“Come on legs, get me there”: An examination of distance runners’ thoughts utilizing the think-aloud protocol

  • Ashley Samson California State University, Northridge
  • Jasmine Lee
  • Jacob Jensen
Keywords: running, think-aloud protocol, thought verbalization


A considerable amount of literature evaluating psychological variables associated with distance runners is currently available; however, more research is needed that measures thought processes in real-time during physical activity and sport tasks. The “think-aloud protocol” (Ericsson & Simon, 1980) is a well-validated methodology for capturing these processes, and there have been calls for research (Eccles, 2012) that utilizes this protocol in the sport context, particularly with endurance tasks.  In order to answer this call and to build upon previous knowledge using the think-aloud protocol with distance runners the purpose of this study was to use the think-aloud protocol (TAP) to explore runners’ thought processes while on a long training run.  Ten experienced adult runners (5 males, 5 females) with a mean age of 29.8 years (SD=7.7) who were currently training for a half-marathon distance or greater participated in this study. Participants were asked to verbalize their thought processes while completing a long training run (8+ miles) while speaking aloud into an audio recorder. Qualitative analysis of the transcripts revealed a final thematic structure of six major themes that characterized these participants’ thoughts during a long run: social-occupational, environment, encouragement, logistics of running, pain/discomfort, and think-aloud protocol (TAP). The results of this study expand on previous research and provide additional insights and understanding of the complex and changing thoughts and cognitions of distance runners.  Findings from the current study offer important practical implications for sport psychology professionals working with distance runners and endurance sport athletes.


