One of the many beauties of running is there is no right or wrong way to do so many things about it. Of course, that’s not universally true – you can make mistakes, with your training volume, intensity, rest days, pace judgment. And hopefully you learn from them.
But one area that is unique to you, and where there is definitely no prescription or rigid guideline, is where you go in your mind when you train. It is totally up to you, and depends on your goals, what you are looking to get from your training generally and in each specific session and even your personality.
Broadly, though, there are some patterns or principles we can discern. Some people run to “escape”. They carve out a block of 45 min to an hour, five times a week, to remove themselves from the rat race, and so their minds seek distraction and diversion from running. They think about anything but the burdens of real life and stresses like family, work, finances and so on.
Then there are the “focus” runners, who use their training, somewhat paradoxically, to clear their minds by focusing on the issues at hand. If you’ve ever met someone who has said that they are struggling with something, and then they go for a run and it all falls into place, you’ve met this person. Perhaps you are this person – you gain mental and emotional value from running because the simplicity of the task allows you to think about something, cleanly and with focus, until you are able to resolve it in your own mind.
Then you get the “performance oriented” thinker. The person who thinks about the technical aspects of running, and loses themselves in the process. Their minds are focused, but on running. They are applying their minds to tips like those I sometimes give you in this article, things like “How is my breathing pattern?”. “How are my feet landing, and I’m smooth and controlled, and is my stride length appropriate?”. “Am I leaning into the hill correctly?”
This kind of thinking is called “associative” thinking. It is different from its alternative, “dissociative thinking”, in that it focuses on the task at hand, with minimal distraction. As a general rule of thumb, the harder you run, the more seriously you’re applying your body to the task, the more you should be thinking about the task. In part, your mind focuses you, because those harder efforts create fatigue and pain, and it’s quite difficult to avoid them – there’s a point at which your breathing and the ache from your muscles overwhelms your ability to think about anything but the run and the next hundred meters!
There is a degree of “escape” to this, of course. Some elite athletes love the forced focus of harder training, and it’s “cleansing” to them specifically because for those 45 minutes, nothing else matters but the next target, the next kilometer, the next lap, or the next hill. If you are similarly inclined, embrace it, and train your mind to ask good questions and very importantly, to provide good answers to those questions when you engage in this associative thinking! In fact, one of the most important and powerful things you can do in your harder training is to train your mind to remain focused and positive, as this will allow you to unlock performance beyond those physiological “glass ceilings” we all have.
On the other hand, some people don’t want that sensation of forced focus. They wish to remain below the ceiling and really just enjoy the run. To think of anything but the run. And that’s fine too. What you might do, is take the awareness that there comes a point in your training where the intensity gets high enough that you’re forced to focus on the run, and actually use this as a way to manage your training. In otherwords, if you find that your thoughts are being “forced” to the run, slow down, and enjoy the mental freedom you have from easier efforts!
As I said upfront, there is no right and there is no wrong. There are sometimes mismatches – if your goal from training is to relax, because it’s an easy day and you are using the run to destress, then you might wish to avoid the mental cost of thinking about the run itself. On the other hand, if you have a personality that embraces the ‘hurt’, then you might go out and deliberately push hard precisely so that you can only think about one thing for the hour.
On the other hand, if you head out the door for what you are planning to be a hard session, one that takes you to a new level in your running, then you need to be prepared to focus on the run. That’s not a session where you can run through shopping lists and financial pressures and relationship concerns! Those distractions will distract you from your training goal, and because you’ll be trying to run hard, you won’t really be able to think about them properly anyway. So that’s a situation to avoid – if you are aiming for a hard session, then don’t bring a dissociative and distracted mindset to it!
Provided you get the match right, running is therapy. It can be therapy because it allows you to avoid certain things, or focus on them. To replace them with new thoughts, to provide clarity, or to provide escapism and a new challenge. The choice is yours, so just be aware and in control of your mind, match it to the task, and make the most of your time!