Sport and Exercise

Minds run free

Psychologists, like much of the population, have been bitten by the running bug. What do they get out of it, and does their experience chime with the science? Christian Jarrett and Ella Rhodes investigate.

03 April 2017

It was just before midday on 21 July 2005. 'I walked onto the platform at Warren Street,' Dr Catherine Loveday (University of Westminster) tells us. 'As the train pulled in and the doors opened, people ran screaming from the train. I had no idea what was happening but I did what most people did, turned and ran up and out of the station as fast as I possibly could. Halfway up the second escalator a wave of nausea came over me and my chest tightened. My immediate terrifying thought was that this had been a chemical attack but as I got out into the fresh air and did some urgent self-CBT, I realised that it was much simpler than that – I was just horribly unfit.’  

After her terrifying experience, subsequent flashbacks and newly acquired phobia of the London Underground and public places, psychologist Loveday eventually decided it was time to do something proactive. She sought out a sports-psychology qualified fitness trainer and, after getting over a hatred of running, could eventually run a mile without stopping. That was over seven years ago, and she says that ‘since then I have never wavered in my commitment. I have continued to run a minimum of three times a week, and have completed a half marathon. Not bad for someone that said they’d never run.’

And Loveday is not alone: running has boomed in popularity in recent years, including an increasing number of people doing it barefoot (see box, below). Record numbers are also signing up for the London Marathon, ‘Parkrun’ has been a phenomenon, and evidence is growing for its psychological as well as physical benefits (though there can be downsides, as we will see later). We caught up with psychologists who run, and delved into the research to find out what running does and means at a psychological level.

Why do people start running?
The dramatic story behind Loveday’s impetus to become a runner is likely to be unique to her. Of course many of us start running simply as a way to get fit or lose weight. Having said that, her experience is consistent with research that suggests that other, less dramatic, kinds of life markers can also inspire people to take up the sport.

For a paper published in 2014, for example, Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield at New York University’s Stern School of Business looked at data from the Athlinks website and found that first-time marathon runners were especially likely to have an age that ended in a ‘9’; in other words, to be on the cusp of a new decade. Some experts subsequently criticised the statistics, but Alter and Hershfield stood by their findings which are consistent with the idea that we’re particularly likely to reflect on the meaning in our lives at such junctures, and, for many people, running offers the perfect chance to forge new goals.

Other times it’s not so much about fitness or personal meaning – rather, there’s just something irresistibly awe-inspiring about the challenge of a long run in a beautiful setting. Take the example of Dr Ian Walker, based at the University of Bath. For years he was a keen long-distance walker, but then his friend showed him a video of the Transvulcania ultra-marathon, one of the toughest trail running events in the world, which involves competitors running a 73km route up and down a volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canaries. ‘I just decided to start running the next day,’ Walker says.

What goes on inside a runner’s mind?
For many, part of the appeal of running seems to be that it’s a chance to think things through, or perhaps to clear the mind. Walker says he’s often highly focused on keeping his balance on the treacherous mountain trails that he encounters on ultra-running events, and it seems like this acts as a kind of enforced form of mindfulness, distracting him from the pain of each mile. ‘If you focus on something close and mundane, it frees your mind. For a large part I’m focused on that, and time goes by really quickly,’ he says. Other times, his thoughts are more practical, and painful, in nature: ‘things like what time I’m likely to reach the next checkpoint and whether my feet are hurting, or do I need to eat or drink at this point’.

Clinical psychologist (and outgoing British Psychological Society Vice President) Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes is a regular runner, and he finds it therapeutic. If he’s not listening to rock music, he’ll use the time to pray or think. ‘Psychologically, running allows you to organise things in your mind and encourages creativity,’ he says. ‘All of my best ideas, such as reorganising the MoD psychology services, reintroducing uniformed clinical psychologists, setting up a military veterans research institute and an international research hub – and, of course, restructuring the BPS – have come to me and have been worked out while I am running.’

Researchers at California State University at Northridge recently took a more systematic approach to runners’ thoughts. They recruited 10 amateur long-distance runners and asked them to record their thoughts out loud with a voice recorder while they went on a run of at least seven miles. Like Walker, many of their thoughts were about the practicalities of pacing (‘lean and steady, make it a long stride, lean and steady’) or the pain (‘Hill, you’re a bitch … it’s long and hot – God damn it … mother eff-er’). However, this research didn’t find solid evidence for the trouble-solving or inspirational effects of running that Hacker Hughes described.

What does running do to your brain?
There are of course many reasons why these particular runners may not have used their time to solve problems and reflect on life’s challenges. But research of a different kind – that’s looked at the effect of exercise on participants’ brain activity and feelings of flow – does tentatively support the idea that running, as psychology writer and runner Melissa Dahl recently put it, might provide a kind of ‘mind-clearing magic’.