Andersen, J. J. The State of running 2019. Retrieved from https://runrepeat.com/ state-
Annerstedt, M., Jönsson, P., & Wallergard, M. (2013). Inducing physiological stress
recovery with sounds of nature in a virtual reality forest: Results from a pilot study. Physiology & Behavior, 118, 240–250.
Arsal, G., Eccles, D. W., & Ericsson, K. A. (2016). Cognitive mediation of putting: Use
of a think-aloud measure and implications for studies of golf-putting in the laboratory. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 27, 18-27.
Baker J., & Côté J. (2005). Cognitive characteristics of expert, middle of the pack, and
back of the pack ultra-endurance triathletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 6, 551-558.
Bale, J. (2006). The place of pain in running. In S. Loland, B. Skirstad, & I. Waddington
(Eds.), Pain and injury in sport: Social and ethical analysis (pp. 65–75). New
York, NY: Routledge.
Barwood, M. J., Thelwell, R. C., & Tipton, M. J. (2008). Psychological skills training
improves exercise performance in the heat. Medicine and Science in Sports and
Exercise, 40(2), 387-396.
Brick, N. E., MacIntyre, T. E., & Campbell, M. J. (2016). Thinking and action: A
cognitive perspective on self-regulation during endurance performance. Frontiers in Physiology, 7.
Buist I, Bredeweg, S. W., Bessem, B., van Mechelen, W., Lemmiknk, K. A., & Diercks,
R. L. (2010). Incidence and risk factors of running-related injuries during preparation for a 4-mile recreational running event. British Journal of Sport Psychology, 44(8), 598-604. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2007.044677.
Burfoot, A. (2007). The history of the marathon: 1976-present. Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(4-5), 264-287.
Calmeiro, L., & Tenenbaum, G. (2011). Concurrent verbal protocol analysis in sport: Illustration of thought processes during a golf-putting task. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5(3), 223-236. http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/jcsp.5.3.223.
Calmeiro, L., Tenenbaum, G., & Eccles, D. W. (2014). Managing pressure: Patterns of appraisals and coping strategies of non-elite and elite athletes during competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(19), 1813-1820. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02640414. 2014.922692.
Carmack, M. A., & Martens, R. (1979). Measuring commitment to running: A survey of
runners’ attitudes and mental states. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1(1), 25-42.
Crust, L. (2011). Mental toughness in sport: A review. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5(2), 270-290.
Crutcher, R. J. (1994). Telling what we know: The use of verbal report methodologies in
psychological research. Psychological Science- Cambridge, 5, 241-241.
Curtis, J., & McTeer, W. (1981). The motivation for running. Canadian Runner, 18-19.
De Groot, A. D. (1978). Thought and choice in chess (Revised translation of De Groot,
1946). The Hague: Mouton Publishers.
De Petriollo, L. A., Kaufman, K. A., Glass, C. R., & Arnkoff, D. B. (2009). Mindfulness
for long distance runners: An open trial using mindful sport performance enhancement (MSPE). Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 4, 357-376.
Dobson, R. M., Martino, M., & Black, C. D. (2011). The relationship among running
economy, lactate threshold and distance running performance. Journal of
Australian Strength and Conditioning 19(4), 14-24.
Eccles, D. W. (2012). Verbal reports of cognitive processes. In G. Tenenbaum, R. C.
Eklund, & A. Kamata (Eds.), Measurement in sport and exercise psychology (pp. 103-117). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Eccles, D. W., & Arsal, G. (2017). The think aloud method: What is it and how do I use
it? Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health, 9, 514-531.
Ericsson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term working memory. Psychological
Review, 102(2), 211-245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.102.2.211
Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1998). How to study thinking in everyday life:
Contrasting think-aloud protocols with descriptions and explanations of thinking. Mind, Culture, & Activity, 5, 178-86.
Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol analysis: Verbal reports as data
(revised edition; original edition published 1984). Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT Press.
Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1980). Verbal reports as data. Psychological
Review, 87(3), 215-251.
Ericsson, K. A., & Smith, J. (1991). Prospects and limits of the empirical study of
expertise: An introduction. In K. A. Ericsson & J. Smith (Eds.), Toward a general
theory of expertise: Prospects and limits (pp.1-38). Cambridge University Press
Fox, M. C., Ericsson, K. A., & Best, R. (2011). Do procedures for verbal reporting of
thinking have to be reactive? A meta-analysis and recommendations for best
reporting methods. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 316-344.
Hulley, A. J., & Hill, A. J. (2001). Eating disorders and health in elite women distance
runners. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 30(3), 312-317.
Johnsgard, K. (1985). The motivation of the long distance runner: I & II. Journal of
Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 25(3), 135-143.
Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective.
New York, Cambridge University Press.
Kruger, A., Pienaar, A., Du Plessis, E., & Janse van Rensburg, L. (2012). The
importance of psychological characteristics in potentially talented adolescent long
distance runners: sport psychology. African Journal for Physical Health
Education, Recreation and Dance, 18(2), 413-422.
LA Marathon (2019). Retrieved from www.lamarathon.com.
Laumann, K., Gärling, T., & Stormark, K. M. (2003). Selective attention and heart rate
responses to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23(2), 125-134.
Martin, J. J., & Gill, D. L. (1991). The relationships among competitive orientation,
sport-confidence, self-efficacy, anxiety, and performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 13(2), 149-159.
Masters, K. S., Ogles, B. M., & Jolton, J. A. (1993). The development of an instrument to
measure motivation for marathon running: The motivations of marathoners
scales (MOMS). Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 64(2), 134-143.
McCormick, A., Anstiss, P.A., & Lavallee, D. (2020). Endurance athletes’ current and
preferred ways of getting psychological guidance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18(2), 187-200.
McCormick, A., Meijen, C., & Marcora, S. (2015). Psychological determinants of whole-
body endurance performance. Sports Medicine, 45, 997-1015.
McRobert, A., Ward, P., Eccles, D. W., & Williams, A. M. (2011). The effect of manipulating context-specific information on perceptual-cognitive processes during a simulated anticipation task. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 519-534.
Nicholls, A. R., & Polman, R. C. J. (2008). Think aloud: Acute stress and coping
strategies during golf performances. Anxiety, Stress and Coping: An International
Journal, 21(3), 283-294.
Ogles, B. M., & Masters, K. S. (2000). Older vs. younger adult marathon runners:
Participative motives and training habits. Journal of Sport Behavior, 23, 1-14.
Ogles, B. M., & Masters, K. S. (2003). A typology of marathon runners based on
cluster analysis of motivations. Journal of Sport Behavior, 26(1), 69-85.
Ohly, H., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., Bethel, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., Nikolaou, V., &
Garside, R. (2016). Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 19(7), 305-343.
Ram, N., & McCullagh, P. (2003). Self-Modeling: Influence on psychological responses
and physical performance. Sport Psychologist, 17(2). 220-242.
Samson, A., Simpson, D., Kamphoff, C., & Langlier, A. (2015). Think aloud: An
examination of distance runners’ thought processes. International Journal of
Sport and Exercise Psychology 15(2). 176-189.
doi: 0.1080/1612197X.2015.1069877
Schomer, H. (1986). Mental strategies and the perception of effort of marathon
runners. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 17(1), 41-59.
Simpson, D., Post, P. G., Young, G., & Jensen, P. R. (2014). “It’s not about taking the
easy road”: The experience of ultramarathon runners. The Sport Psychologist, 28, 176-185
Swettenham, L., Eubank, M., Won, D., & Whitehead, A. E. (2018). Investigating stress
and coping during practice and competition in tennis using think aloud. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-21.
Tammen, V. V. (1996). Elite middle and long distance runners associative/dissociative
coping. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 8(1), 1-8.
Theodorakis, Y, Weinberg, R., Natsis, P, Douma, I, & Panagiotis, K. (2000). The effects
of motivational versus instructional self-talk on improving motor performance. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 253-272.
Thomas, S. P., & Pollio, H. R. (2002). Listening to patients: A phenomenological
approach to nursing research and practice. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
Welsh, J. C., Dewhurst, S. A., & Perry, J. L. (2018). Thinking Aloud: An exploration of cognitions in professional snooker. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 36, 197-208. doi: 10.1016/ j.psychsport.2018.03.003.
Whitehead, A. E., Taylor, J. A., & Polman, R. C. J. (2015). Examination of the suitability of collecting in event cognitive processes using think aloud protocol in golf. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-12.
Whitehead, A. E., Taylor, J. A., & Polman, R. C. J. (2016). Evidence for skill level differences in the thought processes of golfers during high and low pressure situations. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-12.
Whitehead, A. E., Jones, H. S., Williams, E. L., Dowling, C., Morley, D., Taylor, J., & Polman, R. C. (2019). Changes in cognition over a 16.1 km cycling time trial using a think aloud protocol: Preliminary evidence. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-9.
Whitehead, A. E., Jones, H. S., Williams, E. L., Rowley, C., Quayle, L., Marchant, D., &
Polman, R. C. (2018). Investigating the relationship between cognitions, pacing
strategies and performance in 16.1 km cycling time trials using a think aloud protocol. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 34, 95-109.