If you’re like most Americans at the end of 2020, you’re keeping a small orbit these days. You’re spending less time at work, less time with friends, and as the weather turns you expect those circles will become even smaller. We’re all buckling down for what could be a long winter.
Fortunately for you, you’re a runner.
“In this moment running is a perfect activity,” says Robert Swoap, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Warren Wilson College. “It’s this ideal sport in which you can continue to be active and stay connected despite the pandemic.”
Running is an easy sell right now, and you’ve likely noticed more of your neighbors trotting by your window in the early morning or while you’re working from home. Unexpected friends have popped up on Strava, or family members have suddenly become curious about your running habit. Everybody’s lacing up.
“Runners have this sport in which they can still connect” says Swoap. “The evidence is good that you can run safely in small groups, so runners can socially connect and still be physically distant.” Right now, he says, we need both of those pieces more than ever. “A pandemic creates fear. It creates isolation, creates an overriding concern for many things that are outside of our control. But runners can do a physical activity that’s associated with physical and psychological benefits.”
All of this cannot be overstated. Running is and will continue to be a lifeline to so many during this unprecedented time. But, according to Swoap, the benefits of running extend beyond the immediate effects of physical and emotional well-being. The long-term mental shifts gained out on the roads and trails can help a runner weather the winter shut-in, even when they’re stuck inside.
The key, he says, is attention.
Watch Your Mind
Think about all the runs you’ve started feeling overwhelmed or sad or otherwise in a bad mood. How many of those runs did you end in a better mood? Most of them? All of them? Think about how the shift felt—as you covered your miles a cascade of feel-good hormones flooded your neurotransmitters, and by run’s end the world seemed a little kinder, the tasks of the day a little more manageable.
The significance here is not only in that the run helped you feel better, it’s that it happened during a relatively short, undistracted period of time. “If you are a runner, you have hours and hours of experience with tracking your mind,” says Swoap.
This concept of “tracking one’s mind” is a major component of mindfulness, a proven method for combating depression and anxiety. According to Swoap, running creates a perfect set of conditions for mindfulness practice. “We all know how to run at some level, so you don’t actually have to think very much about what you’re doing,” he says.
Rather that requiring the athlete’s full focus be on a target or another player, running occupies the mind at a more superficial level—where to turn, traffic obstacles, cracks in the sidewalk. This superficial occupation has the effect of quieting the monkey-chattering aspects of your mind, and leaving a calmer, potentially wiser version at your disposal.
This profound mental shift over the course of a run–from a negative to a positive tilt, or busy-brained to placid–is especially noteworthy because it’s so common. A runner knows before they leave the house that the run will help them feel better, and over the course of many such runs they develop a familiarity with the process of watching their own mind change. This, essentially, is mindfulness, a powerful tool for negotiating complicated mental and emotional spaces.
The challenge, of course, is in carrying that mindful presence beyond the run and into your larger life.
Train Your Brain
According to Michelle Joshua, Ph.D., director of sport psychology at North Carolina State University, the thought patterns you practice on the run will carry over, whether you intend for them to or not.
“I think a lot about how we train our brains, and how when we learn to think in certain ways, those ways become more automatic,” she says. This may seem obvious—the basic premise of a habit. If you repeatedly think or do any one thing, it sticks. Over time it not only gets easier, it bypasses decision-making altogether.
Because Joshua works with athletes, who are accustomed to thinking about the physical effects of training, she sometimes finds it useful to detail the cellular mechanism of the habit-making process. She explains it like this: Every thought we have is a product of neurons firing down specific neural pathways. Whenever we think along that pathway, it creates a layer of myelin sheathing, which makes that pathway more efficient, “like insulation on a pipe,” Joshua says. So, the more we practice having any one kind of thought, the more automatic it becomes.
Think about how this phenomenon is showing up in your running. Every time you practice positive self-talk, it gets a little easier. Every time you think about giving up, but then convince yourself to keep going, you set yourself up to do it again next time. You’re rewiring your brain to help you thrive, and that same brain accompanies you home after the run.
“I think it’s useful to think in terms of transferable skills,” Joshua says. “For me, sports psychology is about three different pieces. It’s about your planning, your execution, and then how you reflect.”
Every runner will recognize at some level how these parts are all integral to running performance. For the runner looking to level up their mental game, paying more deliberate attention to each is a good place to start, and it’s a small jump to transferring those mental tools from the roads to any other demanding space.
“High-level athletes take the time to look back and ask themselves, ‘What worked? What didn’t? What should I do differently?’” Joshua says. “You’re going to have lots of opportunities to do that during this winter. Ask yourself, ‘How was my motivation this week? Was I on track for my goals? Did I diversify my training? How was my mood?’ These are the things that contribute to your thriving.”
Take the Good, Dump the Bad
There is a catch here. Along with the all the positives that we can carry home from our runs, we carry the negatives as well. Most runners spend considerable time alone on the run, and so spend more time reinforcing thought patterns, either good or bad. When we continually put ourselves down, or repeatedly make decisions that don’t end up benefiting us, those neural pathways are reinforced too. For that reason, it’s doubly important to be deliberate about the mental habits we make both out on the run and when shut away at home.
“If you’ve been running for a while, you’ve probably at some point figured out how to change your mind,” Joshua says. Runners are good at that. At some point they’ve had to come to terms with the fact that something isn’t working, reassess, and change. “I’m always trying to help people figure out, Is this helpful?” Joshua says. If it’s not, the task is to reroute into something that is.
Know that however you feel now, either in your training or in being stuck at home, you have the power to change your mind. That power may lie in reaching out, similar to asking for help from a coach. It may be in directing attention externally, as one might on a group run. At home and on the road, ask yourself this season: How can I change my mind?