What Do Runners Think About When Running?

Many runners will agree with this statement: running helps me think. One of the best ways to relax is to take a run on a peaceful trail where the only sound is your breathing and the sound of your feet hitting the dirt. The mental side of running is a fascinating topic, and an interesting question is what do runners think about when running?

A recent study attempted to answer this question. The study divided a runner’s cognitions into four different categories:

  • Images: Cognitions related to the mental representation in which the runner observes himself doing something (i.e. “I need to run with good posture”).
  • Emotions: Cognitions related to an affective state during the running session (i.e. “This run is making me happy”).
  • Sensations: Cognitions related to the subjective experience of feeling resulting from the physical effort of running (i.e. “My legs are hurting”).
  • Thoughts: Cognitions taht appeared during the running session but do not have to do with images, emotions or sensations (i.e. “I need to go to the store after this run”).

The authors used software controlled by a joystick to record each runner’s various cognitions. When a runner experienced an image, he would move the stick to the right. When he experienced a thought, he would move the stick up. When he experienced a sensation, he would move the stick to the left. And when he experienced an emotion, he would move the stick down.

The authors applied this test to 17 different runners during a 30 minute treadmill run. On average, the runners experienced the following cognitions: 31 thoughts, 13 images, 7 emotions, and 18 sensations. An interesting detail is that 13% of the cognitions were unpleasant – and most of the unpleasant cognitions were sensations (i.e. “my legs are hurting”). During the first 20 minutes of the runs, 18% of the sensations were unpleasant, but this percentage increased to 35% in the last 10 minutes. This is not surprising – the end of a run hurts more than the start of a run!

There is no doubt that running has a huge effect on the mind. Studying where our minds wander during a run is an interesting component of learning more about running.


Why Do Runners Run?
Running Lessons from the Song Auld Lang Syne