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Paul Long: ‘What are questions running through runners’ minds?’ Here’s the study — and reality

So. A group of scientists wanted to know what runners think about when they run. And, of course, being scientists, they didn’t take the easy way out and simply ask runners.

Nope, that would have allowed for errors in the sense that runners could be telling them what they remembered thinking about, rather than what they actually thought about. So the four researchers set up a “think aloud” method of gathering their data. In essence, what they did was give a small group of runners digital recorders and put them on a treadmill.

As this group of runners takes off along MainStrasse Village in Covington, with the Goebel Park clock tower in the background, the question arises: What are they thinking? (Photo provided)

As this group of runners takes off along MainStrasse Village in Covington, with the Goebel Park clock tower in the background, the question arises: What are they thinking? (Photo provided)

Then after getting little but a stream of curses about how treadmills are the worst, the scientists sent them out on a long run through the streets or on the trails that runners tend to gravitate towards. That effort led to a verbatim transcription of the 18 hours, 16 minutes and 29 seconds of recorded thoughts that covered 104 single-spaced pages — minus the grunts, huffs, and puffs, I can only assume.

The study was published last month in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Ashley Samson, Duncan Simpson, Cindra Kamphoff, and Adrienne Langlier were the authors.

Its results are not surprising. It showed that runners’ thoughts fell into three main categories: pace and distance, pain and discomfort, and the environment. The first is self-descriptive — how far have I run, how far do I have to go, and how fast am I going? The third also was simple: What a lovely view. It’s too darn hot. Oh look, another dog.

But it was the second category — pain and discomfort — that was widely misinterpreted in the media as the “I hate running” thoughts. That’s not what the runners thought or what the authors said — and yes, I have read the entire study. Instead of not enjoying the run, the runners were complaining about aches and pains, heavy legs, and soreness and stiffness in their muscles and joints as they started their runs. They were listening to and checking out their bodies. They coped with the pain by chanting positive thoughts or other motivations. Once they got several miles behind them, the complaints diminished.

“It is important to note that all runners in this study experienced discomfort throughout their run and many runners experienced discomfort at the beginning of their run… that improved throughout their run,” the authors wrote. “The runners used a variety of strategies to deal with the discomfort and pain, including both instructional and motivational self-talk, maintaining and emphasizing form, goal-setting, and breathing techniques.”

It’s an interesting study, and I felt myself nodding along with the results. Yep, while on a run, I wonder how far I’ve gone. I wonder how far I have to go and how long it will take me. And I constantly check my pace to ensure I’m not going too fast, or if I am able to pick up the pace a bit. Yes, I wonder if that ache in my side is temporary — it usually is — or something I should be concerned about. And yes, I’m appreciative of my surroundings, especially when I’m out on a trail in Devou Park or along Cave Run Lake.

But wait. There is more. I know there is. But not being a scientist, I ditched the “think aloud” technique and simply asked. And I found the scientists missed a few things that runners think and talk about.

Or maybe it’s just what they remember thinking about.

“I fall mostly into that first category: How far have I gone? How much is left? Am I hitting my pace goal?” said my daughter, Corey Long, who is training for her second marathon this fall and seeing her long runs hit the 20-mile mark. Hitting double figures is when the new ideas come up.

“As I get towards the end of my run, I start thinking about my immediate post-run plans — what I’m going to eat; the nap I’m going to take. If it’s a really hard run? I just think about how badly I want to lie down.”

No doubt what these runners have in mind at the First Watch in Crestview Hills. (Photo provided)

No doubt what these runners have in mind at the First Watch in Crestview Hills. (Photo provided)

Yeah. Food is big in the minds of local runners.

“I think about how lucky I am to be out doing what I love to do,” said Suzanne Lord Marshall of Cincinnati. “That and doughnuts.”

Diana Wenderfer Noyes, who runs in the Queen City Running Group along with Marshall, also thinks about the future: “What I am going to eat when I am finished? And when I can take a nap?”

But during the run, more immediate concerns come to mind.

“I do think about poop,” said Jenny Wilkerson Baker, who runs with the Pain By Numbers running club out of Newport. “And farts. But I also think about food.

“The biggest thing I find is my mind wandering to these days of being a mom, wife, friend, and daughter and how thankful I am to have a healthy body and to be running. Time to myself is rare and is a gift, and so is my strength. So I guess I found myself really grateful these days.”

Kendra McCardle, a public defender from Hebron, said her thoughts often come down to: “How much do I have to pee? … Runners bladder: the struggle is real.”

But it’s not all pain and discomfort and thoughts of finding a restroom — whether it’s in a five-star hotel or a construction site port-a-potty — while on the run. Many of us, like Baker, find ourselves gratified that we can and do run, and we want to share that exhilarating joy with others — even if it’s only in our thoughts and prayers.

“I try to send out good energy to everyone I see,” said Kristie Absalon of Cincinnati, who runs with the Queen City Running Club. “Running creates a lot of good vibes, so I feel like if I’m healthy enough to get to run then I should share it.”

It’s also a time for self-reflection.

“To me, it is the time I can review things, and ask God what to do next,” said Giannina Sciaraffia of Burlington, who runs with Tri State Running Company. “Quiet long runs are a mix of everything, and sometimes nothing at all.”

Paul Long, on the road (Photo by Kris Payler Staverman)

Paul Long, on the road (Photo by Kris Payler Staverman)

Paul Long writes weekly for the NKyTribune about running and runners. For his daily running stories, follow him at dailymile.com or on Twitter @Pogue57

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