In a recent study, 32 percent of runners surveyed were thinking about their own pain or discomfort while running.
In a recent study, 32 percent of runners surveyed were thinking about their own pain or discomfort while running. (Photo: Tamara Hastie)
In Stride

Here’s What Runners Think About While Running

It’s more nuanced than the headlines would lead you to think

In a recent study, 32 percent of runners surveyed were thinking about their own pain or discomfort while running.

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The late comedian George Carlin once wrote that you never see a smiling runner. Blissed-out veterans of the Color Run craze may beg to differ, but Carlin’s observation is corroborated somewhat by the findings of a study that was published this summer, entitled “Think aloud: an examination of distance runners’ thought processes.” The study, which required test subjects to verbalize everything that passed through their minds as they ran, found that 32 percent of all thoughts fell under the theme of “Pain and Discomfort.” Given that response, it’s no wonder so many runners look less like they’re in a state of endorphin-induced “runner’s high,” and more like they’re enduring a severe bout of indigestion. 

But considering the fact, as the study notes in its introduction, that over half a million Americans participate in (and presumably train for) marathons every year, running can’t only be about subjecting oneself to various forms of unpleasantness. Along with Pain and Discomfort, researchers identified two other categories that describe what runners think about while on the move. The majority (40 percent) of thoughts were concerned with matters of “Pace and Distance,” e.g. “7:30 [mins per mile] feel good but it's flat, just wait for that hill.” Finally, 28 percent of runners’ thoughts were focused on the external “Environment,” “Is that a rabbit at the end road? Oh yeah how cute.”

The study’s authors note that while there have been past attempts to understand the thought processes of runners, the majority of these experiments took the questionable approach of relying on runners’ ability to remember what they thought about after they’d finished exercising. Hence, “there remains a lack of literature attempting to measure thought processes in real time during athletic practice/training . . . [but] a promising methodology for closing this gap in the literature lies within the use of the think-aloud protocol.”

Here’s how this “promising methodology” was applied. A sample group of ten runners, six men and four women, ages 29 to 52, all of whom had run a marathon in the past calendar year, were asked to record their thoughts during a 30-minute treadmill session and on a longer outside run. Participants wore small microphones on their shirt collars and recording devices around their waists. They were instructed to run at a “conversational” pace, so they would be able to comfortably say what was on their minds. The experiment yielded over 18 hours of recordings.

“On a normal run, I’ll have harebrained ideas about all different things,” Ben True says. “When I finish the run, shower, and eat, I’ll revisit the idea and realize that it’s not that good.”

When the results of the study were published online in the “International Journal of Exercise Psychology,” a number of publications, from the Huffington Post to the Atlantic, seized upon the apparent revelation that much of what runners think about on runs is how miserable running makes them feel. Or, as USA Today put it: “What runners think about: How much running sucks.”

Upon closer inspection, however, a few aspects of the  “Think Aloud” study seem questionable. Ten people is a tiny sample size—not nearly enough to make any larger, conclusive statements about the mind games of marathoners. And though the study’s participants were instructed not to censor anything and just blurt out whatever crossed their minds as they ran, the very process of articulation, coupled with an awareness that someone will be eventually be listening in, make a genuinely unfiltered rendering of thought processes impossible. 

In fairness to the authors of the study, this latter point is addressed, albeit very briefly, in the “Discussion” of the results section of the report:

“Additionally, although participants were requested to ‘verbalise everything that passes through your head’, they may not have shared certain thoughts for various reasons.”

As to the thoughts that they did choose to share, something struck me as rather bizarre when I related the results of the study to my own experience as a runner. While I can confirm that all three categories–Pain and Discomfort, Pace and Distance, Environment–are applicable to the kinds of things I think about when I run, I can say with confidence that the majority of my thoughts fall outside this neatly defined rubric. Yes, I think about pace and my ailing ankle every time I go out, but most of the time I’m concerned with everyday banalities that, at least as far as I can tell, have little to do with running. 

I don’t think I’m alone here. 

Just to be sure, I reached out to Boston Marathon 5k winner Ben True, figuring that if anyone’s thoughts were likely to be hyper-focused on running, while running, it would be one of the best runners in the world. When I spoke to him, True said that he tries to be very fixed on the task at hand when he’s in a race, and that sometimes during long solo runs he plays out race scenarios in his mind. When running by himself, however, he was just as likely to be figuring out what he was going to make for lunch.   

“On a normal run, I’ll have harebrained ideas about all different things–things I want to do later that day, things I want to do in the next five years, planning out my life,” True said. “Often, it’s some new invention that I think would be really cool, some new business plan . . . a lot of these, when I finish the run, shower, and eat, I’ll revisit the idea and realize that it’s not that good.”

If you run, you probably won’t find this to be much of a surprise. Likely you’ve had your own version of harebrained thoughts and food-specific revelries while clicking off the miles. So why no mention of these in the “Think Aloud” experiment?

Dr. Duncan Simpson, one of the study’s four coauthors, explained that the requirements for publishing the study necessitated a condensed, simplified version of the results, and that much of what runners said was left out in order to present a more coherent paper.

“We had everything,” Dr. Simpson said. “We had people talking about work. We had individuals going off and talking about dates. People talking about all sorts of different things. We did have a miscellaneous category, but it was so broad . . . so some of those miscellaneous findings we didn’t really talk about.”

Given these omissions, it might appear strange that the results of the study were presented in percentages, totaling to 100, which paints a deceptively holistic portrait. Dr. Simpson was quick to clarify that these numbers “were basically the percentages” once he and his fellow researchers had determined the categories under which to present the information. In other words, the percentages don’t take the miscellaneous category into account at all.

“The percentages were not something we really wanted to have and were particularly comfortable with doing because we couldn’t use all the data,” Simpson said, explaining that there was considerable pressure to present “more quantifiable figures.” 

Which is a good thing to remember when clicking on a headline claiming that a third of all runners hate running. Turns out that might not actually be the whole story.