How to beat mid-race boredom

Illustration by Meg Hunt

You might think that as long as you’re in the middle of a race with cheering crowds and booming music, your mind will never go numb. But while racing can be exciting and inspiring, it may also sometimes feel dull and repetitive – especially in a long-distance event with more cows than spectators lining the course.

What’s going on?

Your brain desires unfamiliar experiences, which the reward centres of the brain respond to by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that brings on sensations of joy. It really doesn’t matter if you are on a treadmill or running through the streets of Paris – once the novelty of running or racing wears off, the tap for those feel-good chemicals is turned off, and you may as well be listening to a lecture on the organisational management of office cubicles.

READ: 3 mind games to get you through tough runs

How to cope

Divide and conquer: After months of training, your enthusiasm for yet another long effort may be running seriously low – even if that long run is the race itself. Breaking up the full distance into smaller, more manageable chunks helps; for instance, three 40-minute hits of exercise is easier to face than one two-hour slog.

Entertain yourself: By all means, stick on those headphones and crank up the tunes. Have a motivating playlist or podcast ready that engages your brain and takes your mind off the road. Or play a mental game, such as counting how many cows, or red cars or post boxes you see along the way. Run your race with a running buddy, even if you didn’t start the race with one. If you see someone who’s running at a similar pace, you could attempt to strike up a conversation to see if you could share a few miles.

…Or don’t! Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about boredom as a bad thing and reframe it as a valuable mental opportunity. Between smartphones, TV, the internet and countless other forms of distraction, our 21st-century brains are so used to being switched on and engaged that it’s easy to feel panicked anytime there is nothing entertaining going on. But emerging science is showing that the brain is far from quiet during those supposedly dull times. Scientists have found that a neural circuit switches on when the brain isn’t preoccupied with an external stimulus, and an elaborate electrical conversation takes place between different parts of the brain. Studies suggest that daydreaming and creativity are generated by this network. This is an ideal state for the brain to be in when it comes to solving problems. So if you can embrace boredom and let your mind wander along, you might stumble across your best ideas. Remember this the next time you’re an hour into a treadmill session.

READ: How to use running as meditation


Excerpted from The Runner’s Brain: How to Think Smarter to Run Better by Dr Je­ff Brown, with Liz Neporent (Rodale)