I’ve long been interested in the mental aspects of running — and when “How Bad Do You Want It?” first came out, I was so on board. More books have come out since — Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher both wrote on similar topics. 

Recently, I replied to a writer’s inquiry about how association and dissociation factor into my running … and I responded with a really long answer. I can’t wait to see her story (and I’ll update this post when it publishes!), but I wanted to share my full reply.

Disassociation (tuning out) and association (tuning in) are both important cognitive strategies that play different roles in my training.

In general, I’ll disassociate on easy runs. I don’t run with headphones outdoors, but this might translate to daydreaming or chatting with friends or running a familiar route so I don’t even have to think about where I’m going or hitting the trails where nature and footing provide their own distractions. Honestly — and I know people have strong opinions about this — the best way for me to disassociate and get miles in when I’m not feeling it is to watch tv on the treadmill. 

Especially when I’m in full training mode, running can be a bit of a slog some days … I might get out there and be like, “ugh okay this again,” and by dissociating I can let my legs do their thing but not actually think about it. I also pay little attention to my Garmin on these days. I might look when the mile split beeps but don’t typically adjust my pace based on that feedback. I rely more on my internal perception of effort and don’t stress about what that translates to numerically, save for the occasional check that my HR isn’t too high.

Association is the more interesting part, I think, and I would say a large part of why I tend to race well relative to my training. (Coach Matt says I’m a racer not a trainer. I also just really like racing more than I like doing speedwork, haha.) 

To race your best, I believe you need to be really in-tune with your body and how it is feeling. I practice this in workouts so that I’m ready on race day. For me, this looks like a lot of internal cueing and checking in. Does my effort feel appropriate? Does my effort align with what my watch says about my pace and HR? Those questions allow me to really hone my perception of effort so that when I’m racing, I’m not asking myself if I’m 5 seconds too fast or slow. I know exactly where that red line is and can sit on it, regardless of what my watch says. (And if you’ve ever ran a race where the GPS totally didn’t work, for instance, this skill is really key.) 

Associating also helps me keep my foot on the gas — if my mind starts to wander, I’ll find myself easing into a more comfortable pace. If I feel myself getting distracted, I will literally say to myself, “Stay in it.” That gets practiced a lot in workouts, because I do most of them solo and it’s so easy to check out mentally. In races you have other competitors that help you stay checked in. 

In what is a weird version of dissociative association, I guess, I will sometimes envision an upcoming race during workouts to help me stay focused on working hard. I’m still tuning in to my body — respiration, heart rate, cadence, pace — but I’m doing it while simultaneously picturing a race scenario. I might be doing mile repeats and thinking about catching a competitor in mile 2 of a 5k, or I might be finishing a tempo run and picturing myself finishing strong at a half marathon. The best of both worlds?

A caveat here is that I’m talking about those workouts and races where you’re digging down and pushing yourself to the limit. Even in a race situation, if you’re trying to run an easy pace and especially if you’re going to be out there for a long time, disassociate away! Even in marathons I will usually try to check out for the early miles if I can get in a groove — pace groups are great for that. They talked about this during coverage of the women’s race at the London Marathon this year with the pacers there, too. But in a marathon where I finished second in 2018, I cruised the first half and then was very focused the entire second half and really really tuned in from mile 19 on when I realized there was another woman close behind. So I definitely employ a combination in longer races. 

I firmly believe you can’t get your best performances while dissociating. I mean this from a combination both of race strategy and pacing. If you are going to a race and you want to PR and place high, I think you’ve got to be acutely aware of your body and how hard you’re working and what’s left in the tank. 

Plus, in those race situations you also need to be paying attention to your competitors. How hard are they working? Did they need longer to recover after a hill? Is their gait shifting, their arm carriage tightening up? Are they checking their watch a lot?

Hit me up in the comments — what do you do more of while you’re running? Are you like me and deploy different strategies depending on the day? Are you aware of this, or have you never thought about it until right now?