Listening to the Body: Neuroscience and the Art of Training

If you want to frustrate a new runner and come off as an elitist prick on message boards, there is a quick and easy path. Tell them to listen to their body. Long time runners are always offering this little nugget of wisdom, and new runners are always saying: what the heck does that mean!

I think that neuroscience can help explain.

Neuroscientists have confirmed what we have long known -- that there is an important difference between hearing and listening. In this nice little piece by Seth Horowitz, a Brown University neuroscientist, we learn that the auditory sense is quantitatively almost 10 times faster than the visual sense. In other words, our reactions to what we hear are less processed and more instinctive than our reactions to what we see. Horowitz describes the auditory sense as the human "alarm system" that operates constantly, even while asleep.

To balance that constant guardedness, we have something like "volume control" -- a way of turning up important sounds and diminishing less important sounds. This volume control is the attention. The philosopher/psychologist William James described it in the Principles of Psychology in the following way: "Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought...It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state."

The difference between hearing and listening is, of course, the quality of attention. Horowitz distinguishes between the startle, which is attention in its most attenuated, alarm-sounding, and reactive form and what he calls "stimulus directed attention." While the startle form of attending involves relatively little brain function and has been observed in every animal that has a spine, stimulus directed attention is much more complex and works through "temporoparietal and inferior frontal cortex regions, mostly in the right hemisphere." According to Horowitz, these are areas of the brain that are outwardly concerned; i.e. they are less interested in protecting the organism from danger and more interested in observing and understanding the stimulus received from the outside world. This is the sense in which they are "stimulus directed."

While hearing perhaps originated as a sort of alarm system, in the human brain it can be hooked up into a much more complex, outward oriented, and stimulus directed form of attention. When this happens, we say we are listening, rather than hearing.

Horowitz does a nice job of linking the neuroscience up with social concerns, particularly our interactions with media and with each other. It seems pretty clear that part of our political divisiveness has to do with the way our forms of attention are activated through media.

But I want to turn to running as another realm in which this distinction is important -- and as a realm in which the more complex modes of attention can be developed and trained. Experienced runners, to the chagrin and confusion of new runners, often speak of learning to listen to the body as a key, if not the key to proper training. I think that this Horowitz piece helps to articulate what exactly is meant here.

The art of listening to your body is really an art of developing more complex attention. When we start off in a sport or a new endeavor, we encounter all sorts of new "noises" in our environment, and the most natural reaction to these new stimuli is to be startled by them. The normal feelings of running -- because of their unfamiliarity -- get processed by the reptilian brain as startling, and they generate a fight or flight response. The "flight response" is usually the one activated in runners for obvious reasons, and so the new runner has a tendency to get out there and run to exhaustion on every single run.

But these runs are not the relaxed and confident runs of the well-trained experienced runner. They are painful and somewhat panicked. So, the new runner goes to the message boards and learns that they must slow down and run easy. This works for a time because it diminishes the sensations of running to the level that they can be processed and learned and hooked up to more complex modes of attention.

Once this has been accomplished, and the runner learns how to approach running in a relaxed way, new stimuli need to be introduced gradually and deliberately. This is where having a coach can be really helpful, as he or she can help the athlete distinguish between different modalities of effort and develop the organ of attention. And, in my opinion, this is where overuse or improper use of technologies like heart rate monitors or Garmin pace alerts can impede the development of attention -- in precisely the ways that new forms of media can inhibit the development of the sort of listening that leads to good communication.

I truly believe that in addition of course to genetic differences in talent, the ability to pay attention to one's effort while running in this richer and more complex sense of "listening" is what separates the best runners from the rest. Runners like to talk about pain tolerance and toughness as what makes a race effort full and complete, but the best way to tolerate pain is to understand it as a type of sensation that includes information. This is different from the traditional question of whether we should associate with the pain or disassociate from it to achieve a state of mental toughness.

True mental toughness is less rigid and inflexible than we often imagine it to be. It looks more like the complex attention that Horowitz describes. It looks like calm alertness in the face of the sensations of effort. That's what is meant by "listening to the body."


  1. As an intermediate runner who is working with my first coach ever, I can attest that this learning is a slow but worthwhile process. At first, learning to run slow enough on the easy runs was the hard part--it felt embarrassingly slow, and dull too. But it paid off. Now, I'm struggling with running fast enough on the harder-effort runs. I do not think of myself as a fast runner (even relative to myself!). Part of hiring a coach is finding someone to teach you to trust yourself.

  2. Absolutely. I'm a big believer in coaching. I think one tremendous benefit of coaching is that it cuts down the background noise to one single and competent voice. When I am constructing my own training, the most difficult thing is all those conflicting voices in my own head. It is hard to develop self-trust when you are parsing all of these conflicting ideas -- even if they are all reasonably intelligent!

  3. I didn't run with anything but a wrist watch for the first few years, in fact it wasn't until after I did my second marathon that I got GPS. I feel it helped me to understand how to run easy well (no GPS). I learned that to go far, you just go slow enough that you can get there, then you can do the same thing to get back. Having a garmin has helped me better tune some aspects though, like intervals, since i don't have a track within reasonable training distance.
    Listening to the body is good, but how do you teach it? As a coach, how do you relate pain tolerances to another runner, especially when you can't be there to observe first hand the level of gasping and wheezing?

    1. I've owned a Garmin twice -- won one in a race, and bought one. Neither time did I enjoy the experience of pace feedback, so I gave them both away. I thought it would be good for tempos, but I usually would get in my own head when getting feedback.

      They really are nice for running intervals on the road, especially if you are targeting a certain time. The other day, I ran a tempo on a bike path that had mile markers so I could get my splits. A Garmin would have been useful.

      I guess I'm not anti-Garmin; I'm just for thoughtful use.

      How do you teach listening to the body? How do you teach paying attention? I think that you teach it as a coach by paying attention to your runners. You listen to them, and you sorta interpret them. Then, after a while, they learn to interpret themselves.

      I almost never tell a runner that they could hurt more or need to learn to tolerate more pain. The only thing I really kinda try to help them with is sorting out the difference between the pain they imagine that is coming and the pain they are actually feeling. It's the imagined pain that is the intolerable sort.

    2. Thanks for your thoughts here. Communicating in coaching is key, so is trust. Both are arts that require a little vulnerability and a lot of practice.

  4. I am pleased sure this post has helped me save many hours of browsing other similar posts just to find what I was looking for. These difficulties are likely to be magnified during the formative school years whereby the student can find it hard to keep with the pace.

  5. I had read and enjoyed the article already from a musician's standpoint, but you really recontextualized it in a very meaningful way. I can tell that this is going to be in the back of my head during runs for a while, almost like someone had meant for me to learn from it. A coach, or something.

  6. Thank you for a new context for this - something I should have thought of since I've been running for 35 years. One issue I've run into is that most people do not realize that a lot of the important signals from your body actually come from the "other half" of your inner ear, the vestibular system. This system technically only measures acceleration of your head, but it is also critical in gauging position, velocity, kinematic efficiency as well as emotional response to movement. What is ironic about the vestibular system is that it is so deeply enmeshed in every other system of the body that it is usually left out of the list of senses (it's the sixth sense and has nothing to do with ESP) and was not even understood as a separate sense until about 100 years ago. It's hard to listen to your vestibular sense because it is almost exclusively unconscious unless something goes horribly wrong and you end up on the ground with the room spinning. yet some athletic and performance training (dance, acrobatics, yoga and running) provide important tools for learning how to
    calibrate it.

    Thanks for the post and the citation.

    Seth Horowitz

  7. You definitely come with exceptional posts.


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