For instance, a recent study (led by Petra Wollseiffen) of 11 ultra-marathon runners involved measuring their brain activity via EEG (electroencephalography) once every hour during a six-hour run, as well as  their cognitive performance, mood and feelings of flow (measured through agreement with questionnaire items like ‘The way time passed seemed different from normal’).

The run was associated with reduced activity at the front of the brain, and after the first hour, an increased feeling of flow. Note, though, that the decreased brain activation and increased sense of flow did not correlate, so they may not be directly related. Also, feelings of flow began to decrease as the run wore on, perhaps suggesting there’s a point reached in a run where the mental benefits are overwhelmed by the pain and effort required to keep going!  

Looking at the broader literature on the way running affects mental performance, a 2010 meta-analysis from Kate Lambourne and Phillip Tomporowski (which included the results from five prior relevant studies on running) concluded that going for a jog, at least on a treadmill, is associated with impaired cognitive function during the run, but with a slight boost to cognitive performance afterwards. Up until now the research on the effects of running on cognition has mostly involved simple reaction time measures, so it’s not clear how relevant these findings are to the claims of many runners that it provides them with a creativity or problem-solving boost.

Related to the popular idea that running helps problem-solving is that it is a great way of handling stress and beating bad moods. For example, runner and neuroscientist Professor Geraint Rees, Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at University College London, tells us ‘It is absolutely and unexpectedly wonderful for reducing stress and building resilience at work. I have a tough leadership role as a Faculty Dean, and there’s nothing like going out for a run in the dark and rain and cold to help out with that!’

A recent study in Cognition and Emotion backs this up. Emily Bernstein and Richard McNally at Harvard University asked participants about their ability to handle negative emotions and then asked half of them to jog for 30 minutes while the others rested. Afterwards the participants watched a sad clip from the film The Champ. As you might expect, participants who said they usually struggled to handle negative emotion were more intensely affected by the sad clip, but crucially this was less so if they had completed the jog. The researchers said: ‘…a bout of moderate aerobic exercise appears to have helped those participants potentially more vulnerable to problematic affective dysregulation to be less susceptible to the impact or lingering effects of the stressor.’

How do runners keep going?
Going for a short jog to clear your mind is one thing, taking part in an ultra-marathon lasting hours is quite another. How can the human body, and mind, cope with mile upon mile of pain and exhaustion with no end in sight? Walker says he draws on health psychology and that the most straightforward approach is what he calls the ‘acceptance strategy’. ‘When you set out to run 100 miles, there are going to be long periods where you feel awful. Knowing that up front, and accepting the fact, makes it much easier to cope when it happens – it’s just what you were expecting.’

Another helpful psychological method he uses is to remind himself that no matter how bad he feels in the present moment, there will always be an upswing later on the course. ‘This phenomenon of swinging back and forth between high and low points is something that ultra-runners often talk about,’ he says. ‘“It never always gets worse” is the phrase, but it’s only after you’ve had a few experiences of going from feeling like death to feeling great that you truly understand it.’

Another key way that long-distance runners manage the pain and exhaustion is through pacing. For years it was thought that fatigue is purely located in the muscles and that we can only go as fast as our body will let us. Increasingly, however, sports psychologists have come to realise that this is only part of the story: in fact, physical exhaustion is in some ways more of a mental state, in the sense that the sensations from our muscles are weighed up by the brain in the context of the strength of our motivation and our belief in how far we’ve got to go.

This is empowering in some ways because it means we can often overcome even the most intense bodily exhaustion. But it’s also what makes pacing so important, because if a runner misjudges their capabilities and energy levels and runs too fast early on, they can end up ‘hitting the wall’, which is runners’ slang for when your body literally runs out of fuel and it’s virtually impossible to move. Backing this up, a recent analysis of running data from the Dublin Marathon and the Chicago Marathon by Barry Smyth, of the Running With Data blog, found that runners who ran their fastest sections in the earlier stages of the race often ended up being the slowest completers overall.

Want to get your running shoes on?
If we have inspired you to pull on a pair of running shoes, what can you do to motivate yourself to run? We asked our interviewees for their best advice for beginners, or returning runners.

Ian Walker emphasises the importance of building up to running, and making it part of one’s routine. He suggests the NHS Couch to 5K programme as a great place to start. He also told us how useful joining a running group had been: ‘[It] revealed to me one of the things I hadn’t realised – ultra-runners tend to be a really nice bunch of people and everybody in it is lovely. Now the social side of it keeps me coming back.’

‘Set a goal, get a plan and stick to it with appropriate rewards’, Geraint Rees suggests. He, among other psychologists we spoke to, said Saturday morning Parkruns are great for regular local group motivation among people of different abilities. He added: ‘Going out slow is important, whether it’s a race or training. Start too fast and it all becomes terribly difficult later. I also like to vary the challenge for really long runs and explore London. When training for a half I used to run along the Thames in one direction and get the tube/train back – there’s nothing like starting in West London and finishing in Canary Wharf to make you realise how far you can run.’

