by Louis Cinquino
Most of us can rattle off our Personal Records (PRs) at the common race distances as easily as we can recite our kids’ ages. I know I’ve broken 50 minutes in the 10K, beat four hours in the marathon, and was just under five minutes (age-graded) in the Fifth Avenue Mile.
But are those really the only PRs that matter? If so, that would mean that races are everything—that our training runs are only valuable as a means to lower the PR at our next race.
To me, that way of thinking drastically undervalues the hours we spend running. Life isn’t like that. Yes, we need to spend time preparing for our big moments. However, that time is more than just hours to get us ready for something else. As a WholeRunner, every minute matters, not just when someone is holding a clock to our heads.
You see, every minute, we have the choice of what to do and also how we want to be when we are doing it. Running the Whole Way is not only about choosing to run—it’s about choosing how to run.
How you run is mostly determined not by how fast you run, but by how you think. What’s more, how you think when you run is probably how you think in life in general. In this way, your run is the ideal laboratory to notice where your head is really at.
Whether you’re running alone and letting your mind wander, or running with others and steering conversation toward one topic or another, where do you find your mind going? That time—the space for unstructured, open thought or friendly banter with running partners—is a great benefit of running. Yet it can also be fertile ground for you to ruminate, replay frustrating thoughts, or dwell on drama that leaves you mentally exhausted instead of refreshed.
Feeding the Wolf
There’s an oft-told folk tale that illustrates what that choice can mean in your life:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside of people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that dwell within each of us. One is evil. It is Anger, Envy, Jealousy, Sorrow, Regret, Greed, Arrogance, Self-Pity, Guilt, Resentment, Inferiority, Lies, False Pride, Superiority and Ego. The other is good. It is Joy, Peace, Love, Hope, Serenity, Humility, Kindness, Benevolence, Empathy, Generosity, Truth, Compassion and Faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Which wolf are you feeding when you run? Do you even realize which one it is? Are you consciously choosing it, or is it just happening mindlessly?
We think about our PRs because we look for them, we talk about them, we remember them, and, if we ever forget, they are posted online for the world to see. We feed them.
How Did You Do?
Think about this: When someone asks, “How did you do?” after a race, how do you answer? If you are like me, most of the time your answer usually goes something like this: “Oh pretty good. I ran a (fill in your time here).”
Don’t get me wrong, I love a PR as much as anyone. I wrote an entire memoir about my goal of trying to break five minutes in the mile. Yet I think there is another answer to the question “How did you do?” in a race, or “How was your run?”
The answer revolves around the idea of what I call the PRR: the Positive Running Ratio. The PRR isn’t the measure of how fast you run, it’s a measure of how happily you run.
The Positive Running Ratio
Your PRR is the ratio of positive thoughts to negative thoughts that you have when you run.
Positive thoughts could be appreciating the physical gifts that allow you to run, like your health, nutrition, and strength; the nature that surrounds you; the people you are running with; or those who have helped you in your running or your life.
Negative thoughts might be worries, anger, controversy, deadlines, or resentments that hound you, or some kind of nagging imperfection that you are facing on your run—it’s a little too cold, or you are feeling a little sluggish, or you’re beating yourself up for missing a few days of running or not having time to go out farther today. Frowny-face stuff.
This ratio—between what generates heartfelt positive emotions and what brings us down or numbs us to appreciating our life—is what Barbara Frederickson calls the positivity ratio. Simply put, this ratio can set our perception of happiness.
Experiencing our positive emotions builds immunity that can prevent painful emotions from recurring and help transform them as they arrive. By increasing the ratio of positive emotions we feel vs. negative emotions, we can bring ourselves from doing “just okay” into high performance and the perception of a persistent, endemic happiness that surrounds our life.
Your New Running Goal: 3 to 1
Whether your running time goal is trying to break 30 minutes in a 5K, like my friends in the Sub30 running club, or trying to train the first human to break two hours in the marathon like Eliud Kipchoge, I am going to suggest a new running goal for you.
Evidence suggests that at a ratio of around 3:1 of positive to negative, our perception of our well-being starts to tip toward “flourishing,” a state in which we are in the groove of life and feeling good about ourselves, our relationships, and meaningful purpose in our lives.
So consider that your new running goal. Every time you go out, shoot for at least three positive thoughts to every one unpleasant thought that sneaks into your run.
Use your time running to remember what is working well in your life, the people you appreciate, the physical joys you are experiencing, the exhilaration and deepness of your breathing, and the sights and sounds around you. Let yourself feel the positive emotions associated with these thoughts; don’t just rattle them off like it’s a to-do list.
Keep a rough count of these streams of positive emotions and divide them by the times your mind wanders into thoughts that bring out anger or frustration or other emotions that you consider harmful to your well-being.
One Way to Track Your PPR
Calculating the actual number may be a little tricky if you find it as difficult as I do to do math and run at the same time. So I do something much simpler to keep my mind focused on what I like to think about (in my case, creative projects, appreciating good things in my life, awareness of nature, gratitude for my physical and mental health) and steer it away from things that bring me down (doubt, fear, self-loathing).
I often run with my house keys, which I place in my right hand. If I don’t have them with me, I pick up a small pebble or piece of trash, a stick, anything. I try to come up with a positive thought to begin the run—say a memory or gratitude about my parents or my children. Then off I go. When I find my mind wandering into ugly territory (say, a quick flashing fear that I’ve forgotten to do something), I move my keys to my left hand. I don’t try to fight off the thought or tell myself that I’m not allowed to think that. I merely acknowledge that it has happened and try to wrap up that thought so it doesn’t dominate the rest of my run. Then, when it’s passed, I consciously choose to consider something I appreciate about this run—not just listing it, but actually thinking deeply about it in a heartfelt way. Maybe it’s how much better my foot feels after the surgery that sidelined me last year.
Once I’ve done this, I transfer the keys back to my right hand and keep them there for as long as I can avoid drifting back to my demons. When I get a new positive thought, I may squeeze them a little or give them a tiny toss in the air to mark that I’m building up my positivity numerator. If I lapse into frowny territory, the keys go back to my left hand and I start over, trying to consciously feed the good wolf.
Some runs, the keys hop back and forth like hot potatoes. But when I’m at my best, the keys stay on my good side, and open up my mind and heart to making that run another solid PRR, a cherished and valuable enhancer to my positive outlook on life.
The run then becomes the catalyst for me taking this approach to the rest of my day. Every minute of every day,we have the same kinds of choices: to ruminate or forgive, to sulk or embrace joy, to lament the ugly or see the beautiful, to be blah or come alive.
This kind of Taking purposeful action to choose to remember and appreciate the good in our lives can keep our PRR running at peak levels every day.
Louis Cinquino is a writer, Certified Distance Running Coach, life coach, dad, and graduate of CiPP4 and Positive Psychology Coaching Fundamentals. His personal observations, discoveries, and training plan as he prepared for the Fifth Avenue Mile race were featured in “The Mulligan Mile,” (Runners World, September 2013). He is currently developing WholeRunner: Your Inside Track to Happiness, a project to explore and explain the positive psychology of running. You can read more from Louis on his blog, TakingMulligans.com.