Mind & Body

This Mental Trick Could Help You Finally Enjoy Running

There are two types of people in this world: those who enjoy running, and those who feel like every long-suffering stride brings them one step closer to death. The fact is, running is an incredibly cheap and convenient form of exercise. So how do those in that second camp learn to love it? According to a new study, it's all about changing your mindset.

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Running Through My Mind

The study, which was published online in May in the journal Motivation and Emotion, isn't the first to look at how a person's mindset affects the way they perceive exercise. But most of that earlier research looked at short bursts of exercise, while this study was all about how to cope during endurance workouts lasting more than an hour. Researchers from the Cognitive Science Team at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center recruited 24 runners, 15 of them female and all between the ages of 18 and 33, to test two mental strategies during long runs on a treadmill. These were certainly not beginners: On average, they ran 40 miles a week, with their longest run reaching a distance of at least 9 miles (although one superhuman soul cranked out a weekly 23-miler).

Each runner came into the lab three times. The first time was just to warm up and get used to the equipment. A week after that, they strapped on a heart-rate monitor and a brain-imaging cap, got on a treadmill, and were told to use one of two cognitive strategies as they ran. One, called cognitive reappraisal, was all about adopting a "neutral, detached attitude toward the running experience" — for example, by examining it objectively as if they were a scientist or a journalist. The other, simply called distraction, had them focus their attention on something neutral and unrelated, like "the contents of an office supply store." Finally, the participants ran for a full hour and a half. Every 15 minutes, the researchers reminded them of their instructions, and every 30 minutes, the runners told the researchers how they were feeling.

The cognitive reappraisal technique worked like gangbusters. Despite the fact that they maintained the same pace and heart rate, runners using this strategy felt lower levels of emotional arousal — that is, they felt less "worked up" — and felt like they were putting in less effort. The distraction technique, on the other hand, made no difference to feelings of arousal or effort.

Reframe and Refocus

We've written about these techniques before in the context of getting over a breakup. In that study, researchers also found that reappraisal had a bigger effect than distraction — people who refocused their thoughts to center on their ex's negative traits were better able to get over the breakup than those who tried to distract themselves with unrelated topics. There's also evidence that facing your fears, rather than distracting yourself to avoid thinking about them, is the only way you can truly get over those fears. Across the board, research shows that thinking about something else just prolongs the inevitable. You've got to actually do the mental work if you want to change the way you feel.

There are a few limitations to this study, including the fact that the runners were so experienced that the pace wasn't quite as strenuous as the researchers had planned it to be. But the biggest limitation was inside their heads: The runners weren't actually thinking the thoughts they were asked to think during the experiment. That is, when the researchers asked them what they were thinking while they ran, the runners didn't say things like "I observed my run like I was a scientist," and instead said things like "I tried to see the situation as positively as possible" and "I thought rationally about the running experience." In the end, the researchers decided that their definition of cognitive reappraisal was too strict, and what the runners were thinking about really did count as cognitive reappraisal. Regardless of those rationalizations, this is a big caveat to the results.

Either way, it might be worth it to see if you can reframe your situation as you run. Rather than zoning out into your headphones and hoping it'll all be over soon, do what these runners did and see the workout in a positive or strictly rational light. After all, there is one benefit that every participant in the study experienced, even the control group: The run left them feeling happier than they were before.

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Running is a lot more mental than you might realize. Learn all about it in "Running Is My Therapy: Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Fight Depression, Ditch Bad Habits, and Live Happier" by New York Times bestselling author and lifelong runner Scott Douglas. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer July 23, 2018

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