Heath psychologist Daryl O’Connor (University of Leeds) similarly suggests starting slow, but also advises recording one’s progress using a spreadsheet or app. He tells us: ‘Lots of people think they have to do long runs, but for me 5K a few times a week is key. Do short, frequent runs and record what you do and try to maintain the behaviour.’ He also tells us that after taking up running he slowly began to feel his identity change: ‘I never previously saw myself as a runner,’ he added, ‘but starting to do it and maintaining it over eight years, I do see myself as a runner now. That helps you maintain those behaviours as well, if you think “Yeah, I’m a runner, that’s what I do”.’

Box: The rise of barefoot running  
In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in barefoot running, or running without spongy supportive trainers, thanks in part to the publication of Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book Born to Run in 2009, in which he describes the remarkable running feats of the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, who run barefooted or with only the thinnest of sandals. As sports scientists debate the relative merits of barefoot running for injury prevention and performance, psychologists are beginning to explore the appeal of the barefoot approach, and the kind of people drawn to it. There’s even some new work hinting at possible mental benefits.

In-depth interviews with eight runners published last year found that they viewed barefoot running as more ‘natural’, but that they also saw it as extreme, presumably because of the risk of injury to the unprotected foot. Consistent with this, a recent personality survey of hundreds of runners, led by Nicholas Hanson, found that those who ran barefoot tended to score higher on openness but lower on conscientiousness than their trainer-loving counterparts.

And last year, Ross Alloway and his colleagues found some tentative evidence that time spent barefoot running may be especially beneficial to our working memory abilities, more so than trainer-clad running (also called ‘running shod’), presumably because all the concentration involved acts as a kind of brain training. ‘One explanation’, the researchers said, ‘is that barefoot running requires greater proprioception than running shod and thus can offer greater tactile awareness of the running surface and an enhanced ability to adjust foot strike to a position that is appropriate to the surface.’

Box: The dark side of running

Although it’s hard to deny that running is a spectacular sport for mental and physical wellbeing, there are downsides for some who take it up. One odd example of this is the strange hallucinations that some ultra-runners report (see Although there has been no peer-reviewed research on the topic, hallucinations are like folklore among ultra-runners, and New York Magazine interviewed Martin Hoffman, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UC Davis, about the phenomenon. He told them these visions can be a result of eye problems, called ‘ultraeye syndrome’, where the cornea swells and distorts vision. But others report ‘true’ hallucinations: some of the more unusual visions people have had include seeing a military ship sailing by. In one terrifying case, a woman taking part in the 135-mile Badwater Marathon saw rotting corpses following her every step, giant beetles and mouse monsters crawling along the road.

The sheer rush of running seems to be addictive to some. Although an addiction to exercise doesn’t sound like a particularly bad thing, some people can put their bodies in danger by the amount of running they do, or feel the need to do. Exercise addiction is a contentious issue and isn’t truly accepted as a ‘real’ phenomenon, and despite a mention in the DSM 5 it is unclear the extent of this addiction in the general population. However, several case studies and anecdotal reports suggest something similar to tolerance, a need for increasing amounts of exercise to achieve the runner’s high. As James McWilliams wrote in Pacific Standard Magazine: ‘The fact that I now need more and more miles to experience the benefits of physical exercise comes uncomfortably close to the chronic substance abuser who needs more and more hits to get high… Perhaps we’re too quick to highlight addiction when an activity becomes intense, but still, the parallels are hard to ignore.’

McWilliams cites one of the few things we know for certain: exercise addiction or dependency seems to affect people in more endurance-related events such as Iron Man and ultra-marathons, and it seems to overlap with eating disorders, but also drug and alcohol abuse, about 25 per cent of the time.

The best advice is to keep an eye on whether exercise is becoming a need rather than a source of enjoyment. As McWilliams points out: ‘Those we classify as exercise addicts might be a rare sort who are honoring what their bodies are designed to do and, historically, have done.’

About the authors 

‘I don’t run in races or for recreation but I do seem to spend an awful lot of time running after my twins, who are about to turn three.

Christian Jarrett is Editor of the Society’s Research Digest
[email protected]

‘Inspired by Ian Walker’s blasé attitude to running 75 miles, I took up running at the start of this year. Now I can be found regularly wheezing my way round my local reservoir, and surprisingly enjoying every torturous step.’

Ella Rhodes is Staff Journalist on The Psychologist
[email protected]

Join members of The Psychologist team on a morning jog in Brighton on 4 May, during the Society’s Annual Conference. #MindsRunFree

See also 'The Psychologist Guide to Healthy Living', kindly sponsored by Staffordshire University.