The Emotional Side of Running

I wrote this on my old blog more than 18 months ago. But I think it still merits a read. So I am reposting here.

The Emotional Side of Running

(Originally posted on December 26, 2009)
No one who has set out for a run can deny that they have felt a range of emotions about their running. From frustration on a bad run, anger over an injury, optimism about an upcoming race, and pride in a new PR, runners experience and draw upon all the basic emotions. Take this list of emotions and ask yourself if you have NEVER felt at least one before, during, or after a run: fear, joy, trust, sadness, anger, anticipation, optimism, submission, awe, remorse, aggressiveness, even love. Hard to find one that we haven’t experienced.

Consider the role of music in running. How many of has NOT used some playlist on our mp3 players to get through some tough miles, to find some emotional inspiration in lyrics or a special musical rhythm? In fact, there are people who specialize in supplying running music for runners, whether to match a specific cadence/pace requirement or to help runners lose themselves in their running. When I need that special oomph in a run, I turn to a couple of special songs that have struck an emotional chord in me. Who hasn’t done so?

So why is it then, that we are often taught to ignore or suppress the emotional side of our running; to treat our running like a clinical exercise? There are those who would prescribe forgetting a bad run (or even a good run for that matter, to prevent overconfidence or complacency) as a means of moving forward, of getting past the past. What good does it do us to suppress the emotional, spiritual side of running in order to perform better? And is that even possible if our genetic makeup requires addressing that emotional, mental side of running?

I’m here to submit to you that running is not a clinical, soulless exercise. That it is okay to experience and express emotions before, during, and after running. In fact, we can become better runners if we learn to understand what out emotional side requires from us and from our supporters. If we do not learn to understand what our emotions tell us, then we cannot grow as individuals, as runners. But the issue is a little deeper than learning to express emotion in a healthy way. The issue gets to the very nature of humanity itself.

We now know, thanks to the Human Genome project that no two humans are alike (well, we knew it for a long time, but some geeks in lab coats confirmed it for us). If this is true (and why wouldn’t it be, anyone found their exact twin recently?), then we must grant that runners as individuals are different. I’m not talking about paces, stride length, foot strike, or speed. What I’m writing about is runner temperament, runner emotions, and runner psyche. We are distinct, each of us possessing a set of ideals and beliefs and attitudes that derive from nature or have been nurtured in our environment. And as runners, we are no different. Each runner has a different temperament, attitude, outlook; a set of world views as they relate to the sport we all so dearly love (and sometimes hate—see, emotion!).

So what’s my point? My point is that the secret to runner success can be found not only in the training, the miles, the hill work, the speed work, the gear, or the race-day conditions, but also, and perhaps most important, in the runner’s mind! There has been a lot of recent literature and focus recently on the mind of the runner, but most of it (at least that which I have read) focuses on the necessity of understanding that the mind controls the body, that the body can do more than the mind “thinks” it can, and that once one understands that, then running progress can occur quicker. In short, this literature has focused on the mind/body relationship. But what about the need to understand a runner’s emotional needs? If we are not all alike, then we must realize that each runner has certain emotional needs. Some runners need positive reinforcement in their training and races. Others need “tough love” as a motivator to improve. There are those runners who exhibit a dispassion for their running, a sort of mechanical nature to their emotional side, but they too have an emotional side that they are suppressing.

We do a disservice to ourselves and those we support, then, when we appreciate that strides and gaits are distinct, yet ignore the variety of runners’ emotional needs. Imagine trying to fit all runners into the same model and style of running shoe. Chances are that someone will become injured by this “one size fits all” mentality. Yet, we do this when we neglect the emotional differences in runners. And worse yet, when we dispense running advice to one another we should fully appreciate those physical and emotional differences. Just because one runner may be able to take a bad run or a lousy race and forget it, to clear it out of the mind immediately, doesn’t mean that the next runner will be able to do the same. If the former can forget the bad, the latter might require a purging of the bad memories of a race or negative running result. And without that purging the runner may fail to move on with a clear and focused mind for fear of reliving a unique event. Without a discussion of what happened, why it happened, and what can be done to prevent or overcome a negative event, some runners are unable to move on. And yet this is not rocket science. Often the answer is a simple: not your fault. Other times the answer can contain specific actions a runner did or did not take. Regardless of WHAT the answer is, the runner who requires this closure MUST get this closure. Some runners need a beer after the race in order to move on. Others need more elaborate measures, from deep-thinking conversation, to a boat load of tears. The sooner that we realize what kind of runner we are emotionally, then the quicker we can adapt to those needs and grow. Just because you are able to quickly come to terms with a bad result doesn’t mean that the person you are advising or training can. The essence of a good running friendship or training relationship is the mutual awareness of these differences and needs that each person has. One size most definitely does not fit all.

So why am I writing this? Well, for one, I’m on vacation and my mind is not occupied with work matters. Second, I’ve thought about this issue for some time now. When you cry after your first marathon and get mocked for it ever since, you find yourself thinking about why some people express emotions and others don’t. And third, being able to observe the training programs of several friends and their various successes and failures has given me an opportunity for observation and analysis. Running is like that. It is one of the few sports where we’ve all been through what every other runner has been through (except maybe BQing or winning a marathon, but you get my drift). So running lends itself to be, at once, objectively and subjectively analyzed. It offers a level of experiential analysis that few other sports can claim. I mean, really, how many of us could identify fully with Derek Jeter winning the World Series as part of the Yankees Baseball Club?

So just as we need to be aware of our physical needs and limitations, we should also be aware of our emotional needs. And more important we need to let fellow runners know what they are and how best they can support us in our running.

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2 Comments

  1. This is fantastic, thoughtful stuff, Gordon. In ultras, we always say it’s 90% mental.
    There will always come a time after hours of running when one asks “why am I doing this?”
    No matter how much physical training one has done, it won’t help in this situation. It requires knowing yourself, what makes you tick, what it takes to get you to that finish line when the desire is gone.

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