I have a love-hate relationship with running. I love how healthy and rewarded I feel afterward. But while I’m doing it, I hate every second.
But a psychological trick called “cognitive reappraisal” could be used to make running more enjoyable, according to a new study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion and detailed in the British Psychological Society’s Reader’s Digest.
Cognitive reappraisal is a way of framing your mind to adopt a detached attitude toward the activity, like a journalist who is reporting on it. The technique is commonly used in therapy, where a patient is given exercises to help them recognise negative emotions and to ultimately turn these into positive responses.
A research team from the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts recruited 24 healthy runners aged 18 to 33 to take part in the experiment, all of whom ran more than more than one run a week that was over nine miles
They all performed three vigorous running tasks of 90 minutes, staying at 75 to 85% of their maximum exertion for the duration.
During the first run, they weren’t given any specific instructions to follow. On the second and third they were told to either distract themselves by thinking of something else, or using the cognitive reappraisal method, where they would try and look at themselves subjectively — as if they were reporting on the exercise as a journalist, or studying the experience as a scientist.
So in this study, instead of thinking “I’m tired,” “my legs hurt,” or “I can’t keep running anymore,” the participants could re-frame their thoughts to think things like: “I’m exercising, I may as well enjoy it” or “if I slow my pace down, I may feel less tired.”
The runners were given reminders throughout the workout to ensure they kept re-framing their minds in this way.
When they tried the distraction method, they reported no difference between that and the control run where they didn’t use any psychological technique. Those who adopted the cognitive reappraisal strategy coped better with the vigorous exercise. They felt they exerted themselves less, and didn’t experience as much of an emotional reaction.
However, there are limitations to the study. For example, it isn’t certain whether the runners really practiced cognitive reappraisal properly. Also, as experienced runners, they may have found the experiments more enjoyable than other people. Less athletic participants may not experience the same effects of psychological tricks.
But the researchers are interested in exploring the idea, particularly if using certain methods can help regulate negative emotions while running.