Running is one of the best ways for me to handle anxiety and stress. It’s been one of the most consistent things throughout all of the stages in my life. I even ran the day I went to the hospital to have my son!
On the blog, I typically write about the logistics and mechanics of running. I talk about how to break in new running shoes, what socks to wear, how to run faster, how to enjoy the treadmill, how to run longer distances, how to return to running after an injury or pregnancy, etc. But I rarely talk about the mental and emotional aspects of running.
So today, I’m sharing what I think about when running and maybe some ideas that can help you! Some of these things are practical like thinking through your technique, running route, what you’re going to eat after, and if there are any cars near you. But other things are more fun, like dreaming of a new business idea, processing something in your personal life, and what you’re planning to do during your week. If you’re a person of faith, it can even be a time of prayer or worship.
Before I plunge into what to think about while running, let’s break down the actual science. When you’re running, there is increased blood flow to you brain, and this can make you become more alert. Running also heightens the activity of the hippocampus, which makes you think and helps you remember better. That’s why you may do some of your very best thinking while running (I do!) or even in the shower (which also causes increased blood flow!). Racing thoughts, no thanks. But running thoughts and problem solving? Yes please!
Alright, now that you understand what we’re talking about today, let’s get to it.
I can’t write this post without including this tip. The most important thing to be thinking about when running is your safety. Stay fully aware of your surroundings, listen for cars, and look at your route carefully so you don’t fall. This is especially important when you’re running alone. I carry pepper spray with me on my runs, and I always have my phone. I even switched my headphones to a pair that use bone conduction technology instead of blasting music directly in my ear so I can hear around me and have better awareness.
When you’re running outside and alone, it’s easy to forget about your technique or the mechanics of your running. I try to remind myself to check in with my form every time I feel my watch buzz noting another mile. Take mental notes about how you’re feeling, if anything is starting to hurt or ache, if you’re swinging your arms out too far to the side, etc. It’s important to check on your form to reduce the chance of injury. This is an especially important thing to think about if your run feels abnormally hard one day. And maybe, that’s something to think through – why does it feel hard?
Like I noted above, if you’re particularly struggling one day — or if you feel particularly good – think through what may be contributing to it. You can learn from it and improve future runs. Did you eat enough? Sleep enough? Hydrate? Is it hot? Cold? Are you stressed? Did you have a tough workout the day before? All of those things will impact your run.
This might not mean thinking at all, but letting something distract you. I love running with music, especially now that I have better headphones. If you’re looking for new running playlists, check out this post. I’m a huge music junkie, and I love creating playlists. I rarely listen to podcasts when I run, but that’s another option! I find podcasts make a run drag on and I prefer the beat of music to drive me, but if you like them, go for it.
Lots of runners have mantras for their training or on race day. During races I think, “The faster I run, the faster I’m done”, or “This is what you trained for.” Find something that motivates you and inspires you!
Food is one of the things that helps distract me when a run feels hard. I love thinking about what I’ll eat right after, and I even start to think about meals I want to make later that week. I do some of my best meal prepping while I’m on my runs!
A great practice is to begin listing things you’re thankful for while you run. Not only is this fun, but it’s such a great distraction from a hard run and positions your heart in a way that’s grateful instead of complaining.
Sometimes I’ll even plan to think about a specific topic during a run. If I’m trying to think through the details of an business idea that I have, I try focusing on that topic while I run. Running also helps give me a clear mind, if I’m stressed about work related things.
That’s fun to think about, isn’t it? I love thinking about holidays coming and what I plan to gift the special people in my life or how we want to celebrate!
Sometimes laughter is the best medicine, and paired with the endorphins you get from running, you have a best case scenario. If you can run with someone who makes you laugh, I bet you won’t think about anything except how much fun you’re having. You could also try running to a comedy podcast, or just thinking about a good thing that happened during your week.
The bottom line is that you can just let your mind wander. You don’t need to think about anything specific at all – that’s the beauty of running. Just let your brain take itself where it wants (but hopefully avoid negative thoughts!) Sometimes I just zone out and run really hard and don’t think about anything. Other times, I end up thinking about all of the above! But what’s consistent is that I think more clearly the rest of the day after I run, regardless of what I thought about while running.
What do you typically think about when you run? I’d love to know! Drop a note in the comments!
Teri’s favorite running gear