... or 'The psychological games we can play in running and in life'

If you are a runner, this blog post is about running. If not, this is about ‘cognitive strategies’ to overcome challenges and achieve goals 😉. This post is from my blog last year.

This week I ran 10k for the first time in ages. I’d had several months off running and since coming back to it I haven’t been consistent, so I’ve been running much smaller distances and hoping to build back up. It was an easy run – actually easier than previous shorter ones – and I felt brilliant.

Micro-goals and space travel

Just a few hours earlier, slumped over my coffee, I had yawned (as dramatically as possible while yawning and slumping): “I don’t think I can face today but I know it’s going to happen anyway.” I was talking about the day in general, and no, I was definitely not going running. My husband told me that he has never regretted running. That is true for me as well. No matter how hard it is to get into my running gear (psychologically as well as physically squeezing into the leggings), or even how hard the run is itself, I'm always glad I chose to run. But when I wake up and have to decide whether to put on running clothes, I never want to, and can't imagine feeling any different several hours later, once I've dropped the children to school. But now I have a trick that works for me: breaking 'going for a run' into manageable chunks. Telling myself: “I’m just putting my running clothes on, I can decide whether or not to run later," makes it much easier to put on the sports gear. After school drop-off I tell myself, “Just go and decide what to do when you get there." Once I’ve made it to the start of the running route, I always start running. Thinking about this I realised that my approach of setting manageable ‘micro-goals’ is often advised to help people cope better with the paralysis of depression, and, as is so often the case, it’s also a useful tool for people without depression too.

Puffy, pink and sweaty on the outside; light, buoyant and glowing on the inside. Luckily they say it's what's on the inside that counts

I want to add that despite my fondness for micro-goals (I actually use them a lot, not just in running), I do believe in aiming high, and I love the Les Brown quote: ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars’. So aim for the moon. But as you work towards that aim, some days you can build a rocket standing on your head (which is good practice for the moon) and other days ten minutes browsing the internet for rocket parts is a big enough goal. That’s ok. Once you get started you might find yourself getting caught up in the excitement and end up doing more, but if not, it’s still progress.

The stories we tell

When I run, usually it’s awful at the beginning, and I used to make it worse ( “why is it so hard?”, “maybe I’m not well today”, “maybe its hotter than usual”, “maybe I’m just not a runner” blah blah). But experience tells me that how badly it starts doesn’t predict how good it will end up. So now I remind myself: “It only feels hard now because it always does at the beginning, and it will pass”. Once I’ve acknowledged that, I usually find that I naturally stop paying attention to how hard it is and at some point I realise that it has become easier without me noticing. How we interpret our experiences has a greater impact on how we respond emotionally and behaviourally than the circumstances themselves. This strategy reminds me of the Buddhist concept of 'impermanence': accepting any outcome and not having attachment to any of it. So you acknowledge it and let it go. Anyone interested in 'mindfulness' may recognise this approach. My strategy works well for my current running (up to 12km), but as I increase the distance I will of course have more time for 'psychological games' along the way.

Making the most of where I am: sometimes I make use of a convenient mini-waterful to refresh my face

Ignoring the weather report

I've realised that I am terrible at predicting whether I will have a good run. Sometimes I’m expecting it to go smoothly and it’s just a slog, and other times everything tells me that it will be bad, but it turns out great. Last week, I sat in the car deciding whether to get out and run. I had three excellent excuses: 1) I'd forgotten my running shoes so would have to run in sandals. 2) I hadn't fully recovered from Covid vaccination side effects (freezing cold and shivering under ALL the blankets despite it being 30C, and crushing head and body ache); and 3) I was so late that the people I planned to catch up with would have almost finished their loop. It seemed not worth bothering. But I decided to just start and see, without expecting anything amazing. In the end the sandals were fine, I didn't feel ill at all, and although I did meet my friends very early on, they yelled at me to keep running one more kilometre and back, and they would wait for me afterwards. So I did that (4k). I felt great, happy and could have run further. So yes, you should listen to your inner voice, but take it as another piece of useful information, you don’t have to follow it because it might be wrong. Lisa Feldman Barrett (a much published psychologist and neuroscientist) has written a lot about how the brain constructs our experiences using predictions and pre-existing concepts from our culture and history, as well as (biased) interpretations of incoming information (externally as well as internally). The interpretations are not always right. For example, she says if you have a sensation in your stomach while sitting at the table you could perceive it as hunger; if people in your office have come down with the flu you could experience the same feeling as nausea; if you are a judge in a courtroom you could interpret that same feeling as a ‘gut feeling’ that the defendant is not to be trusted. So on this occasion I heard my inner voice predicting a bad running experience and decided to treat it like a weather report – a well-intentioned and well-informed prediction but not a certainty. So I ran anyway but prepared myself for rain, lowering my expectations for sunshine. And the sun came out after all.

