Running Is a Mind Game

There was a time in my life where you couldn’t pay me to run for exercise. I loathed it. My younger sister, a cross-country team alum and aspiring ultra-long distance runner, put me to shame.

Things changed after I moved to New York City. Since arriving in 2012, I acquired a solid pair of running shoes, and about 25 pounds. That was enough to get me doing laps around Central Park. In early 2013, I made a significant effort to regularly run, and it paid off: I got really fit, and I got over my hatred of running.

Even now, though, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I enjoy it. I’d really just won a crucial victory in the mind game of running: believing that I am a runner. Pre-2013, my default position with respect to running was “I’m just not a runner.” End of story. This position precluded sincere attempts to run. Changing it laid the foundation for future running.

Now I contend with the other hard parts about running: just getting out the door; and maintaining a brisk, consistent pace. I have plenty of strategies to get myself out the door, but I’ll save that post for another day. What I really wanted to talk about is maintaining a brisk, consistent pace. No matter what shape I’m in, I’m usually flagging at the half-mile mark, after which the rest of the run becomes yet another mind game.

At some point during one of my weeks-long running kicks, I noticed that my performance was mysteriously inconsistent. Some days, I could barely make it to 1 mile. Other days, I breezed through 4 miles without stopping. It was hard to pre-determine whether or not a given run would be easy or hard. Of course, physical factors such as when I’d eaten, if I’d had enough sleep, or if the weather was miserable, bore obvious effects. But there were plenty of runs that were extra hard or extra easy for no outwardly discernible reason.

I began doing mental assessments of every run. Of primary interest were the successful runs—the ones where I ran far at a steady, quick pace without stopping. I wanted to know how I could replicate them.

What did they all have in common? After hitting the point where physical exertion became uncomfortable, I “went somewhere else,” as I like to put it. Mentally checked out. Achieved a Zen state. Thought about anything else except my gasping lungs and burning legs.

I was winning the running game.

Unlike the game, knowing about the running mind game meant I could keep winning. I listened to sermons, podcasts, and music. If I forgot my headphones, I thought really intensely about my to-do list, or focused on taking exactly four steps per breath. I walled off my physical reality and camped out inside my head. I actually do this a lot—unconsciously—in everyday life, to my detriment. But when applied to running, it’s a wonderfully effective strategy.

It’s not like most people don’t already know this. Go to any gym or park and you’ll see that most everyone who’s exercising is wearing headphones. I mean, part of it is they are typical New Yorkers who are trying to avoid any engagement with the people around them. But mostly, it makes their exercising easier. The music is a distraction from something difficult and uncomfortable and unpleasant—physical exertion and/or boredom. Distraction is a coping mechanism that people naturally deploy. The beneficial psycho-physical effects of music have been observed in an extensive body of research, and the effects go beyond mere distraction.

A 1997 study (Karageorghis and Terry) summarized three general effects of music on exercise that had emerged from decades of research:

“[S]ynchronization of submaximal exercise with musical accompaniment results in increased work output.”

Translation: Exercising to the beat of music helps you exercise more.

“[M]usic apparently reduces the rate of perceived exertion during submaximal exercise.”

Translation: Listening to music while exercising makes the exercise seem not as hard.

“[M]usic tends to enhance affective states at both medium and high levels of work intensity.”

Translation: Music helps keep us in a good or neutral mood even when exercise is hard.

A 2012 study (Karageorghis & Priest) noted that music was particularly suited for certain kinds of exercise.

“During repetitive, endurance-type activities, self-selected, motivational and stimulative music has been shown to enhance affect, reduce ratings of perceived exertion, improve energy efficiency and lead to increased work output.”

Translation: Listening to your favorite playlist on Spotify while running can help you run longer, harder, faster.

There are a few ways that music aids running. For one, it motivates us. It turns out that there is an “innate predisposition of humans to synchronize their movements to music rhythms.” (Karageorghis & Terry, 1997). This is why we nod our heads, tap our feet, and dance to music. Music also can trigger cultural or personal associations that inspire us to keep moving. Karageorghis and Terry cite “Chariots of Fire” as a song “often associated with Olympic glory.” The right tune can help transport you to a high-stakes arena, where flagging means the ruin of your country’s hopes and dreams.

Motley Crue has been shown to enhance one’s affective state.

Music motivates, but it can also enhance our actual performance by “either delaying fatigue or increasing work capacity.”

“Typically this effect results in higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity or strength. In this sense, music can be thought of as a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

That seems a bit of an overstatement, but we know it to be grounded in truth. When people say “it’s all in your head,” they’re acknowledging the enigma of perception—how our experience of reality through our physical senses is more flexible and open to manipulation than we realize. The brain can be hacked.

I could go on and on about the research, but the key takeaway is that for every situation in our physical reality, there is a mind game to be played. For me, the physical reality of running is difficult, and it’s hard for me to be successful (as I define it) by simply trying hard. I can get myself out the door and move my legs. But the determination and desire to keep running give out far before my legs and lungs do. Knowing this, I treat headphones and playlists as essential equipment along with my running shoes. However, just like a pricey pair of shoes won’t make me a marathoner, music’s effects evaporate when the going gets really tough.

 “At high intensity levels, physiological cues appear to dominate processing capacity due to their relative strength.”

Translation: Even the most invigorating music won’t overcome the burn of a seriously intense workout. It’ll be up to you to find where the mind and body actually meet.


Karageorghis, Costas I., and Peter C. Terry. “The psychophysical effects of music in sport and exercise: A review.Journal of Sport Behavior 20, no. 1 (1997): 54.

Karageorghis, Costas I., and David-Lee Priest. “Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I).International review of sport and exercise psychology 5, no. 1 (2012): 44-66.

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