How Gratitude Can Make You a Better Runner (and Human!)

Two women smiling at each other before a race

The running world is full to bursting with obsessively researched workouts to lower your times, nutrition tips to fuel your body, and recovery methods to help you do it all again tomorrow. In fact, the process of developing faster, stronger athletes has become so exact that training often resembles a science.

Runners can use VO2 Max and training paces to predict race times to the nearest tenth of a second. Shoes are engineered to propel the body forward as efficiently as possible. Nearly every step you take can be carefully calculated to achieve the optimum end result. So why not prioritize and practice mental health training with the same vigor?

Truthfully, the role of the mind in race performance is anything but straightforward. Every season, some of the most talented and dedicated athletes step up to the start line after months of perfect training, only to come up short.

Mentality plays such a crucial role in the ability to compete and perform, but training the mind to assist instead of sabotage is a daunting task. It’s too much to expect that the average runner has the time, funds, or even desire to work with a sports psychologist or mental coach. Luckily, there is a simple process to start exercising the mind to improve your training, and it begins with being grateful.

Gratitude as a personal practice

Gratitude is often reduced to a feeling, as opposed to a practice. There are benefits to feeling thankful, but when gratitude is implemented as a practice it actually has the power to create positive physical change.

A 2010 study conducted by UC Davis found that practicing purposeful gratitude has been shown to trigger a 28 percent reduction in perceived stress, 23 percent lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, 7 percent reduction in inflammation bio-markers, 25 percent reduction in dietary fat intake and 16 percent lower diastolic blood pressure in comparison with not practicing gratitude.

Think about that for a second. All of these physical factors that have the power to boost athletic performance are significantly improved by simply practicing gratitude. In short, gratitude can have the power to boost training and performance.

The key to using gratitude to improve your training is to write it down. Keeping a training log is a common practice among runners, and the concept of a gratitude journal is largely the same.

Tracking the things that make us feel grateful allows the mind to create a cycle of positive thinking. Having the ability to look back over what creates feelings of thankfulness is not only a good way to reinforce positive habits, it is crucial to using gratitude as a tool to improve training.

Start by keeping a weekly journal of the events and actions that make you feel grateful. Log everything running-related, but also take time to log the little life moments that bring gratitude. Not only will this help foster a more positive mindset, but the process of logging gratitude can help spark progress toward goal achievement.

In the same study by UC Davis, participants who kept gratitude journals over a period of 10 weeks showed significantly more progress towards short-term, performance-based goals in comparison to their counterparts who did not log gratefulness.

For runners, rough training days are inevitable and keeping a positive outlook on progress is not always easy. Having a gratitude journal to remind yourself of the reasons you are grateful for running will make it easier to get back into a positive headspace.

The benefits of sharing gratitude with others

Another tool to put gratitude into practice is, believe it or not, the thank you letter. The relationships we keep have a huge impact on our feelings of happiness and wellbeing, which all contribute to our ability to perform physically.

Leading gratitude researcher, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman of The University of Pennsylvania, has shown that writing a letter of gratitude to people in our lives who have not yet been properly thanked for their kindness causes a significant uptick in our feelings of happiness.

Using letter writing, in combination with journaling, is a simple yet effective way to harness the power of gratitude and improve our day-to-day training.

Fleet Feet recently interviewed Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. During a discussion about loneliness during the time of COVID, Dr. Holt-Lunstad explained how fostering the positive relationships in our lives is crucial to maintaining mental health.

“Expressing gratitude [to others] will elicit a more positive response in return,” says Holt-Lunstad. “It creates an upward spiral instead of a downward spiral and can reduce loneliness.”

Essentially, letting the people in our lives know that we are grateful for them not only brings happiness, but it strengthens relationships and helps us break cycles of negative thinking.

Running is what brings us joy. It is an escape at the end of the day, a challenge to constantly pursue, a reward for pushing our limits. How amazing is it that we can help ourselves become better athletes by thanking the people who help us run?

Try making a list of the people who have helped you along your running journey. Think about the first coaches you had, the friend who dragged you out the door for your first jog, the partner who took care of dinner so you could squeeze your miles in. Next time you log your gratitude, write a letter to someone who has made your running possible. Thank them for their impact, no matter how small it may seem.

Training during the time of COVID is trying, to say the least. Finding the motivation to excel in every workout while racing is a daunting task. Instead of upping miles and pushing paces, this is the perfect time to improve as an athlete by strengthening your mental game.

Kick off the Thankful Season by making purposeful gratitude a key part of training. Running or not, gratitude is a tool that has the power to improve all different aspects of day-to-day life.

Take some time, write it down, thank the people around you and let gratitude guide you along the journey to becoming the runner you want to be.