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 70 comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Danna

    Harbison is my favorite place for sure. For shorter weekday runs I usually do laps at the riverwalks. Was surprised to pass an irunfar.com bumper sticker running through Shandon this morning.. was that you?

  8. DH

    So much depends upon…the red wheel barrow

    The route

    The temperature

    My openness/susceptibility to my surroundings and their beauty

    My state of hydration

    Mostly, when I am running an alpine/mountain route, something close to a poem begins to germinate on the ascent near the apex and/or crux and, on the descent, it generally coalesces into a few lines that I carry with me for a few days at most. As time passes, so too does the immediacy of these crystallized thoughts.

    I try and write as quickly and methodically as possible, but, outside this attuned state of mind and being, it is difficult to piece them together, to make them legible.

    Through alpine/mountain running, I overcome an ontological dyslexia that pervades the physical world. I am able to perceive how tree, stone, glacier, and Clark's nutcracker come together. In other words, running is a form of reading.

    …Also, I tend to think about how much I hate scree, and how painful a palm full of Russian Thistle is.

  9. Steve

    Interesting that Haruki Marukami's incredible book "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" hasn't been mentioned yet (I think!) Some very interesting and thought-provoking observations on our thought processes while we run.

  10. jerome slow

    i like long distance running, even walk when take rest in the running journey. Not about show off the running capability, it is about the mental space.

    Enough distance gave the enough time for me to get into meditation. In the meditation I feel easy and get mental energy, it is helpful to me to get over the challenge in life.

    Physical uncomfortable in running is the firewall to stop the scraps of the complex world into my consideration that I can focus on more important more meaningful aspects .

    Life like the running journey, you choose the meaningful view, companion to fit yourself. I live so I run!

    Above is what I think about when I run———Jerome slow

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