What do long-distance runners think about?

Marathon runners are on the road for hours at a time, what on earth goes through their minds all that time? Past investigations have relied on asking runners to remember what they were thinking about, but of course that is an unreliable method. Now Ashley Samson and her team have conducted the first ever “think aloud” investigation of long-distance runners, which involves them verbalising “everything that passes through your head”, so that their thoughts can be recorded and analysed.

The researchers recruited 10 amateur long-distance runners (4 women) with an average age of 41 (range 29-52), a mix of experience from 3 to 30 years, and all with a habit of running long-distance at least three times a week. All were in training for a half-marathon or longer distance. The runners were given some practice recording their thoughts while on a treadmill. Then they were given the recording equipment and asked to record their thoughts while out on a real run of at least seven miles (presumably while running alone, although this isn’t specified in the paper).

The researchers ended up with over 18 hours of recordings to analyse, with the runners’ thoughts falling into three distinct categories. The majority (40 per cent) of thoughts pertained to pace and distance, showing just how important it is even in a non-competition context for long-distance runners to continually calculate their optimum speed, considering their energy levels and the distance left to cover. This category included thoughts to do with monitoring pace (e.g. “downhill, don’t kill yourself, just cruise” Bill, aged 52); strategies to maintain pace, such as correcting form (e.g. “lean and steady, make it a long stride, lean and steady” Fred, aged 32); and thoughts about altering pace (e.g. “6.50 mile that’s alright … 2 miles to go … 6.20 that’s better” Bill).

Making up 32 per cent of all thoughts, the next major category was, perhaps unsurprisingly, pain and discomfort. This included thoughts about injuries (e.g. “My hips are a little tight. I’m stiff, my feet, my ankles, just killing me this morning” Henry, aged 46); about the causes of pain and discomfort (e.g. “Hill, you’re a bitch … it’s long and hot – God damn it … mother eff-er” Bill); and thoughts about coping, including motivational strategies (e.g. “breathe, try to relax … neck and shoulder relax” Jenny, aged 45; “that sucked but it’s going to be an awesome run on the way back” Fred).

The final category, making up 28 per cent of all thoughts, pertained to thoughts directed outwards to the running environment. This included thoughts about geography, especially those nasty hills, and the weather (e.g. “I need it to start raining, it’s hot, its’ really hot, humid” Bill); admiration for the environment, with the runners obviously having chosen scenic places to run (e.g. “oh my gosh, that’s gorgeous … it’s so beautiful, the ocean, the mountains” Henry); thoughts about wildlife (e.g. “hope I don’t see any snakes” Enzo, aged 43), and finally, thoughts about traffic and other runners and cyclists (e.g. “this is such a fu**ing busy street. I hate it” Bill; “ton of bikes out now … I’ve been passed by 20 of them” Henry).

If you were wondering if long-distance runners use the time to solve life’s dilemmas – relationship troubles or metaphysical conundrums, say – it seems not, at least not in this sample of runners anyway. They’re too busy focusing on their performance, bodily sensations and surroundings. Of course, it’s likely the participants censored some of their thoughts, so we can’t know for sure.

This is the first time long-distance runners thoughts have been recorded live, and the researchers said there were some specific insights that could be useful to sports psychologists. For example, they noted that nearly all the runners recorded thoughts near the beginning of the run that suggested they were finding it difficult, but things nearly always seemed to get easier as the run progressed. From a practical perspective, it would be interesting if future research using this methodology could identify specific thoughts or thought styles that tend to correlate with better pacing and performance.


Samson, A., Simpson, D., Kamphoff, C., & Langlier, A. (2015). Think aloud: An examination of distance runners’ thought processes International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2015.1069877

further reading
Marathon runners forget how painful it was
Self-motivation: How “You can do it!” beats “I can do it!”
What are elite cricket batsmen saying when they talk to themselves?
The Psychology of Stamina (pdf)

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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