Association and Dissociation when Running

Beginners' Running Advice & Motivation
Association and Dissociation when Running

What do you think about when you run? Do you remember your stream of thought and where it went? When it comes to thinking on the run, runners tend to consciously or subconsciously adopt one of two processes:

ASSOCIATION – which, most simplistically put, means ‘tuning in’ – or DISSOCIATION – ‘tuning out’.


Focussing on the task in hand (tuning in).

There are two main types of associative thinking:

  1. Internal Association: Focussing on what the body is doing and how it is feeling, for example monitoring things like breathing pattern, foot strike, cadence, posture and any tension or muscle fatigue.
  1. External Association: Focussing on external data relating to the run. This includes things like looking for mile markers, road signs or feed stations along the route, checking watch for pace, lap time, heart rate and all the other complex measurements the most up to date gizmos can supply you with!


Letting one’s thoughts wander, consciously or subconsciously distracting oneself (tuning out).

Similarly, there are two main types of dissociative thinking when running:

  1. Internal Dissociation: Ever found yourself singing the line of a song, reciting the alphabet or items on an imaginary shopping list in your head? These are examples of internal dissociation. Meditating on a mantra or verse, setting yourself an imaginary crossword to solve, inventing a recipe you will cook when you get home or simply imagining that you are someone else doing something else somewhere else. This is internal dissociation.
  1. External Dissociation: External dissociation is slightly different. People who externally dissociate use their surroundings as a distraction, for example admiring the beauty of the scenery, thinking about how cute and fluffy the bunch of ducklings were that just crossed the path ahead, planning amusing ways to get around the less cute and fluffy dog on the path ahead, even taking someone running with you and chatting away to them as you clock up the miles is an example of external dissociation.

What are you thinking?

Generally, sports psychologists tend to say that an associative thinking strategy works best for racing and competition, especially over the shorter distances:

“You'll run better if you associate," says Cathleen ConnollyPh.D., a sports psychology consultant at the University of Central Florida. "When you're associating, you're focusing on task-relevant things. When you're in tune with your body, you tend to run with better form, have better arm swing, maintain pace – things that can allow you to run stronger.”

–Runner's World, August 2007

Doing a tempo run of five to ten kilometres and really concentrating on your stride, breathing, cadence and split times without letting your mind wander is often a tougher mental challenge than one might think and something that needs to be practised mentally as well as physically, but can yield faster times.

“In long distance events, the importance of your mental state in determining the outcome of a race can’t be overestimated.”

– Paula Radcliffe

Personally, for longer distances I tend to employ both strategies. I find that my mind naturally drifts back and forth between the two. At those points along the way when running gets tough and uncomfortable and I can feel my body tensing up, I tend to be less relaxed, which can have a big impact on my performance. Using dissociative thinking strategies to focus on outside stimuli can combat that tension, kind of putting one’s mind somewhere else creating a temporary distraction from discomfort. It is, however, good to associate periodically – checking back in with yourself to monitor your form and how you are feeling in order to keep focussed on your goals.

When running a long or challenging distance it is important to keep the mind strong and positive. When the mind gives up on the task in hand the body often feels overwhelmed and follows suit. The mind, therefore, needs to be safeguarded – just because you feel on top of the world at the start line doesn’t mean there won’t be mental dips to battle with later on in the run. Incorporating a thinking strategy that keeps the mind positive and empowered and the body relaxed will get you there.

A cheerful mind
Has always been a perfect guide
To a healthy body.

– Sri Chinmoy
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