What Runners Are Thinking

About their pace, their pain, and traffic, mostly

Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, remembers feeling like a Roman ruler as she rounded the 21st mile of her 26-mile trek that day in April 1966.

“Five miles! I can run five miles in my sleep,” she wrote in her memoir, Wind in the Fire: A Personal Journey.

I feel like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I feel like Caesar standing on the brink of conquering Gaul. Such a feeling of elation and success!

Her triumphant swell quickly gave way to some of the more brutal realities of long-distance running.

The steep downhill slope rips apart my legs. The blisters on my feet have burst, and now raw flesh is rubbing on my nice, new, stiff boys’ size six shoes, which I did not know I was supposed to break in.

Gibb’s thoughts that day, history-making though they were, actually resembled those of most long-distance runners, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Most of the time, marathon runners are thinking about their pace and the distance they have left. For much of the rest of the time, their thoughts dwell on their surroundings and, of course, the extreme discomfort they’re enduring.

For the study, researchers outfitted 10 people who were training for either marathons or half-marathons with microphones and small recorders that attach to their belts. They then asked them to say their thoughts out loud to themselves while on runs of seven miles or longer.

After analyzing the 18 hours of resulting recordings, the study authors found the runners’ thoughts fell along three rough themes:

  • Pace and distance: Making up 40 percent of all thoughts, these speed measurements and self pep-talks allowed the participants to either slow down or speed up, as needed.

For example, Henry, age 46, stated “7:30 [mins per mile] feel good but it’s flat, just wait for that hill” and “I’ve been running 32 minutes and change … 3.3 miles picked up the pace a little bit” ... This continual awareness allowed participants to vary their pace depending on the terrain: “steady pace, making it up the hill” (Fred, age 32) and “downhill, don’t kill yourself, just cruise” (Bill, age 52).

  • Pain and discomfort: Making up 32 percent, these thoughts related to the various aches and sores that often result from slamming your feet and joints into the ground for hours at a time. Fittingly, these snippets contained a considerable amount of swearing.

For example, “my right foot is getting a little numb from going back up the hill. It doesn’t feel very comfortable” (Jenny); “hill, you’re a bitch … it’s long and hot – God damn it … mother eff-er” (Bill); and “it hurts and I think my breath is telling me I’m going too fast to start” (Enzo) … For one participant, she experienced stomach cramps during her run due to period pains: “ugh, I feel like shit. Why did my period have to come now?” and “oh my God, I’m so tired. My stomach hurts so bad! Deep breath … I’m going to throw up right now” (Laurie).

  • The environment: These thoughts, making up 28 percent, centered on geography, weather, wildlife, traffic, and other people. Some of those encounters were viewed more positively than others.

“Is that a rabbit at the end road? Oh yeah how cute” (Fred); and “wow, these fish are jumping … good size fish” (Henry). “This is me recording a log of my death by rattlesnakes” (Fred) ... Traffic certainly seemed to have a negative impact on the participants: “this is such a fucking busy street. I hate it” (Bill) and “whoa, get out of the way – fucking crazy people … all of the cars are getting me wet” (Laurie).

The authors say their results were consistent with previous studies finding that marathon runners use strategies like self-talk, imagery, and goal-setting to propel themselves forward. Still, it’s worth noting that the recordings weren’t perfectly representative of the average person’s thoughts: Participants, knowing that their recordings would be listened to, might have avoided divulging some of the more personal, embarrassing things that enter our minds during exercise. Also, knowing they had to articulate their thoughts might have influenced the experience for the runners.

The researchers think their findings, which they say are the first to capture this kind of “thinking aloud” by marathoners, could be applied by trainers and amateur runners. For example, nearly all the participants said at the start of their runs that they were struggling, but the runs became easier as they went. “Sport psychology consultants could help runners use mental skills ... to embrace the discomfort at the beginning of the run,” the authors write, “with the understanding that the discomfort will often be reduced.”

Similarly, as Gibb neared the finish line on Boylston street, her agony faded and supreme happiness took over:

So many people crowd into the street that only a small passage is left through which to run. I look at their faces and see such incredible beauty.