What do we think about while running?

'It's common that we (as humans) think that things in life are either intuitive or common sense. But one great thing about research is that it illustrates things to us OBJECTIVELY.  In other words, what we think is true about the way the world works isn't always true and, even if it is, we shouldn't just FEEL that it's true. We should gain knowledge about the way the world works through scientific inquiry. 

Let's take a real world example. What do we think about while running? Does this seem like you?

*photo from http://effigraphics.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/perception-of-time-while-running/

Researchers have divided our thoughts during running into two general categories: associative and dissociative. Associative thoughts focus on the body or how we are feeling (ex: it really hurts to breathe right now, holy crap!) while dissociative thoughts are more "out-of-body" (ex: why do my students always ask for extra credit on the last instead of just working hard all semester?!). Personally, I strive for dissociative thoughts. When I'm running, the last place on earth I want to be is aware of how much it's sucking. I'd much rather be considering my problems or planning my next trip to the beach. After all, isn't the "runner's high" a blissful blanket that protects our minds from the dirty pain and suffering that comes with running?

Some research supports this ideal I have about dissociative thought immersion. Blanchard, Rodgers, and Gauvin (2004) found that a positive exercise is experience is dependent upon dissociating from the body's physical feedback while running and such thoughts can result in a lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE) during exercise.  

But is dissociating really what we're doing when we run? The answer is yes and no.

Aitchison and colleagues (2013) had runners perform at both 50% and 70% of their max on a treadmill for 40 minutes on several different occasions. During one 50% and one 70% exertion, runners were randomly questioned (about every 3-5 minutes) about the content of their thoughts. During one 70% exertion, they were asked to provide an RPE (on a scale of 6-20) and say their thoughts aloud. 

Their findings were somewhat counterintuitive - at least compared to what I hope is happening to me while I'm running. Dissociative thoughts were highest during low intensity exercise (the 50% exertion trials) and lowest during high intensity exercise (the 70% exertion trials). 

Hmm. That sucks. So when exercise hurts the most, all we are doing is concentrating on that? But don't people always claim they're running because it "clears the mind" or helps them solve their life problems?

Well, during low intensity exercise, researchers showed we engage in both personal problem solving and mindless self "chit chat". During high intensity exercise though, we are more likely to think things like "wow, I am so tired of running" (or, hopefully,  "I feel great, I could do this all day!) or "Relax your shoulders, focus on your arm swing". 

Overall the study suggests that when our perceived exertion is lower, we do more self-reflective thinking but when our perceived exertion is higher, we do more body, form, and pace monitoring. 

Now, remember that the sample size in this study was only 8. They were young - around 21 - and currently exercising at least three times a week.  But despite the limitations on generalization, I think the research helps us to describe the inner workings of the runner's mind. 

What about you? What do you think of when you run? Do those thoughts change with intensity of the exercise? Can't wait to hear your thoughts. If you have any other questions you'd like answered, let me know and I'll try to get to the science of them.

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