What to Think About When Running – How to Make the Miles Fly By

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For some, running is a blissful state where your mind just shuts down, and you don’t have to think about anything. For others, your run is when your mind runs rampant and does its own thing.

Listening to music or running with a buddy can be a great distraction from our minds. But what about when it’s just you and the road… And you’re facing an hour or more of plain old running with no distractions?

Here are some of our favorite ideas of what to think about when running. While the mind does have… A mind of its own, if you can harness your thoughts while you run, you can get some mental training in at the same time and help those miles fly by much quicker.

women on bridge What to Think About When Running

Do Runners Think During Runs?

While running can calm your mind, especially when you get into a zone, there are no stopping thoughts. Even if you’re not actively focusing on anything, you’re probably thinking about something while running!

Interestingly, studies have been done on this exact subject, which indicate that runners spend plenty of time thinking while they run. The study concluded that around 40 percent of runners think mostly about their run, particularly pace and distance.

Around 32 percent of runners spent a fair bit of time thinking about aches, pains, and discomfort they were experiencing. And 28 percent of runners thought about their environment, including people they ran past, animals they saw, and nature around them.

But, it’s also natural that every runner’s mind, regardless of their main train of thought, will also pop onto things like work, family, friends, what happened during the day, and other common things.

Why Our Thoughts Matter When Running

Most of us tend to fall into a “dissociative state” while running. This means we aren’t actively thinking about anything despite our busy brains.

Taking control of your thoughts while you’re running is a powerful concept. Awareness of what’s going on in your head during your run can impact your performance. Here’s what your thoughts can do:

  • Increase motivation… Or bring you down.
  • Push you to reach your pace… Or slow you down.
  • Increase stamina and endurance… Or make you feel tired.
  • Help you manage pain and discomfort… Or make it feel worse.
  • Help you maintain your form… Or distract you from proper technique.
  • Reduce stress… Or add to it.
  • Build mental resilience… Or mess with your emotions.
  • Provide neurological feedback… Or keep you disconnected from your body.

If you just let your mind run rampant while on the road or trail, you may get on a negative track without you even noticing.

But if you pay attention to what you’re thinking while running and make a conscious effort to maintain positive thoughts, you can boost your performance and build better habits.

Benefits of Thinking While Running

So, now you know that focused thinking while you’re running can be beneficial. Here are a few specific benefits you can expect to gain when you start putting effort into directing your thoughts while running.

Improved Mental Clarity

Running has an amazing way of clearing the mind. As you run, your cortisol levels decrease—provided you’re doing a moderate run and not an intense one—and endorphins are released.

This combo helps tone down negative emotions you may have brought into the run, giving you “mental space” to address things with a much clearer, less reactive mind. This might not benefit your running, but it’s hugely beneficial for life.

If there’s no anger or worry in you at the time, running still helps to bring your focus to the present moment, detaching from unnecessary worries and thoughts and allowing you a bit of mental rest. And just like rest is essential for the body, it’s also necessary for the mind.

Reduced Stress and Anxiety

The endorphins released when you run help to reduce pain and elevate your mood. They’re nature’s stress relievers, and exercise is the easiest way to activate them.

It’s hard to stay stressed while running, making it the perfect time for some hard thinking. These “low anxiety” periods of time are ideal for processing thoughts that have been bothering you, as well as dealing with the root causes of your anxiety and stress.

We’re not saying that running will automatically melt away your stress forever, or help you fix the root of the issue. But it does provide space away from stress and anxiety, which can be a welcome break or a space to deal with deeper things.

Provides a Space to Reflect on Emotions

Ever felt wired up after an argument? Or filled with nervous energy after hearing bad news? Running can be the perfect way to get rid of physical energy and reflect on emotions simultaneously.

The hypnotic motion of your feet pounding the pavement brings you to a place where you can “zone out” and allow your mind the space to process your emotions. Typically, emotions affect the mind, heart, and body.

