Running With Emotional Intelligence

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In this podcast episode we will share how you can use emotional intelligence (EQ) strategies to harness the power of your emotions during marathon training.

Learn how delayed gratification helps you succeed as a long distance runner.

When negative emotions flood in, the practice of “emotion spotting” can help your rational brain take over!

Running With Emotional Intelligence

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Emotional Intelligence (EQ) was introduced in 1995 to the reading public by psychologist Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book Emotional Intelligence.(1)

That same year Time Magazine ran a cover story in its October 2nd edition called, “What’s Your EQ?” The lead sentence read, “New brain research suggests that emotions, not IQ, may be the true measure of human intelligence.”(2)

The article tells of the famous marshmallow test where preschoolers were told they could have one marshmallow now or two later. The adult leaves the room and the child is left to battle his desire to take the marshmallow on the table.

Some children succumbed and gobbled the lone marshmallow. Others endured the excruciatingly long (for a preschooler) fifteen minutes and were rewarded with two marshmallows when the adult returned.

Researchers followed these children over a period of years and found that those who delayed gratification grew up to be better adjusted, more popular, adventurous and content. They scored 210 points higher on average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

“It seems that the ability to delay gratification is a master skill, a triumph of the reasoning brain over the impulsive one. It is a sign, in short, of emotional intelligence. And it doesn’t show up on an IQ test.” (3)

EQ and Running

Endurance athletes know what it is like to commit to a path of delayed gratification. It can take six months to build a solid running base, then another four months to train for a marathon.

Toughing it Out

Joe De Sena, the founder of the Spartan Race and the “scariest man in fitness”, praises the marshmallow test in his book Spartan Up!. He sees resisting the marshmallow as a sign of grit and suggests making every decision based on delayed gratification.

“Science has found that the most successful people are not the most intelligent or the most talented but the ones who tough it out.” (4)

‘Toughing it out’ is exactly what long distance runners learn to do. There is physical discomfort as the miles get longer. I know from personal experience how tired my legs feel after running 20 miles.

By this point my feet are hammered from pounding the pavement. I’m gritty with sweat. Hot days take a special toll. The muscles in my legs feel swollen with lactic acid. The temptation to slow down and walk becomes very strong!

Me “toughing it out” to make the course cut-off at the Jungfrau Marathon

The Two Darts

The discomfort is compounded by mental fatigue. In the book Fearvana author and ultra runner Akshay Nanavanti says our mindset determines how much we suffer.

He writes that according to Buddhist philosophy, when we experience any pain or suffering it is the result of two darts.

  • The first dart is the thing beyond our control like tripping on a rock and taking a fall. The second dart is how we react to the first dart.
  • The second dart is the negative thinking and emotional suffering we impose upon ourselves with statements like “Why is this happening to me?” “I’m such an idiot!”.

I was happy to see Nanavanti bring EQ research into the world of endurance running.

“Emotional intelligence is knowing when to step outside of your emotions and choose a rational response and when to let yourself be consumed by them. It is the ability to effectively manage the flow of communication between your animal brain and human brain.”(5)


Nanavanti cites the research of Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Bradberry writes that unlike IQ, emotional intelligence can be developed because of the brain’s plasticity -its ability to make new connections and pathways.

Using strategies to increase your emotional intelligence allows the billions of microscopic neurons lining the road between the rational and emotional centers of your brain to branch off small “arms” (much like a tree) to reach out to the other cells. A single cell can grow 15,000 connections with its neighbors. This chain reaction of growth ensures it’s easier to kick this new behavior into action in the future. Once you train your brain by repeatedly using new emotional intelligence strategies, emotionally intelligent behaviors become habits. (6)

Emotion Spotting

Bradberry and Greaves say our brains are hardwired to give our emotions the upper hand. Experiences enter the brain through the five senses and first travel from the spinal cord into the Limbic system (the ancient emotional part of the brain) before they reach the Prefrontal Cortex (the more recently evolved rational part of the brain). We feel before we think.

