Running Math

December 18, 2011

Running does crazy things to your mind. Or is it just that every runner is generally a little messed up in the head from the beginning? Let us assume the former and shelve the latter for another discussion. When runs get long, painful, or just plain boring, it is easy to convince yourself out of finishing a pre-planned distance. I will often try some simple “running math” to easily transform a bonk into a successful run. It probably will not work for everyone every time (it does not for me either), but maybe it will pop into your head during a run and inspire you.

Running Math

Running math up on the chalk board

Since I do a good amount of out and back runs—head out to a point, turn around and come back—there is one thing I keep in mind to help push myself further. My golden rule of running math: If you take one extra step, you are doubling your total distance.

Stop to think and it is quite obvious. If you run one mile out you have to run another to get back, pretty simple. Though who actually thinks like that during a run? But remembering this weird little mental trick may help you go farther. Running is often about figuring out how to will your body to greater lengths. Whether you are training for a marathon or brand new to the sport, being able to engage your internal psychological firepower will always help you achieve those personal goals.

This weekend, I went for a long run that was supposed to be 14 miles. All I planned was to head out on a local trail and turn around when it felt like the right time. Not knowing where that 7-mile turnaround point should be was liberating as it would force me to listen to my body while testing my mental toughness to not turn around too early. If I mapped my run afterwards only to discover that I ran shorter than the intended distance, I surely would have been disappointed. Once I approached the point where my legs wanted me to turn back, I kept focusing on landmarks in the distance to push towards before returning. I was (perhaps recklessly) not thinking about the fact that I would have to come back that extra distance. I kept thinking that if I ran an extra 800 meters to that tree up ahead, then it would, in effect, increase my run a full mile.

When I finally finished calculating the run, it turned out not to be the 14 miles I had hoped. The final distance was actually 15 miles! So I felt great and pushed myself a little bit farther in the process. My quirky head games aside, it is physically just a lot easier to add on that extra distance in the middle of a run instead of at the end. Had I arrived home after 14 miles, there would have been much less likelihood of tacking on another mile at that point. But I do think we all need some head games to force our bodies into taking those extra steps at various times during runs.

What are some of your mental tricks, fuzzy math-related or otherwise? Use the comments to discuss!



  1. I do that!!! Also, on my “i feel like sh*t and only want to do 5 miles today” days also force myself to run the whole brooklyn bridge and across manhattan to the hudson river (which by the time i run there and back is 5 miles). However – 1) the BK bridge is a pretty large hill coming home to BK and it burns a lot more than the hill leaving brooklyn so at least I feel like I did something and 2) usually at the point where I hit the hudson greenway its so pretty I can convince myself to start running north for a while. Speaking of…I have a 5mi to do before my test tomorrow…

    • No better way to get the adrenaline pumping to study for a test than to sneak out on a run. Good luck!

      • Thanks for this information, it clarifies a major problem I have always had. I thought that if you turn around in the middle of a run, then you are rolling back the miles on your running odometer. Kind of what a crooked used car salesman does to make the mileage seem lower. Now that I have read your article I can start doing out and back runs again. Thanks.

  2. Great math tricks. I personally try to figure out what mile I’m at during a run. So if I’m doing an 8 mile run, which I do about 3 times a week, I always think to myself- is this the 2 mile mark? If yes, I’m 25% done with the run or depending on my mood, I only have 75% left. I run with a partner who always has boundless energy and I know never plays math games in his head like I do! Thanks for the website, running tips are always helpful.

  3. Do you run in miles and think metric? Doing those conversions while you run seems like a good math trick; do you start with centimeters and inches and work up to meters and miles?

    • Depends on the venue. Back in the competitive track meets days, it was always metric. But at road races now, I will take a 5K and break it down into its 3 (ish) mile pieces. Most race organizers only mark off miles anyway in that case, with the exception of longer and larger scale races. Though the distance from kilometer to kilometer is shorter, I would rather only count to three than up to five. Plus, my math skills are severely degraded while running. So any opportunity to cut down on chances to screw up my mental game plan is always welcome.

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