HEAD-SPACE: The Difference between Running for Exercise or Training for Performance?


Low fuel availability to our working muscles during running causes us to slow down. A lesser mentioned fuel reserve is the one we have in our brain; when our brain reserves are depleted, it can also compromise our performance. The part of your brain that has a limited fuel reserve is also the part you require to concentrate on achieving complex tasks such as solving a problem at work or training to run a personal best. The more you require concentration from the more rational part of your brain, the more you deplete its fuel stores. You may have heard this expressed as having less ‘head-space’ to concentrate. This is often why individuals who start an exercise regime fail to lose weight. They have used all of their head-space reserves to get the exercise done in the morning and go to work. In the evening, with their reserves of self-control used up for the day, they treat themselves to extra calories which keeps them in a state of balance. If work was particularly stressful that day, they may even over-indulge as depletion of head-space can come from many sources.

Low Head-Space and the Runner

Exercise is not a problem for the runner. They will most likely have a life-long exercise habit or at least have begun one. To a runner, exercise adds to their head-space reserves. A healthy body, a clear mind and the anti-dote to potential anxiety. Fitness fuels their ambition in work and life. Running for a performance goal is a different matter. Running for performance adds a layer of meaning – it is no longer about keeping fit, instead it is like solving a complex problem. In this case, running requires a high degree of self-control and is often more akin to a discipline than a sport. If the runner is depleting their head-space reserves outside of running – there is a good chance their run performance will suffer; much in the same way  a muscle does without fuel. In my experience, there are two major consequences of low head-space in the runner who has goals a) heightened pain sensitivity in response to niggles and b) a lower desire to engage in the more challenging aspects of training e.g. an 8 x 1 km session or  the effort to do an extra yoga class in the evening. While an easy run for exercise can clear the mind (increase head-space), a training session for performance fills the mind (reduces head-space).

A Practical Example

I once worked a full-time job, wrote a PhD thesis at night-time and flew to Dublin on the weekends to complete a second degree. That year was the culmination of a long and arduous academic journey, yet I still managed to exercise on a daily basis for at least an hour and other than early airport starts, slept most nights for 7 or 8 hours. The key distinction is exercise versus training. My running was a struggle that year for two reasons. Most times I ran with any purpose, my achilles was on fire afterwards. Cycling to work, working out in the gym, an easy run or swimming in the pool caused less of a problem a) because there is less demand on the achilles and b) those activities held less meaning and required less concentration than competitive running. There is strong evidence emerging in relation to the role of psychological and social/environmental factors in driving biological pain responses. Unfortunately, low head-space can lead an athlete to question whether they have fallen out of love with the sport. In many cases this is not the case and if they can find a way to replenish their head-space reserve, the love comes back.


Frequently, whilst reading sporting autobiographies it is not uncommon to hear the athlete describe a difficult injury that is accompanied by some form of other life stress at the time. The author usually doesn’t connect the two but it is not uncommon for the author to describe a bereavement, cut in funding or selection issues around the time of injury. I have been fortunate to work with some of Ireland’s most talented athletes for whom survival whilst training twice a day is a constant battle. I often wonder during times where uncertainty is highest – ‘I didn’t hit my performance target last season, I wonder will my funding be cut?’ – and injury occurs, whether it is more than just coincidence – science is beginning to suggest so.

How to Increase the Runner’s Head-space?

The first question to ask yourself about the season ahead is – do I want to train or am I happy to exercise? In the example I used above, I was generally happy to exercise as I knew what I was taking on. If the answer is train and therefore perform, you need to engage in the practice of ‘deliberate rest’. When I decided to engage in concentrated training in an attempt to run a personal best, one of the first things I decided to do was leave the office no later than 4 pm. This allowed the head-space to cook properly, unwind properly and sleep properly – all serving to refuel the head-space tank for running the next day. For some of you this may mean you start earlier to finish earlier – anything that creates space later in the day for deliberate rest will help enormously.

Remember you can run without head-space but you can’t train.