Tips on Finding Happiness in Running
Jaime Kurtz frequently counts her blessings, especially when she’s running. For example, she’s training for the Boston Marathon, and it’s her fourth time taking part in the prestigious event. Also, she runs in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains around Charlottesville, Virginia and she never fails to notice how fortunate she is to run amidst all the beauty.
Practicing gratitude is just one of the habits Kurtz has learned throughout her career (yes, it’s another thing for which she’s grateful!). The Ph.D. researcher is a professor of psychology at James Madison University, where she currently teaches a class on happiness. She also recently released an audiobook, The Psychology of Happiness.
Kurtz has long found that running and happiness intertwine, and based on the science, she’s further increased the joy in her miles and her life. “There are all these scientifically supported happiness strategies,” Kurtz says. “If you structure your runs a certain kind of way, you can really tap into a lot of them.”
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Here, Kurtz offers research-backed ways to be happier on the run and in your life. You’ll probably notice that the two—your life and your runs—are mirrors of each other.
7 Strategies for Finding More Happiness on Your Runs
1. Share the experience
Time and again, research has shown that social connections predict a person’s happiness levels. Kurtz does some of her midweek track runs alone and enjoys the solitude, which allows her to tune into her own pace and effort. However, on her long weekend runs, she connects with a friend or two, which rewards her with companionship and support.
Of course, the quality of relationships matter more than the number of your social media followers, and running together can fast-track friendships. Striding side by side allows for deeper conversations and bonds, even with people with whom you might not have much else in common. “Running gives you a common language or passion you share, a way to connect,” she says. “When you’re not staring in each other’s faces, it’s easier to be vulnerable and just let the thoughts come out.”
If you don’t already have training partners, consider checking out a local running group.
2. Get caught up in collective effervescence
“Collective effervescence” refers to the deeper joy we feel when we’re immersed in a larger event, such as a group run or race.
For example, Kurtz recalls the intense emotions she felt lining up at the Boston Marathon in 2021, when the race returned after a pandemic-induced hiatus. “It was so powerful, just being in that crowd again, hearing the cheering and seeing everyone pushing themselves,” Kurtz says. “You can feel that in smaller events, too. You’re all sharing this same experience together, even if you don’t know each other, and it makes it so much more exciting and meaningful.”
3. Give back
Though bad behavior makes headlines, humans as a whole are generous creatures, hard-wired to help others. Even planning to commit acts of kindness in the future lights up feel-good brain pathways, according to a study in Nature Communications.
Adding a charitable component to your running routine can make it even more satisfying. Volunteer at a race you’re not running, crew for a friend attempting an ultramarathon, or mentor a newer runner, Kurtz suggests.
Two students in Kurtz’s happiness class are training for half marathons, including a first-timer who often pops by Kurtz’s office before class to ask for advice. As Kurtz decodes runner lingo, such as explaining that gels are “this packet of goo that you squeeze in your mouth,” she finds herself reflecting with appreciation on all she’s learned through years of racing. Offering training tips and helping younger runners is Kurtz’s way of giving back to the community that has given so much to her.
4. Be thankful
Gratitude is another evidence-based strategy for improving mental health. Reminding yourself of the good in your life can improve your mood now and nurture hope for the future.
Kurtz recommends using solo runs as a time to make a mental gratitude list of everything you like, even the small things, such as your new shoes, or the big things, including the nature around you and the ability to run at all. On runs with your buddies? Reflect together on the good things in both of your lives, inside and outside of running.
Kurtz has found this especially important as she progresses through the years as a masters athlete. “It’s easy to get down on yourself because you’re not as fast as you once were,” she says. Talking to or thinking about friends who can’t run at all flips her mindset, helping her appreciate her ongoing strength and endurance. “If we can have that mindset of gratitude, it can absolutely remind us of how lucky we really are,” she adds.
5. Set (the right kind of) goals
While any type of consistent physical activity is linked to improved mood, you can enhance the effect by pushing just beyond your limits and accomplishing something you didn’t believe you could. “Research shows goal pursuit, even though it’s hard, is tied to both meaning and happiness,” Kurtz says.
The types of goals you set also matter, Kurtz says. Outcome goals—a specific time or placement in a race, for example—can feel motivating at first, but become disappointing and defeating if you fall short. A recent meta-analysis in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology suggests it’s best to pair or even replace outcome goals with process goals, which focus on the steps you take every day in pursuit of dreams.
Think of the lift you get when you set out, and then successfully complete, an early-morning workout. “By 8 a.m., you’ve already achieved a goal—that gives you purpose and structure to your time,” Kurtz says.
6. Leave the headphones behind
Do at least some of your outdoor runs tech-free, Kurtz recommends, and tune in instead to the atmosphere around you.
Of course, it helps when you can regularly run somewhere gorgeous, like Kurtz does. Regardless of where you stride, pay attention to small details—the swell of a hill, the paint chipping off your neighbor’s mailbox, the sound of your foot striking the dirt—to promote mindfulness. The ability to stay in the present moment is linked to happiness, as well as improved mental health.
If you use your phone for music, press pause when you notice something meaningful and snap a photo, something Kurtz does regularly. Savoring the natural world in this way can enhance feelings of awe, a positive emotion linked to happiness, joy, and contentment.
7. Tap into time scarcity
While it may seem counterintuitive, Kurtz’s research has found evidence that reminding yourself that all good things must end can actually increase your happiness. “When we have a ton of something, be it time or food or money, we take it for granted—it’s not special,” she says. When we perceive that a resource—such as time—is scarce, we value it more.
That old saying, “the days are long, but the years are short” is a good reminder that our sense of time is just a perception or a way of seeing our lives. We benefit from appreciating the days so that we aren’t surprised that the years have flown by us.
So, whether you’re on a training run with friends or running down the last stretch of Boylston Street at the Boston Marathon, take a moment to remind yourself that your joyful running may not last forever. Eventually, you’ll reach the finish line at the end of the race. Practice gratitude for each moment and you’ll find happiness will linger long afterward.
Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013. She’s the coauthor of both Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart and Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, a book about the psychology of sports injury from Bloomsbury Sport. Cindy specializes in covering injury prevention and recovery, everyday athletes accomplishing extraordinary things, and the active community in her beloved Chicago, where winter forges deep bonds between those brave enough to train through it.