You’re several miles into a long, solitary run with lots of distance yet to go. Your feet are hitting the ground at the same cadence they have been for what seems like hours, days, years. Your brain is abruptly overridden by one loud and grating thought: “Ugh, I’m bored!”
“I hear about boredom from runners all the time,” says Jeff Brown, a Boston-based sports psychologist and author of The Runner’s Brain. Routine, repetitive motion, absence of distractions, and many long stretches of time devoted to a single task—the conditions of a runner’s life could easily double as a description of assembly-line work.
Boredom is not a topic that lends itself to positivity. It’s a mood most often experienced as irritable restlessness and correlates highly with loneliness and depression. It’s so painful that boredom has actually been used as a punishment: the original treadmill users were prisoners tasked with running to generate electricity. Researchers have documented and studied boredom and its deleterious presence virtually everywhere: among nurses and firefighters, parents and lovers, the elderly and teens.
Athletes in particular tend to be “challenge-oriented people who need stimulation,” wrote University of Utah sports psychologist Keith Henschen in the 2000 book Emotions in Sport. And researchers have noted for decades that boredom can sometimes contribute to burnout among athletes. It’s not surprising, then, that evading that uncomfortable mood is a perennial topic in sports and is especially pervasive among runners, who need only Google “running boredom” to find lists upon lists of tips for escaping the sensation—run with friends, make a playlist, download an app that makes it sound like zombies are chasing you.
But in the midst of all this evasion, what often gets lost is that boredom isn’t always a terrible thing to be avoided, and research is revealing that it can sometimes even be a good thing. This is primarily because boredom can lead to flow.
Flow is the coveted state of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake,” according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, documents how flow manifests in a vast array of people, from rock climbers to surgeons. He has found that anyone engaged in an activity where “the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act” can experience flow. Over the past few decades, researchers have studied flow (sometimes colloquially referred to as the runner’s high or being “in the zone”) in NCAA athletes, figure skaters, tennis players, and rugby teams. Their findings are remarkably consistent: athletes in a state of flow feel “total concentration and involvement,” in the words of a 1999 Athletic Insight paper, as well as “a unity of mind and body and a sense of personal fulfillment at an optimal level of performance.”
It sounds fantastic, but there is a downside: boredom and flow both tend to flourish under the same conditions—an extended period of time devoted to a single activity. Thus, by trying to squash boredom with, say, a good podcast, you’re decreasing the chances of achieving flow. When I asked Brown about this, he first reminded me that constant boredom isn’t a great sign—it could mean we need to make a change or that something deeper is going on, like depression. But he went on to explain that if runners who feel occasional boredom “can make it through those lethal first minutes to the other side,” they might find their mind starting to follow new and unexpected routes. This tracks with recent research finding that boredom actually helps us develop certain positive skills, like creativity and associative thinking. As Black Girls Run co-founder Toni Carey told me, “Running can be a spiritual experience, but I notice that those times when I can feel everything flowing together, every movement connected with my breath, they happen when I’m not running with music.”
Even before scientists began documenting the positives of boredom, there were writers and artists—groups of people who also report frequently experiencing flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi—who swore by boredom as part of their creative processes. “You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1936 collection of essays The Crack-Up, “as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.” Fitzgerald didn’t run marathons, but his sentiment could easily describe the feeling of training, according to running blogger and coach Rebekah Hamrick, who says she considers boredom “an entry fee” to the benefits and bliss that running can provide.
For Fitzgerald and Hamrick, boredom is something to be endured on the way to the good stuff, and many endurance athletes share the same sentiment. Ultrarunner Joe Grant, for example, says that on occasions when he gets bored—which he describes as “a feeling of frustration, lack of control, everything’s scattered”—he will sometimes train his thoughts on the feeling of boredom itself, thinking about what it is, where it came from, and why he feels it. This is because a big part of achieving flow is focus, and “if you’re analyzing your boredom,” Grant explains, “you’re focusing on what to do about your boredom, and that’s something.”
Rob Krar, two-time Western States 100 champion, occasionally gets bored on the trail. In fact, most of his runs, he says, “tread on the edge of boredom”—they’re not perfect, meditative jaunts, smiling scenes cut from an advertisement. They’re long and solitary, occasionally mentally torturous, and sometimes Krar really doesn’t feel like lacing up his shoes and setting out on yet another run, just him and his brain alone on the trail. And yet, “almost without fail,” he told me, “I am in a better place afterward.”
Admitting that you get bored while running feels like failure of a sort, tantamount to admitting that you don’t really love running—maybe even that you’ll never be all that good at it. But what makes elites so good isn’t that they magically don’t get bored; it’s that they’ve learned to be with that boredom, pay attention to it, and work their way through it to a feeling that’s really worth running for.