When you’re in the middle of a gruelling long-distance run and the pain and fatigue is becoming overwhelming, an obvious strategy is to try to force the subjective experience out of your mind, for example by thinking nice thoughts or focusing on the environment around you. The trouble is, as the physical struggle intensifies, the distraction strategy becomes harder and harder to pull off. According to a new paper in Motivation and Emotion, an alternative approach that holds promise is to practice “cognitive reappraisal” – don’t ignore the sensations as such, but try to view them in a dispassionate way, as if you are a scientist studying running or a journalist reporting on the experience.
The researchers, including Grace Giles and other members of the Cognitive Science Team at the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts, recruited 24 healthy runners (aged 18 to 33, and including 15 women) whose lifestyle included completing at least one run of over nine miles per week.
The runners visited the research lab on three occasions, each time completing a 90-minute treadmill run, keeping their heart rate in the range of 75 to 85 per cent of their maximum – a level classified as “vigorous exercise”.
The first visit, the runners were given no specific instructions to follow in terms of how to cope with the challenge. On the second and third visits they were told to either use “cognitive reappraisal” (to adopt a neutral, detached attitude toward the subjective experience, like a scientist or journalist studying it) or “distraction” (thinking about things besides the run). They also received reminders through the run to use whichever strategy was allocated for that session.
Based on psychological measures they completed before each run, every 30-minutes during, and again afterwards, the participants felt they were exerting themselves less when they followed the “cognitive reappraisal” strategy and they experienced lower levels of emotional arousal, as compared with the run in which they were given no coping instructions. This was despite maintaining the same pace and heart-rate. In contrast, the distraction instructions appeared to make no difference to feelings of exertion or emotional arousal compared with the control run.
Giles and her team said their results are “relatively novel” and support previous findings that suggested distraction is an unreliable technique. “Instead cognitive reappraisal may benefit exercise experience relative to not using a cognitive strategy,” they concluded.
The findings come with some hefty caveats. Based on the researchers’ own manipulation check that involved asking participants to say which of several statements best described their thought processes during the runs, the participants did not actually engage in cognitive reappraisal during the cognitive reappraisal run. That said, the researchers reconsidered the statements they’d previously identified as reflecting cognitive reappraisal and decided they weren’t really appropriate – at least not to in relation to how they’d framed cognitive reappraisal in their instructions. On further reflection, they felt the runners’ choice of descriptive statements did suggest they had practiced the strategy adequately after all. They may be right, but these post-hoc gymnastics make the study findings feel less convincing.
Another issue to bear in mind is that these were fit, experienced runners – their average rating for their exertion during the runs was “somewhat hard” and they generally found the experience enjoyable. The findings might not generalise to less fit runners or more arduous challenges.
On a positive note, however, especially if you are new to running or finding it tough, the researchers reckon that both the emotion regulation strategies they tested might have a greater benefit for runners who usually find the experience less enjoyable.
Oh, and if you find nothing works to take the suffering away, at least take comfort from earlier research that suggested your brain will trick you into remembering that the pain wasn’t really so bad.