice cream and coke together, my god, that is genius, float in pool, ice cream coke float in one hand, hamburger in the other hand!

  20. Aaron

    My thoughts on a forest trail are mostly observational as I pay attention to flora, fauna, terrain, and running light. There's more to react to with less reaction time at higher speeds than if I were just hiking. On roads my mind does tend to wander a bit more but not by much. I tend to get a lot of thinking time at work, and no interruptions at home. There isn't a whole lot that I need to cover during a long road run, so I just zone out and focus on posture and breathing.

  21. JHJ

    Thank you God for creating a world of overwhelming beauty and allowing me to enjoy it in this manner. Help me to love and be patient with my children, serve and encourage my wife, and otherwise live a life that glorifies you.

    Oh no, that mile was 30 seconds faster than I intended.

  22. TheBaldEnglishTeache

    Every long run I go on is filled with the same question repeating over and over in my head…

    "Should I stop and go pee now, or hold off a little longer?"

    Now that I think about it, seems like I even think this on the short runs nowadays…gettin' old!

  23. Josh

    Love this write up Geoff! And I truly appreciate where the comments thus far went. I have much of the same sentiment ie: prayer, meditation, clearing my head, God, BUT rarely do I find that in today's society (sports especially) is there room for this type of talk. Seems all to often it's about performance, numbers, and hard science, money, sponsership. What a sport ultra running is that it naturally makes room for such introspection and contemplation!

  24. Jon

    My stock answer to this question is pretty simple: "Everything and nothing, sometimes both at the same time". It's one of those answers that makes perfect sense but doesn't make any sense! People will nod in agreement or say that it makes sense only to usually realize a couple of minutes later "What the hell does that mean?" Leave 'em guessing :)

  25. Kelly

    If I'm feeling bitchy when someone asks What I think about when I run, I say, "Running."

    Usually, though, I tell third-person stories in my head and talk to imaginary reporters who are going to interview me when I'm super famous for being the most awesome person to ever run a marathon, etc.

  26. Shelby

    Oh my, reading all of these comments made me remember all the random thoughts that go in and out of the transium of my mind on any given run… when and where to make a pit stop, my craving for a coke, realizing I had stopped my watch, thinking I just saw a snake, mtn lion, bear etc, wondering about the niggle in my joint, trying to determine if my shoes are too loose or tight, wishing it wasn't so damn hot and that I had a lake to jump in to. You get my drift…

  27. Shaun

    Geoff, Thanks for posting your thoughts! I agree that my thoughts are about the normal stuff, but I feel like the time alone, the energy, the awareness and the natural excitement all lead me to think more DEEPLY about those normal things. Everything seems more profound while running and I finally have the opportunity for my mind to just process those things in a better way. I also think because of that, I end up having more refined thoughts during the times when I'm not running because I've sorted them out while running.

  28. Paul in Ireland

    Wow, so many comments on the same wavelength as my own thoughts. Usually it's just about being out there and being grateful for health and the ability to enjoy the environment….and of course grateful to a supportive wife and daughters who give me the the time to do what I love.

  29. Nick

    I notice that on short runs of two hours or less, I have a ton going through my head. Mostly a stream of consciousness that reflects what is going on in my life. After about two hours, it all just seems to go away, and I often find that long stretches of time pass without me really noticing it at all. Just really living in the moment I guess- not thinking of much beyond what I see, what I feel, and what is around me, but it does not seem to be processed (e.g., I am aware, but not contemplative). It is this state that I truly enjoy, and it this is why I dont run with music. When music is on, I stay more at the level of aware thought and cant seem to push into the state where I just am running.

  30. amg

    As others have said, sometimes my mind is overflowing with thoughts, other times it is empty. I guess similar to Nick above in that as the run goes on, the thoughts seem to slip out of the back door.

    I can relate to what Geoff said in that outside of running, I don't really have any other contemplative time. It is a treasure to get that mind-space.

  31. Matt

    Great article, Geoff.

    If I have some technical challenges at work, I think about those and quite a few times find a solution.

    If there isn't aything technical to think about, or I am getting tired, my thoughts dwell on family, nature, mountains, how to improve my gear/nutrition and when is my next trip to the Alps.

    And occasionally I switch over to something quite…explicit.

    No need to say more :)

    m

  32. Jimmy K

    One of my favorite quotes is from Winnie The Pooh. Christopher Robin"… and I said to myself as I walked along thinking."

