The Experience of Running

As you approach the last few meters of your training run you look at your watch and feel for the stop button. You stop running and press at the same time. Hands on your knees you gasp for breath. Straightening up you place both hands on your head. “That’s the best way,” you’ve been told to get more air into your lungs. Pacing in small circles you look at your watch. Not a bad time but you probably went to fast or too slow at certain points. Familiar?


“Before I run, I am a Cartesian.   The body is simply a machine. I must improve my body so that I can fulfil my real purpose, which is to think. It isn’t until I get on the roads that I know again, as I have known for fifteen years, that I am my body and I am my soul, and I exist as a totality.” Dr. George Sheehan, Running and Being: The Total Experience.


Sheehan’s philosophical quote about being a Cartesian “Before I run” may not make sense. But he’s right. Unfortunately, many runners are Cartesians after they run. And continue to be Cartesians in all aspects of their athletic life. Let me explain.

Runner as a Machine

Believe it or not you are thinking in a certain system. I always tell my students, “I know how you’re thinking but I don’t know what you’re thinking.” Our way of thinking is heavily influenced from the 17th century. In particular from a French soldier named René Descartes (1596 – 1650). His name was in two parts Des Cartes hence the word Cartesian from the second part. Descartes split mind from body, separated people from the world, made us dead machines, and developed mathematics (numbers and time) as the route to knowledge. In particular he made personal experience something that should not be trusted. This is why today personal experience is seen as subjective while numbers and time as objective. One reason why see our running times and the distance as more real than personal experience is due to quantity rather than quality.

Today athletics and sports medicine are dominated by machine metaphors. We talk of food as fuel, calorific numbers, biomechanics and techniques of running. We run on machines as the human machine running on a machine. Even sports psychology is based on cause and effect; rooted in mind and body separation and the machine metaphor. Sports psychology is Cartesian and is known as the system of Infinite Regress. This is where new models and techniques are developed and then more new models and techniques are developed and then more new models and techniques are developed etc, etc, etc… ad infinitum. All this separates us from our immediate experience of the world.

Personal Experience

“Doing what Goethe said was the hardest thing of all, seeing with my own eyes that which is spread before me. Bringing to that running, that play, the attitude of the child, the perception of a poet. Being a beginner with a beginner’s mind, a beginner’s heart, a beginner’s body.” Dr. George Sheehan, Running and Being: The Total Experience.


Is there a polarity to the Cartesian? Yes, and his name is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), above. Goethe championed a science (a way of knowing) of personal experience rather than numbers and quantity. He influenced William James (1842 – 1910), the American philosopher and psychologist, and James influenced the great runner George Sheehan (1918 – 1993).

Experience is a dynamic activity with the world. In the dynamic world we talk of “withness” thinking rather than “aboutness” thinking. We run with the world not about the world. Running is a form of gesture. Your experience with the world is intensified as you run (greater gesture); there is no mind and body just you. Experience is continuous. What we can do is deepen our experience within the world while running; making it personal rather than purely numerical. Goethe had a method for this.

The Method: Catching yourself in the Act

According to Goethe whenever when you become aware of something the experience is over. So, you must not be mindful or place your attention directly to any aspect of your experience. You have to experience running “out of the corner of your eye.” You have to feel your run by allowing the world in, becoming as deeply internally flexible and dynamic as the world you are with. Relax as much as you can. With every breath you are in a dynamic movement – you as the world and the world as you.

Deepening your experience actively accelerates physiological changes. Normally we are passive to the experience of running. We gain experience passively as a side effect of regular training. What you will achieve is an accelerated deepening experience.

We mistake the run as the ran, the final time and the distance. It’s not what you ran but the how you run. This is the experience of running.

Hope this helps.

Happy running!

Disclaimer: There is no substitute for a qualified and experienced coach and health care professional. Asking on social media, your mates, and your mum or dad (unless they are health care professionals) only leads to confusion.