Science is still trying to figure out which comes first, but we know that running positively affects the body and mind. Ultimately, it provides a safe space for you to reflect on emotions, ease their effects on your body, and calm your autonomic nervous system.

Enhanced Creativity

Studies have shown that physical activity can have a positive effect on your cognitive function, thanks to increased blood flow to the brain, which bathes it in oxygen and nutrients.

And with this boost in cognitive performance comes enhanced creativity. For those who have creative jobs or hobbies, this could be a great time to find inspiration. But even those with analytical jobs can benefit from this creativity to solve problems and brainstorm new ideas.

Increases Focus

Whether you’re behind your desk at work or sitting on the sofa at home, you’re constantly bombarded by information. Work tasks, other people, social media, family, friends, TV, and more.

Running breaks you from the barrage of information constantly thrown at you. With a bit of space away from the clutter of daily life, you can disconnect from things that don’t require your attention, helping you to place your mind on things that matter more.

Improves Memory

We’ve already mentioned the cognitive benefits of running, but it goes beyond just stimulating your creativity.

Evidence shows that consistent exercise can increase the size of your brain’s hippocampus, which may boost memory, especially if you’re consciously activating your cognitive abilities during your run.

Helps You Find Solutions to Problems

Sometimes, sitting at your desk or on your sofa “turns your brain off.” The workplace or your “relaxing places” tend to stimulate certain effects in the brain—at work, you typically focus on work-related issues, while at home, your brain might prefer to shut down.

Running places you in a dynamic environment. You might be familiar with the route, but being in nature, in a “moving” environment, can help boost your creative thinking skills without your mind settling into a habitual pattern.

This is particularly handy for problem-solving. That issue you’ve been racking your brain to solve might come easier now that you aren’t at work or in your relaxing space.

Makes the Miles Fly By

Focused thinking when running is also a great way of helping the miles fly quickly.

Instead of absentmindedly focusing on your pain and inadvertently making the run seem longer, focusing your mind on something positive can either be distracting or extremely motivating.

What to Think About When Running

You can think of anything you want to think about when running. But moving from passive dissociation to focused thinking can be tricky! Here are some things you can choose to think about while running.

Some are practical and productive, others are fun and lighthearted. You don’t need to be strict about what you think about, but if you’d like to start using your “free brain” time more purposefully, start with some of these!

1. Setting Micro-Goals

Focusing on little micro-goals throughout your run could be a great way to use your mind if you’re goal-driven. Basically, you’ll break your run into smaller sections as you go.

Focus on hitting your next goal. That could be reaching the next lamppost, getting to the top of a hill, or seeing how far you can run in the next 10 seconds. You can be creative with this—decide your micro-goals on the go, depending on how you are feeling.

2. Planning Your Day

If you run in the morning, you could use your run as a mental organization exercise. Take the time to prepare yourself for the day ahead, think about potential solutions for any challenges the day might bring, and set some intentions.

You can mentally plan the following day if you run in the evenings. Organizing your thoughts this way may help you get a better rest and wake up feeling refreshed and ready for your day.

3. Unleash Your Creative Imagination

This is a great chance to let your creative imagination free to tackle problem-solving, brainstorming, and developing new ideas. Your brain will be getting a great dose of endorphins, oxygen, and dopamine, so take advantage of it to cultivate new ideas and ways of fixing problems.

4. Embrace the Inner Dialogue

We all have that inner dialogue going on, pretty much all the time. If you’re not careful, it can easily turn into negative self-talk, so take control of the dialogue and use it to cheer yourself on.

Remind yourself of how far you’ve come, motivate yourself when things get tough, and focus on the positives—how much you’ve improved since you started running, your achievements, and your goals.

You can even create your own mantras to help push you through tough moments. Get creative—you know yourself best and know what’ll motivate you in these moments.

5. Reflect on Personal Growth

Running is a great time for reflection. Instead of focusing on the fact that your legs are aching, think about how much strength you’ve built in your legs over time.

