One of the questions runners are invariably asked by non-runners is: “What in the heck do you think about while running? What do you do when you’re out there all that time by yourself?”

Good questions.

Keeping your mind occupied and yet engaged while doing a solo run, much less a long run, is not easy. And yet it can be a very fruitful time.

Depending how long you are running, you simply can’t spend all your time thinking about your form, stride, arm carriage and breathing, or even your next race. A long solo run is especially challenging. Running 20 miles (or whatever) by yourself takes a long time, and if you can disassociate some of that time by thinking less about your running and more about your life, time will pass quicker.

Certainly, the best remedy to pass the time quickly is to run with a training group or several friends. But even if you are part of one of the many organized training groups in Austin, chances are you do at least some of your running by yourself.

One study of runners actually found that runners had more energy during their long runs if they focused their thoughts away from their running and more on daily concerns, the scenery, their jobs and family. These are called dissociative thoughts. Associative thoughts are when your mind is focused primarily on running.

During a race, your mind should work differently than on a training run. Competitive races usually require the runner to do plenty of associative thinking about the demands of the race, strategy, conditions, terrain and pacing. The longer the race, the harder this is. In a marathon, most runners spend time fluctuating between dissociating (thinking about things other than the race) and associative (thinking about the next aid station, picking up the pace, running up and down the hills, etc).

The trick is to keep your head in the race by thinking ahead to what needs to be done and monitoring how you feel, without becoming too overwhelmed by these thoughts.

But on a solo training run, the best advice is to only spend a small portion of your run actually thinking about your running. The rest of the time dissociate away. Let your mind drift and wander, settling on a vexing problem, a good movie, a memorable day at the lake or a pleasant period in your life.

Solo running can be a joy. It can be valuable alone time, just you and the road.

Here are some good topics to pass the time on your next solo run while keeping your mind engaged:

  • Childhood memories, including important incidents that you may not have thought about in years. Examine each one in detail.
  • Selecting a particular year of your life and re-examining it month-by-month in as much detail as possible.
  • Your next marathon. And how you’ll feel at various points of the race. With a mile to go on your training run, imagine how you’ll feel in the final mile of your next marathon.
  • Former relationships. What went right and what went wrong. Remember the good and not-so-good times.
  • Films. Make a list of your 10 favorites and see if you can remember the names of all the stars. Or, examine in great detail a particular actor’s films.
  • Music. My favorite. I make lists of the best and worst bands I have seen. Or favorite recordings.
  • Great races you’ve run. What went into each race? Try to figure out why you ran so well. (Forget the bad ones.)
  • Work-related issues. You’d be amazed how easy it is to solve difficult problems while out on a run. Often, a solution will just pop up.
  • Your next vacation. Where to go, what to see, where to stay.
    What you’re going to eat and drink when you get home.