A Runner's Mind

For those runners out there, I’m sure you’ve had a lot of jibes thrown at you from family, friends and even strangers. We’re a misunderstood group of “individuals” that are classified as mad! I suppose in essence we are a bit mad. Think about it, we don our running gear religiously often regardless of the weather. We’re out there in the wind, rain, sun and cold pushing our body’s to achieve that “runners high.” Some of the weather I’ve been out in, even the animals weren’t out in it!


But madness aside, what goes through a runners mind while out running? Maybe that’s what’s eating at those who don’t understand us? Well for me the first few minutes of my run are crucial as to how my run will pan out. In those first few minutes my brain is listening to and processing loads of signals that have started to rush through my body – my sweat cells are switched on in preparation to release sweat to keep me cool. The ATP stored in my muscles is getting used and more blood is starting to flow through my muscles. My heart rate starts to increase along with my breathing. My stride begins to settle into comfortable routine and my brain processes all these and comes up with two outcomes. One - everything is great and I’m going to have a great run … or two - all is not well, today will be a bit of a struggle!

On the good days my mind switches into neutral and moves my body along nicely and starts processing other thoughts – some of my best ideas have come to me when running. Other times I have solved problems that where holding me up with a job. On the really good days I picture myself running a race – not winning it, but running it well enough to get a PB. Actually leading into the 2010 New York Marathon I pictured myself running the course each time I ran my long runs and eventually when I got to New York I was calm and ready to run the marathon and to finish it - NO pulling out! Tick, New York completed.

On occasions I have solved political or world problems – unfortunately by the time I’ve finished my run I am unable to recall it!! I’ve even pictured myself winning lotto (the only winner) and I’ve then tried to work out how to spend it or divide it all up. The weird thing there is I’ve never managed to do it successfully before my run was over – maybe that’s why I haven’t yet won lotto??

The strangest thing to get into my head on a run is a verse of a song (even a nursery rhyme  sometimes) that I sing over and over in my head!! Every time I stop it within a few strides it’s back playing in my head … I hate that because I’ve then got to focus on something real to stop it playing – and even then it doesn’t always work!


Ok, that’s the good days. The bad days (thankfully few and far) are often a struggle right up until the end. Humidity is one thing that gives me a huge battle of wits. Often the first sign is hardness of breath – due to the air being so thick. I don’t seem to be able to get a good lung full of air and so I have to focus on relaxing and not pushing myself – survival thoughts run through my head. Some days it’s just my legs feel flat. The best thing I’ve found is to not fight the run, but rather listen to my body and stay relaxed as possible – sometimes I end up running through it and come out better in the latter stages. Unfortunately when racing my brain is pretty much pre-occupied with the signals running through my body that not much “other” thinking goes on – just holding on and surviving to the finish line hoping I might still get a PB!

So despite how we look to non-runners, our minds are really no different to theirs. We just have special wiring and triggers that make us want to run and hence receive the “runners high” that hits us as a result of the endorphins released from our running … ok, we might also be slightly mad BUT it’s a good madness.


But what about racing? Well depending on the length and type of race, terrain and weather, then it will vary. The short intense races have me more focused on my pace, technique and the other runners around me. On a half marathon or marathon I fluctuate between the race and”happy thoughts” only because the longer the run the harder it is to focus just on the race – thoughts of not making the finish flood in and out so you have to combat them with positive thoughts, then the pain of the run takes you back to the race and what your body is doing … crazy isn’t it. Mind you I am only talking about my mind and it’s processes while I run! You might be totally different (at least I hope you are!).

Today’s run was a 5km hill run and luckily for me it turned into a good run. As a result I was able to tell my thoughts to switch off ( it’s Friday and the weekend is almost here), and just enjoy the run. The only brain activity going on was the signals back and forth telling my legs to move quickly (but not too quickly), my upper body to stay relaxed and my eyes to take in the scenery. Lastly and most importantly the signals from my brain to tell my lungs to breathe … apparently it’s good to do this … now it’s time for the endorphin rush (and the weekend). Happy running.

Martin McKone