Amazingly, only 36 percent of the people tested by Bradberry and Greaves were able to accurately identify emotions as they happen.(7)

I began to do emotions spotting anytime I felt a negative emotion and could feel my mood improving in realtime. I am still shocked how well the simple act of labeling emotions works.

Bradberry and Greaves would say that it works so well because spotting emotions helps the rational brain take power back from the emotional brain.

You can’t decide which emotions to feel but “You do control the thoughts that follow an emotion, and you have a great deal of say in how you react to an emotion—as long as you are aware of it.” (8)

On page fifteen they provide an emotions list adapted from writer Julia West.

Emotions Chart

After seeing this exercise work in my own life I began to wonder if long distance runners can use it during their training. I’m not the first one to think of this. Carrie Jackson Cheadle and Cindy Kuzma authors of the book Rebound -Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Strong From Sports Injuries provide their own list to help the reader decode emotions. They write,

“Labeling the exact feeling you have in a given moment —calling an emotion what it is —can be surprisingly powerful . . . Sometimes just the act of naming a feeling provides relief, allowing you to move through it and then move on from it” (9).

Example from Race Day

Having run seventeen marathons and one 50k I am familiar with the mix of emotions one feels on race day. Looking just at marathon day for example, and selecting from the chart above, I have felt the following,

  • At the start line: Fired Up, Excited, Nervous, Timid, Anxious, Apprehensive
  • After the first 5k: Contented, Cheerful, Pleased
  • After mile 20: Melancholy, Dissatisfied, Embarrassed (to be moving so slow), Unworthy, Silly, Frustrated, Worried
  • At the finish line: Exuberant, Elated, Glowing

More to Come . . .

Given the involuntary nature of emotions and how easily negative thoughts can crop up during a marathon, I believe it will be helpful for runners to know and practice EQ growth strategies.

Lest this post become too long, I will share seven strategies for boosting your EQ as a long distance runner in another post. Stay tuned!


(1) Psychology Today. (2009, July 30). Emotional Intelligence.
(2) Gibbs, Nancy (1995, October 2) EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: THE EQ FACTOR. Time.,33009,983503,00.html
(3) Ibid
(4) De Sena, J. (2014). Spartan Up!. New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Pg. 57
(5) Nanavanti, A. (2018). Fearvana. New York. Morgan James Publishing. Pg. 42
(6) Bradberry, Travis (2014, January 9). Emotional Intelligence – EQ. Forbes.
(7) Bradberry, T. & Greaves J. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0. San Diego. TalentSmart. Pg. 13
(8) Ibid, pg. 16-17
(9) Cheadle C.J. & Kuzma C. (2019). Rebound. London. Bloomsbury Sport. Pg. 28-29

Feedback on This Episode

Hello from California! Writing a quick note of thanks. I just finished the Big Sur International Marathon. This was my second time running this event and my second marathon. I very fortunately discovered your podcast near the end of my marathon training plan and let me just say- this podcast was EXACTLY what I needed.  The last time I ran the Big Sur in 2016 the last 6 miles were a huge struggle for me and I let negative thoughts creep into my head and just couldn’t snap out of it. I crossed the finished line miserable, exhausted and in a bad mental place.

The episode that changed the game for me was Running with Emotional Intelligence.  Listening to that really put me in the right mindset and I strategized the entire week of, OK when I get to mile 18 I need to be able to put myself into a positive mindset. Sure enough, when I started to hit the Wall I put a big smile on my face, told myself I was having an amazing run, and that I felt great. When things got really hard I started with “Breathe in confidence, Breathe out fear”

I must have said a million times and the last 6 miles of the race I picked up the pace and felt AMAZING at the finish line. I finished in 4:36:02 which was a PR for me and was 8:32 faster than my previous time.

Without the positive mindset and emotional intelligence episode I know this would have not been possible so I just wanted to extend my gratitude and thank Trevor and Angie!! Many of the tools and tips in this podcast will stay with with forever and I am so thankful! Sybil from California

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