  33. TheDog

    1. How much I love my wife

    2. Sex

    3. How I should be a better dad to my kids

    4. Is running selfish?

    5. Work…and how to tell better business stories

  34. Luke

    I can often tell how 'good' a run is by what I'm thinking about. In order of increasing goodness:

    1. Things that hurt.

    2. Work, money.

    3. The things I love in life.

    4. How great I feel.

    5. Nothing.

    Most runs hit all 5. But my preference is just being, and I don't always get much of that.

  35. Ric

    I won't share this truth with a non-distance runner but, with any run more than an hour, the thought i likely find myself meditating on is where the best spot would be for dropping a load. Not very profound. Just very true.

    1. Greg

      Never run in Houston, but I have run in the South in summer many times. I literally laughed out loud when reading this from remembering how I'd return from a run and my shoes would be like I just came out of a pool!

      1. Bonnie

        Ha, I can totally relate. Especially living in a city whose slogan is 'Famously Hot'. I have to alternate my shoes so they can dry out. Glad I am not alone.

  36. Jason C

    Arc'teryx made a short film this spring with Adam Campbell titled, "Silence". If I am not running in the woods/mountains then I'm thinking about it. If I am running in the woods/mountains, I'm searching for that serene silence.

    (This was linked to IRF before so I hope it isn't a problem to re-link)

    http://youtu.be/pQZOzJpaqA8

  37. Dylan Russell

    I wish I thought about nothing. That happens sometimes. Usually I think about running, including wishing I could run fast enough to whip up on Geoff and his brethren. :)

  38. Greg H.

    Running and clear thinking go hand-in-hand. Aerobic exercise boosts brain health and function. Think about that next time you're on a run and come up with a fantastic idea. I love running and all the great thinking that comes with it!

  39. TrailClydesdale

    I spend most of my time thinking: "What can I think of to take my mind away from the pain in my ____________ ? " Whatever part is hurting at the time. "Where is the next vending machine / park kiosk / village? " is also a big one. "I am so lucky to be running in these beautiful natural places" is another

  40. Luke from Bristol, U

    Something I wrote for my running club newsletter about what happens when you have the wrong thoughts when running:

    I have been unable to run for the last few weeks. During this time, I have on

    occasion bored others with my frustration and/or wallowed in self-pity. So I

    thought I would write a little piece about my pondering about the mind, running

    and injury.

    Most people who love running, do so because when they run, they enter a

    different state of mind. The mind is calm and focused, rather than overrun with

    a constant chatter of thoughts. The benefits gained when running in this state

    outlast the end of the run.

    This is partly why a good run can set you up for the rest of the day, and despite feeling physically tired, many runners maintain a calmness and de-stressed feeling.

    This mind state that many runners enter during their runs is called mindfulness by some. It's the state of mind that people enter when meditating or playing an instrument or even cooking!

    Mindfulness when running involves a focusing of attention and awareness only on the act of running. Successfully entering this state can leave you feeling intensely alive, in a state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking.

    So, did I mention my injury? God it's been frustrating. Really got me down. Watching

    others enjoying a run in the evening sunshine…blah, blah!

    How did my injury occur? With a crack? Or a pop? A snap perhaps? No, my injury started to occur when I ceased to become mindful when running. Instead, thinking negative thoughts about how poorly my training was going, how boring the route was, or how much my Achillies, hamstring or other body part was hurting. It was negative mind chatter that broke my ability to listen to my body. So, even when my body was screaming STOP! GROIN AND HAMSTRING MULFUNCTION! I just kept on running

    So, I've seen the physio. I've got the exercises, I've got the stretches.

    However, the area I'll be focussing on most as I begin to run again, is the joy of running in a state of mindfulness.

  41. Chris S

    Interesting, in my work and when at home I spend a lot of time alone with my on thoughts and I have noted that running has become the time when Im almost not thinking at all. Focusing entierly on breathing, cadence, posture and so on.

  42. Danna

    I love this.

    All days in the woods (even rough ones) feel so right to me, that I try not to feel at odds with my surroundings. It used to drive me crazy inhaling gnats.. so I started picturing it as the forest willing me onward with tiny bits of energy. In my visualization they are tiny glowing dots of forest goodness.

    Sometimes I manage to meditate. Sometimes I feel like a wild creature moving through the shadows happy to be covered in brambles and grit and sweat.

    Often I repeat the mantra "like water" to remind myself to flow across the land responding to changes, rather than trying to impose my will upon it.

    Lately I've been following a hard training schedule that has me running more miles on road and looking down at the pace on my watch more often. Thanks for reminding me what I love most.

  43. Danna

    Oh hey neighbor! I wonder if we've passed each other somewhere?

    And yes, can't believe I've been having to hang my clothes to dry before putting them in the hamper.

Post Your Thoughts