Post-run coffee with a view

More games: smoke and mirrors or ‘the art of distraction’

On another recent run, I ran the same road and hills as usual, in the same scorching heat, with the same muscles, feet, lungs as usual, but on this occasion, I sailed past the points I usually struggle, without even noticing until I was already past them. The whole run (about 6km) went quickly and easily. So what was different? I was completely and contentedly absorbed in my thoughts for the entire run and distracted enough that I didn’t feel any of the usual difficulty. Left to its own devices, my body picked a natural pace and breezed through it.

So distraction helped me in my running that day, and research also shows that distraction can help to reduce negative feelings or depressed mood. Sometimes that is exactly what you need to be able to move forward. However, it may not be a good long term solution, as distraction reduces the opportunity to develop long term coping skills or resilience, which could actually make things like depression more likely in the long run. On the other hand, over-focussing or repetitively focussing on the negative are also associated with lower resilience and poor mental health outcomes.

This is all about attentional control, and none of these strategies is perfect. The key is moderation, balance, flexibility (isn’t it always?). Being able to focus attention selectively (ie choosing what you pay attention to) can help to balance reducing unwanted feelings, without losing the opportunity to develop resilience and experience growth.

This is my usual running spot so it should be easy shouldn't it?

What would an optimist do?

Generally, optimists tend not to pay attention to negative things. However, if it is relevant to them, an optimist will be more likely to pay attention and remember it, even if it is something negative. Optimists tend to experience more wellbeing and are less likely to be depressed than pessimists so there is some motivation to understand their strategies, especially because it does seem to be possible to change your attention pattern. For example researchers have trained people to pay more attention to positive and less attention to negative things during times of stress, and there are also links here with mindfulness training and cognitive therapies.

So when are negative things relevant and worth paying attention to? Some of this means attending to what is changeable or within your control. Sometimes it’s worth going through the emotional pain of attending to something negative if it allows active problem solving. It might also be about attending to what is relevant to your current goals and needs rather than having a knee jerk reaction in response to the moment.

Post-run rehydration

And running?

Back to that run: I didn’t plan to distract myself, it just happened, and it happened to be compatible with my goals that day. I needed to tick off another run, build on my fitness foundation, and I needed to feel good about running (I was quite a lot further away from my running goals for the year then, than I was back in February). Sometimes in running and in life you need to do something to get through the moment. But I have longer term running goals that I won’t achieve if I do that every time. If I want to improve form, technique or speed I will need to focus on what I am doing even if it is hard. And if I want to do proper long distance running I will need to find a way of being more comfortable with the hard times because effortful distraction is actually hard work in itself (unlike the natural mind-wonderings in an easy run). And other times I might just be more immersed in the whole experience of my surroundings (like the jungle insects that are as loud as drills) and the feeling of running itself (you could say being ‘mindful’ while running). Across all areas of life, if we can learn to choose when, where and how to focus or divert our attention, we can be happier, achieve our goals and become more resilient. Part of this means understanding our goals, and what is important to us, as well as our individual attentional patterns. Then comes developing the habit of refocussing attention on what serves us, letting go of what does not serve us, and directing attention to what is possible. Transformational coaching can help with all of this 😊

Sometimes as I run the insects living here entertain me with music that sounds like clubland beats, or an industrial-sized drill