Ironman Lake Tahoe Training · Training

The Powerful and Wandering Mind

What do you think about during long runs, bike rides, spin classes, etc? Do you control your thoughts or let them wander? The categories below are totally made up by me so let me know what you think….

The Wandering Mind

My mind tends to wander and I let it go in whatever direction it would like to go. It’s sort of like meditation. I don’t force myself to think about anything or solve any problems, but that’s often the end result.  On longer runs especially I get this amazing sense of clarity and can often come up with solutions to issues that have been plaguing me for a long time. Main categories are work, relationships, friendships, goals, life in general, the future, the past, etc. And I almost never set out for this to be the case. I can also almost instantly reverse a bad mood, or stressful day by going out for a run or bike ride. It’s pretty incredible.

I also know that as soon as my mind starts getting negative, with thoughts like “I hate this” or “Ughh let this be over” I know I’m bonking and need more food or sport drink. In general my thoughts are fairly positive and I try to take in the beauty around me, whether it’s the GG Bridge, the beautiful Bay, a cute dog, a tree with changing colors, or just a new perspective. A long run or bike ride affords us these great opportunities to see new things from different angles and to come up with ideas and solutions… and almost always by accident.

Now that’s one category, the mind “wandering” category. There is of course another category which I call the “controlled” mind.

The Controlled Mind

These are the things that I consciously tell myself to motivate me and keep me going. People often call these “mantras” but I just consider it positive self-talk. My go-to routine when I start to get tired is I’ll say “Keep. Strong. Carry. On” on each step of my foot, in rhythm, and repeat it for as long as I need. I also often wear a bracelet that says “I Overcome Adversity” which was a common phrase during the last Team in Training triathlon team season. I’ve heard other people who sing to themselves (or out loud) which helps make them happy and motivated. Often on bike rides on a long descent I’ll yell out ‘wahoooooo’ to remind myself that it’s supposed to be fun! Remember when we were kids and riding our bikes was the most fun thing ever? The key is to fill your mind with positivity and you’ll be able to run or bike for a long time, at least until those hipflexors (in my case) or IT band give out! Also under this “controlled” category are things like listening to your breathing, checking your pace, checking in with your body to see if anything aches, stretching out if needed, etc.

The Social Mind

I do almost all of my long workouts with other people, so my mind is often engaged in general conversation with someone else. This can be extremely helpful to keep motivated and to keep the mind from wandering into negativity. It’s also helpful to talk out loud so you can control your speed (you don’t want to huff and puff too hard on a long run!) Although, the downside to this is that I sometimes don’t get that wonderful long-run-deep-thinking and problem solving that I mentioned above.

The Engaged Mind

On some of my runs I listen to podcasts or audiobooks that have interesting and highly engaging content, such as the Rich Roll podcast (he talks about plant based nutrition and healthy living), Radio Lab, TED Radio Hour, and a slew of NPR podcasts. This type of content keeps my mind engaged on the specific topic and makes the time go by really fast. I know a lot of people listen to music as a way to pump themselves up and keep them happy.

So that’s how I see it. Either your thoughts wander, you can control your thoughts, you can talk out loud and socialize, or you can become immersed in content. I’d love to hear what everyone else does during their long workouts and what their preference is!

Swim. Bike. Run. Eat Plants.


I Overcome Adversity
I Overcome Adversity

2 thoughts on “The Powerful and Wandering Mind

  1. That’s a really good catalogue. I do everything you mention (except for sing) to varying degrees, with the focus shifting toward the Controlled Mind – and especially self-monitoring – as the intensity of exertion increases. One thing I’d add to the Wandering Mind is that I sometimes entertain myself with context-triggered memories: if I’m riding or running a familiar route, I’ll think back to things I experienced during previous trips; or if I’m doing a type of workout I don’t do often – like running on a treadmill – I’ll remember past times I did it and what else was going on those days; or, at a more abstract level, since hill climbing on a bike reminds me of hiking up a mountain, I’ll reminisce about past hikes. Under the Engaged Mind, maybe: when I’m doing something that I expect to be describing to others – like racing – I’ll make a point of noticing things I want to share, and structure a storyline and compose sentences in my head. Finally, one I don’t know how to categorize: sometimes, especially during long swims, I’ll think about…nothing. My mind will clear, and I’ll have only a thin, sensorimotor awareness. Maybe my brain is recharging.

  2. Chris, thanks for the great comments! I completely agree with the context-triggered memories and hadn’t thought of that one. But it happens to me all the time and in a great way! I love having the confidence to conquer a workout because I know I’ve done it before. And knowing the ins-and-outs of a certain route is very reassuring. Another one I forgot to mention is that I do a lot of math in my mind to keep it occupied — “ok if I’m on a 60 mile bike ride and I’ve ridden 25 miles, what % does that represent?” And give myself math challenges.

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