By Dana MacCorquodale
I often tell people one of the reasons I love running is it clears my head. Something about the motion helps shake out the cobwebs swirling in my brain and makes it easier to work through decisions or struggles. I like getting lost in thought while my legs go on autopilot on a trail. (Correction – not on a trail, like in the woods. Autopiloted legs should really only be turned on while on paved road, I think. I can’t allow myself to get lost in thought on trails, what with all the low branches, uneven terrain, and the source of all those noises in the trees which is clearly not just the wind or a squirrel, but so obviously a large wild animal plotting my death.)
I’m slow, so that gives me ample time to think on runs. (Of course, it also makes me easier to be caught by large, murderous forest animals, so again: no Thinking-Runs on trails!) But sometimes thinking more about life isn’t what I need. Sometimes what I need is to get out of my head. This usually requires more intention, but I’ve learned it can be a nice relief to focus on my body during a run instead of my thoughts. It can also be good to check in with my physical state simply to ensure I haven’t been ignoring an imbalance in my body, or an injury.
This practice of focusing on my physical state first came to me during a massage. The masseuse was working on one side of my body and told me to relax. Until that moment, I thought I was completely relaxed, but sure enough as I focused my thoughts on my right arm I realized the muscles were engaged and I was practically gripping the side of the bed. The masseuse said it happened all the time because we let our thoughts wander outside of us instead of paying attention to what’s going on in our own bodies. He’d even had a client nearly punch him once without realizing it. Who knew massage therapy was so dangerous? Let us all take a moment to honor these professionals for willingly going into harm’s way to save us from shoulder knots and tight hammies. #neverforget
Not paying attention to our bodies can also make us ignore minor injuries. I once over-stretched my achilies right before a 10k trail race. I was able to finish the race, but it never felt totally right after that. I ignored it for way too long and then finally went to a podiatrist. The doctor walked in, took one look at the bottom of my feet and before I could tell him why I was there, stated “You have plantar fasciitis. Bad.”
Huh? I thought. I was there for the back of my ankle, not the bottom of my feet. The doctor saw my confusion and asked, “Do you hobble when you first get out of bed in the morning?” I mulled it over and blurted out, “Well yeah, but I’m a runner!” I had been ignoring the issue, and even convinced myself it was normal. Hearing my own response and seeing the doctor’s slightly amused and judgmental expression made me realize how silly I sounded. And that maybe I should pay more attention to my physical state.
Isn’t that how we often are, though? Some ache in our bodies might be nagging us for months but we don’t notice because our minds are far too enthralled thinking of things external to us. We focus on work, relationships, or errands. Physical discomfort becomes irritating white noise we assimilate into our day. We never fully turn to face it, acknowledging its existence.
I’ve learned to pay better attention to my body during workouts (and massages, which I think should count as workouts since muscles are being pressed which is basically like contracting them.) It doesn’t come naturally, but I’ve learned to appreciate shifting my focus to my body instead of my thoughts during a run. Am I adjusting my gait subconsciously because I have pain somewhere? Am I heel striking? Where are my arms hangings? Are my shoulders tensing up? Focusing on my body can even help me run farther. If I’m feeling tired, sometimes I’ll focus on my lower half, appreciating how strong and capable quad muscles are, or I’ll imagine some force behind me, pushing me. That shift in focus to my body gets my attention off thoughts swirling around my brain: thoughts that might be centering on how great it would be to cut the run short and forage for cookies instead.
I tend to be an overthinker. I can analyze decisions to death and endlessly agonize over mistakes. Focusing on the inner workings of my body not only helps me keep my body healthy and in alignment: it gets me out of my own head.
So yes – getting lost in thought can be a great gift of running. However, taking a vacation from all that thinking can sometimes be even better.
Some people say runners are crazy. I say – there’s a case to be made for going out of your mind.
Dana MacCorquodale is Executive Clinical Director, Health & Lifestyle Specialist at Hawaii Blue Medical Aesthetics in Virginia Beach. She is also a top 10% Ironman Finisher, marathon open water swimmer & ultra runner.