Listen to Your Body Listening
Updated: Jul 21
Understanding How You Think Can Improve How You Run and Race
By Rob Steger
When the great Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus was asked what he thought was the most difficult part of life, he replied, “To know thyself.” As ultrarunners, we are drawn to difficulty. We celebrate challenges. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is one of the hallmarks of our sport. Running has helped many of us better understand ourselves. Self-exploration is commonplace on the trails.
Over a relatively short period of time as a runner, one of the most important lessons I have learned so far is how to listen to my body. Most of us are actually really good at this - think about looking over the large spread of an aid station and having that urge for watermelon or pickles. We are listening, whether we know it or not. Our physical body is conveying highly complex needs and converting it into simple messages, as Anna Mae Flynn sometimes jubilantly yells running into an aid station, “Give me all your pickles and coke!” For most of us, listening to our bodies is limited to our physical body; our bones, muscles, and tendons. Rarely do we include our brain, because frankly, that is what we are using to listen.
This has been the turning point for my own running over the past year. It came from a deep level of self-acceptance and becoming more self-aware. Through introspection, while running (and outside of running) I began to make notes of my own tendencies. Something as simple as when I get lost on the trail or miss a turn, I get upset and my natural reaction is to run faster. It takes some experience of getting lost to begin to understand your reactionary tendencies, and to self-correct yourself the next time you get lost. But this is only one basic illustration of how some metacognition work can actually make you a better runner and improve your races.
This is where the wisdom of Thales rings true and things can become uncomfortable. Most of us think differently and see the world differently, even from a similar vantage point of the trails. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, with a wide range of life experiences. The growth I have experienced has come from the acceptance of my weaknesses. This acceptance has helped me explore the area of metacognition as an area worthy of tough reflection and training.
Empirically, by observing my own thoughts while running, I have been able to pick up on trends and patterns. These findings were jotted down following each training run or race. It is an additional column of notes beyond just the miles, time, and pace that most of us record. It takes more work to recall and analyze. But I haven’t stopped at my own observations and you shouldn’t either. Ask for feedback from friends, coaches, and crew/pacers. Ask them the hard questions, the uncomfortable ones, like your emotional state during low spots. Compare these answers to your own internal dialog at those moments.
This is all getting to the root of listening to your body, listening. By better understanding how you think, you can better understand what messages are being sent in the heat of the race. A lot of those messages we receive are normal and seem hardcoded in our genetics. Just like you can magically reach for pickles when you're dehydrated, we seem programmed to feel certain ways during a race. Listen closely. Quiet your mind and take in the deep level input your brain is receiving. Then listen closely to how you react to this input. How does it make you feel? How does it change your pace, cadence, or normal running behavior?
The next level training that you can do to improve your next race or long run is to have predetermined responses to these messages. Short circuit those messages before they end your race. Low points for me, always feel like they are never-ending. Any thought of time within a low, I have trained myself to respond with, “This is a low point and is only temporary. I’ll get through this and feel better soon.” Controlling your own thoughts and emotions is hard and sometimes all it takes is a few pre-programmed responses to help get you back to a good place.
By thinking more about how you are thinking while you are running, some even deeper findings can be made. Ask yourself some of the basics; How do I think? How do I analyze information? What are my communication strengths and weaknesses? How do I learn? What are my emotional tendencies at different parts of a race? What was I thinking during my good runs versus the poor ones? Don’t stop there, go back and ask friends and family some of the same questions about yourself. These questions can make us feel vulnerable and maybe even uncomfortable, but by better understanding yourself you will have the information about how you think, to think about.
Have a game plan for the mental side of your next race. Work with your crew and let them know your pre-programmed responses to some of your own emotional responses. Think about how your crew and pacers think too, so you can operate smoothly during race day. With some work, it can bear fruit if sincere efforts are made to better understand how you think. Don’t be afraid to explore how you learn best. Ask others for their opinion too. Coaches can give you a healthy outside perspective. You might actually see improvement come race day if you listen closely enough. Listening to your body is important and many times vital within ultrarunning. But don’t stop at only listening to those messages about your physical running body. Listen to how you are listening.