How I run to think
I do my best thinking during what I call, thinking runs. This is any kind of running that’s completely free from strain and pain, and where my feet meet the ground at 180 steps per minute.
By letting my body slip into this familiar rhythm, my mind picks up anchor and begins to sail into a sea of thought, exploring an archipelago of ideas, emotions, and memories. Some people achieve this same mental state by walking or knitting, but for me, it’s running.
Like picking up random puzzle pieces to test for a fit, my mind naturally begins to explore potential connections between the fragments of ideas that have crossed my field of attention. The feeling of two seemingly unrelated thoughts snapping together into a cohesive insight is thrilling.
For instance, on a recent thinking run, I realized how the concept of taking things one day at a time naturally integrates with another notion I’ve been kicking around: how compound growth within the accounts of life requires consistent and frequent deposits. These two ideas floated to the surface of my consciousness and danced with one another in exciting ways that led to another post about the power of making deposits over time. These kinds of mini epiphanies happen so often that I now budget time at the end of a run to capture them before they evaporate.
A thinking run is a great time to process and unpack my feelings about recent experiences. A fight with my wife gets wheeled out under the searing light of my attention, like a cadaver undergoing an autopsy, and I begin to review all the ways I was right, then inevitably, all the ways I was wrong. In this safe and quiet space, I can get clear on precisely where my partner and I are not seeing eye to eye, and what can be done about it. I often finish a thinking run with more than I had going in.
If I’m feeling anxious and am tired of thinking stressful thoughts, I’ll turn to a thinking run to practice clearing my mind. I exclusively focus on the regularity of my breath and charging rhythm of my legs. Like a comet ricocheting off the atmosphere, I acknowledge and dismiss incoming thoughts. The resulting mental tranquility, combined with the natural release of serotonin and dopamine, make for a potent salve that’s always available and within reach.
That same safe mental space also serves as a theater of the mind where I can dream and visualize success in the various pursuits I’m undertaking. Replaying a mental movie, starring me achieving my biggest goals, is at once indulgent and utterly embarrassing. I would never share these vignettes with anyone. But I love them, and secretly look forward to “playing my greatest hits” when I slip on my running shoes.
In order for my mind to explore ideas, process memories and emotions, or go completely blank, I absolutely cannot be thinking about running itself. This is why any degree of pain or strain can’t be in the picture. The running I’m doing must fade into the background and allow my mind to float to other places. More often than not, a thinking run is a slow and patient run. Fretting about heart rate, split pace, distance covered, and any other noise runners typically obsess about is expressly verboten.
Fixing my running cadence at 180 steps per minute is how I distinguish a run from a walk. I listen to music set to 180 beats per minute and coordinate foot falls to coincide with the beat. Freezing this variable further simplifies running to nothing more than modulating stride length. If I begin to detect that I'm straining from running too fast or climbing a hill, I shorten my stride. If I hit a stop light, I’ll run in place to not break the rhythm. That’s all there is to it.
The point of a thinking run is to benefit from the mental richness that it reliably produces. The quality of thought, satisfaction, and general wellbeing I experience keep me coming back for more. With pain and strain absent and complexity dialed down to near zero, this form of running is as inviting and it is easy to repeat. Whether you have something on your mind, or are just trying to clear it, give thinking runs a try.