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There are 7,500-plus reasons people are running Grandma’s this weekend

Why do they do it? Part of the psychological appeal of running — in addition to getting fit and forging new goals — is “a chance to think things through, or perhaps to clear the mind,” two journalists write in The Psychologist.

A scene from the 2010 Grandma's Marathon in Duluth.
MinnPost photo by Paul M. Walsh

All of the 7,500-plus people who will be participating in Grandma’s Marathon this weekend have their their own personal reasons for taking up running and, more specifically, for deciding to dedicate long and grueling hours to preparing for the marathon itself.

For many runners, the overall motivating factor behind taking up the activity is health-related — a desire to lose weight, perhaps, or just to “get in shape.” 

The decision to run a marathon, however, is often driven by a more specific reason. People may do it, for example, to mark a particular milestone, such as being cancer-free for five years or being on the brink of entering a new decade. (A team of New York University researchers found that a higher-than-statistically-expected proportion of first-time marathon runners have an age that ends in “9.”) 

Other people may enter a marathon to honor a person or a cause they care about.

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I started running in my early 30s, after my second child was born. I had a rather ordinary reason: I wanted to shed the (stubbornly) excess weight I had put on during that pregnancy. 

I never ran Grandma’s, but I did finish two Twin Cities Marathons. My motivation for those runs was also rather mundane: I ran the first one because I wanted to see if I could finish the darn thing, and I ran the second because participating in the first one was so much fun. (And, no, “9” did not appear in my age when I ran either of them.)

The evidence for why people run

I hadn’t actually given much thought, however, to my motivations for taking up and then sticking with long-distance running until I came across an article on the psychology of the sport in the May issue of The Psychologist, a monthly publication by the British Psychological Society. In it, journalists Christian Jarrett and Ella Rhodes describe the scientific evidence regarding “what running does and means at a psychological level.” 

Part of the psychological appeal of running — in addition to getting fit and forging new goals — is “a chance to think things through, or perhaps to clear the mind,” Jarrett and Rhodes write. 

Indeed, some runners claim that running helps them organize their thoughts and be more creative. 

At least one study, however, calls those particular claims into question, as the two journalists explain:

Researchers at California State University at Northridge recently took a … systematic approach to runners’ thoughts. They recruited 10 amateur long-distance runners and asked them to record their thoughts out loud with a voice recorder while they went on a run of at least seven miles. … [M]any of their thoughts were about the practicalities of pacing (‘lean and steady, make it a long stride, lean and steady’) or the pain (‘Hill, you’re a bitch … it’s long and hot – God damn it … mother eff-er’). However, this research didn’t find solid evidence for the trouble-solving or inspirational effects of running.  

Yet, as Jarrett and Rhodes also explain, there is some evidence (with caveats) that running has a “mind-clearing” effect on participants and produces a positive state of “flow” — a feeling, usually accompanied by enjoyment, of being completely immersed in the activity:

For instance, a recent study … of 11 ultra-marathon runners involved measuring their brain activity via EEG (electroencephalography) once every hour during a six-hour run, as well as their cognitive performance, mood and feelings of flow (measured through agreement with questionnaire items like ‘The way time passed seemed different from normal’).

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The run was associated with reduced activity at the front of the brain, and after the first hour, an increased feeling of flow. Note, though, that the decreased brain activation and increased sense of flow did not correlate, so they may not be directly related. Also, feelings of flow began to decrease as the run wore on, perhaps suggesting there’s a point reached in a run where the mental benefits are overwhelmed by the pain and effort required to keep going!   

Many runners also insist that going for a long run helps them cope with stress and negative emotions. At least one study supports that claim, as Jarrett and Rhodes point out:  

Emily Bernstein and Richard McNally at Harvard University asked participants about their ability to handle negative emotions and then asked half of them to jog for 30 minutes while the others rested. Afterwards the participants watched a sad clip from the film The Champ. As you might expect, participants who said they usually struggled to handle negative emotion were more intensely affected by the sad clip, but crucially this was less so if they had completed the jog. The researchers said: ‘… a bout of moderate aerobic exercise appears to have helped those participants potentially more vulnerable to problematic affective dysregulation to be less susceptible to the impact or lingering effects of the stressor.’

Pace yourself

Jarrett and Rhodes also uncovered some evidence that may make it easier for this weekend’s Grandma Marathon runners to get to the finish line. It has to do with pacing:

For years it was thought that fatigue is purely located in the muscles and that we can only go as fast as our body will let us. Increasingly, however, sports psychologists have come to realise that this is only part of the story: in fact, physical exhaustion is in some ways more of a mental state, in the sense that the sensations from our muscles are weighed up by the brain in the context of the strength of our motivation and our belief in how far we’ve got to go.

This is empowering in some ways because it means we can often overcome even the most intense bodily exhaustion. But it’s also what makes pacing so important, because if a runner misjudges their capabilities and energy levels and runs too fast early on, they can end up ‘hitting the wall’, which is runners’ slang for when your body literally runs out of fuel and it’s virtually impossible to move. Backing this up, a recent analysis of running data from the Dublin Marathon and the Chicago Marathon by Barry Smyth, of the Running With Data blog, found that runners who ran their fastest sections in the earlier stages of the race often ended up being the slowest completers overall.

So, no matter why you’re running Grandma’s this weekend, remember to keep to your training pace and listen to your body if you need to make some adjustments. 

And, above all, have fun. That’s one of the best reasons of all for running. 

FMI: You can read Jarrett and Rhodes’ article on The Psychologist’s website.