Instead of being frustrated that you still have 3 miles to go, think of how much you’ve improved since you began when you could only run a few miles at a time. Recognize the progress you’ve made, both physically and mentally.

6. The Post-Run Feast

Food motivation is powerful! While we don’t recommend burning the calories during your run just so you can go and eat junk food afterward, if you’re a foodie, imagining your post-run feast can go a long way towards making those miles fly by.

You might want to think about what you’ll cook when you get home. If you’re a meal-prepper, think about the meal you’ve got waiting for you. You can go into a lot of detail if you want to—imagine the aroma of your meal, the texture, and enjoying the taste, especially after a hard run.

7. Lyric Rewrites

Here’s a fun one for you. If you’re the type of person who’s always got a song playing in your head, try rewriting the lyrics into something about running! You can make it funny, or you can try to make it motivational. It’s entirely up to you!

8. Interview Time

This is a fun form of visualization. Instead of having a dialogue with yourself, imagine you’re being interviewed about your run. Act as interviewer and interviewee, asking yourself questions and answering.

If you do this, imagine that you’ve already finished your run and you’re being asked about the run. Phrase everything in the positive. Ask yourself how you felt during the run, and tell yourself you felt great. Ask how you overcame challenges, and explain it to yourself.

This is an excellent way of “visualizing” your success and talking yourself through it as if you’ve already been successful.

9. Potential Vacation Ideas for Your Next Trip

If you love to travel, this is a fun way to pass the time and keep your mind busy. All travel lovers have their list of dream destinations, so imagine the places you want to go.

This can be particularly effective if you’re struggling with the heat on a run. Make sure you’re staying well-hydrated, but you might want to put your mind on a cool and refreshing place, like an infinity pool overlooking the ocean… Or maybe some fun places for a runcation.

10. Nature’s Narrator

You might not have the physical voice, but use your inner David Attenborough to narrate the scene around you. Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Wildlife, weather, people… Whatever you see that’s interesting, narrate it like watching a nature documentary.

11. Magical Power for a Day

Here’s another fun one. If you could have just one magical power for a day… What would you choose? Invisibility? Super strength? The power of flight? Why would you choose it and what would you do on the day you had it?

You can use this one endlessly! Go through every superpower you can think of, deciding what you would do with the power if you had it.

12. Historical Hangout

Who would you choose if you could go for a run with absolutely anyone—living or passed on? They don’t have to be a runner or have any link to running unless you do have running heroes!

You can also play around with this one again and again. The person you choose today might not be the person you’d choose tomorrow. Contemplate why you’d select that particular person on the day, what you’d chat about, and whether or not you’d beat them in a race!

13. Mysteries of the Universe

What’s that one burning question that you’ve never gotten any closer to answering? Running is a great time for contemplation, so if you don’t have pressing problems that need solving or brainstorming, spend some time thinking about the mysteries of the universe.

Where does that one sock go? What is the Bermuda Triangle? Will Elon ever move us to Mars?

14. Create Your Bucket List

Do you already have a bucket list? That to-do-before-you-die list of crazy, exciting, and meaningful things that you’ve always wanted to try. If you want to put your mind to something during a run, add items to your bucket list.

If you’re so inclined, you may want to separate them into sections to make it easier to come up with your list. Consider things like:

  • Travel experiences: Where do you want to visit?
  • Food experiences: What adventurous eating do you want to do?
  • Learning experiences: What things do you want to learn?
  • People experiences: Who do you want to meet?

This gives you plenty of space for thought during your runs!

15. Mindful Moments

Being mindful means being consciously present in the moment. This is a great way to keep your mind engaged during running but also an excellent way to nurture that mind-body connection.

You may focus on your form, making sure you aren’t overstriding, focusing on your cadence, and ensuring your posture is good.

Or you might want to focus on your breathing to ensure you’re breathing down to your belly and breathing rhythmically along with your footfalls.

You can also do a body scan, spending a few moments focusing on each body part, analyzing how it’s feeling, how it’s moving, and if you’ve got any pain or discomfort.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.