I am constantly asked by people who don’t run , “what do you think about when you run?” I’m always polite and give some shallow, easy answer. Something to the effect that I think about whatever it is that people think about when they are doing anything that they do. I also often respond that I think about running a lot when I am running. These answers are certainly truthful, but they only scratch the surface of the question. I’ve never fully attempted to explore this question because it feels like one of those things that is nearly impossible to put into words. Recently though, on a long run (of course), I was thinking about what it is that I think about when I’m running, and decided to tackle the task of explaining my response to this question in further detail.
Running for a long time is much like doing any one thing for a long time. The more that you do it, the more that it becomes natural for your body, and the more that you can do it and feel relaxed. The most obvious correlation is to relate it to a meditative practice. The goal of many meditation practices is to find a way to think about nothing. As you notice thoughts, you simply notice them and then let them go. This is all much easier to do if you don’t feel shooting pain in your knees, back, or hips because of the position you are sitting in. The same thing occurs in running. When you are out of shape and it hurts to run just a few miles, you end up spending most of your time thinking about how much your body hurts.
Let’s assume you take the time and have the stubbornness to get beyond this initial painful phase. When you no longer spend most of a run thinking about the pains in your body, what then? In my experience, it is true that you then spend most of the time thinking about whatever it is you would think about doing anything. In this sense, running really isn’t that unique. Sometimes the thoughts can be as boring as the list of errands you have to run later in the day, or what you are going to cook for dinner that night. Other times, you are in a more reflective space, and maybe you think about things you can do to be a better friend, a better partner, or a better parent. Then there are the more contemplative phases. In these moments, maybe you even go so far as to think about the meaning of life, the existence of a god, or what happens when we die. Again, none of this is really all that different than things we might think about at other times throughout a typical day.
The difference, though, for me, and I assume for a lot of people, is that outside of my running I don’t often have regular chunks of long uninterrupted time to really dive into prolonged thought about any one thing. In this sense, it’s not so much that running leads directly to more precise thoughts, but that running is one of the only times in a typical day that we have the time to move into prolonged awareness of anything going on inside ourselves. It’s the practice and routine that creates the special mind space, not the actual activity of running.
Without question, a huge percentage of the clear and satisfying thoughts that I ever have are while I am out running. The landscapes that I run through are inspiring, and being out in these amazing places under the power of my own body is a huge catalyst for some very pure, positive, and deep thinking. More than anything, though, it is simply the practice I have developed of getting out and doing one uninterrupted thing for several hours at a time that has allowed me to have so many satisfying thoughts while running.
Going back then to the question, “what do you think about when you run?” It is correct for me that when I run I pretty much think about the same things that I think about when I am doing anything. In this regard, running really isn’t all that special. The special thing is that running is the only thing that I regularly do for such long uninterrupted stretches, and this affords me the opportunity to experience the majority of my most substantial thinking while running.
I’m certainly aware that running is not for everyone, but I do encourage everyone to try to find some routine or some practice in their lives that regularly gives them the space to do more than just scratch the surface of where our minds are willing to take us if given enough time and space.