The Plasticity of Time

A look at how a little training can massively change our perception of time.

By on August 14, 2019 | Comments

Humankind’s mutability of perception is off the charts. That applies in countless capacities, not the least of which is our perception of time. This changeable perception of time is most easily exemplified in kids.

Remember back to your own childhood. Didn’t a two-month summer break seem like an eternity and a four-hour car ride feel like weeks? Now, in adulthood, a summer goes by in the blink of an eye and we can hardly catch the tail end of a year as it streaks past. Of course, time’s not sped up at all, but it sure seems like it has.

For much of this spring, many of my runs felt inexplicably oversized. A five-mile outing would seem like a major commitment and drag on for an outsized timeframe even with the distractions of beautiful scenery and podcasts playing away. With a couple laps likely run around the globe in my lifetime and more than a few day-length runs in my pocket, this was admittedly a bit frustrating, if not disconcerting.

Then, prudent apprehension about a quickly approaching race with too little previous preparation had me jump into one 20-mile run… and, then, another… and another. Training and time worked in synergy. The more training that happened, the more time compressed. The more time compressed, or at least my perception of it, the more training happened. What a miracle. What magic. Just a few weeks earlier a 20-mile run seemed like an impossible hurdle, one I’d not cleared in more than half a year and, now, it felt like no more commitment, effort, or time… and maybe even less of each than those five-mile efforts I’d logged just a few months earlier.

Eureka - 2019

This past stretch is far from the first time I’ve noticed this compression of perceived time in my running. In fact, I feel like I notice it nearly every time I ramp up my training. That feeling goes all the way back to when those interminable three- or four-mile outings when I first took up running in the summer ahead of my freshman year of high school became nothing but momentary shakeouts before the final cross-country meets that autumn.

The same goes for every time I’ve trained for the Hardrock 100. At some point early in the training year, a two-hour run seems incalculably long. It’s an effort that I brace for and, often enough, avoid. Then, by May and June, heading out for two hours feels like little more than a jog around the block. I needn’t even think of the effort or the outing as I’ll be home before I know it.

Why does this happen? First, I’d hypothesize that repeatedly running a given distance near the edge of our current fitness trains your body to more easily handle the task and that makes runs both faster and easier. On the more purely mental side, previous success yields future confidence and the reduction or elimination of apprehension can certainly ease the passage of time. Surely, there’s something even deeper going on, something that scientists have probed and quantified. But at this point I’d personally like to let the mystery be.

In a world that’s already too sped up, this all might seem like a bad thing. I don’t see it at all as such. Ah, but there is something to relish when that compressed time rapidly expands from and into the wondrous. I’ll admit it’s a rare happening, but when the training’s all there at the end of a season or even after it, outings long or short can have a sense of mastery and flow and effortlessness. A moment or an hour or a day expands in time and scope. Details and feeling and minutia appear from between the seconds and the blades of dried grass blowing in the winds. It’s a whole ‘nother wonder when time slows down.

Moth and flower - 2018

Call for Comments

When and where do you see time slowing down and speeding up in your running? In your life?

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.