The Zeigarnik Effect - Long Run Coffee

The Zeigarnik Effect

We've all experienced this reality - becoming a runner may not simply mean "going for a run."

To be clear, if you run, you're a runner. You're a part of the community.

But when you start getting in the weeds of what the lifestyle has to offer, you find yourself in a nice, intricate, web of mental concepts that shape how we think. Some might even say that running is more a phycological practice than anything.

In this article we're going to explore The Zeigarnik Effect, its implications for runners, and how we can use the work of psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik to our advantage.

The Zeigarnik Effect Explained

Named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, this psychological phenomenon revolves around the idea that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones.

Why? It's hypothesized that uncompleted tasks lead to cognitive tension (or mental stress). Your brain will rehearse the actions and events of your uncompleted task over and over.

In theory, the brain knows that repetition (practice) is needed for success. And if success hasn't been achieved, the mental repetition will continue.

When the task is complete, we relax.

A Run Unfinished - The Zeigarnik Effect & Training

Imagine this - you're in the middle of a week of training. You have 40 miles scheduled, which is a gentle increase from the week before. But something comes up, and you need to take the rest of the week off. It may be unexpected plans or injury.

According to Zeigarnik, this unfinished segment imprints itself more prominently in your memory than the runs you successfully complete. Your brain won't let you forget it. If you completed your week of training, however, you would be on to the next week, with focus and clarity. 

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The Zeigarnik Effect, and Specific Running Applications

Interval Training

For runners incorporating training intervals into their regimen, the Zeigarnik Effect takes center stage. Those brief pauses between intense bursts of effort create an unfinished loop in the runner's mind, enhancing focus, and mental resilience. As you catch your breath during that interval, your mind keeps a keen record of the incomplete task, propelling you forward with renewed determination.

Race Day

On race day, the Zeigarnik Effect becomes a secret weapon for runners. The brief pauses at aid stations, the strategic walk breaks—these seemingly interrupted tasks contribute to a heightened sense of focus and determination. The unfinished business of the course keeps the runner engaged, ensuring that every step is etched into memory.

Training Schedule & Goal Setting

Setting running goals is an integral part of a runner's journey. The Zeigarnik Effect nudges us to establish clear, achievable milestones. Unfinished goals, like a pending PR or unconquered distance, serve as potent motivators, urging us to return to the roads and trails to complete what we've started.

Dwelling on Failure

Clearly, the Zeigarnik Effect has it's setbacks. Dwelling on failure is easy - it feels good to sulk around after a DNF or feel sorry for ourselves when we don't complete the goals we set for ourself. And the Zeigarnik Effect explains why. 

But do we lean into it? No.

If you're in the middle of a race, feeling like you want to quit, this effect is an important thing to remember. If you leave this race unfinished, the brain will not let it go. So get it done. Complete the goals you set for yourself, knowing that completing a goal is the brains way of relaxing, and getting ready to focus on the next big thing. 

Running Through Setbacks

In the runner's narrative, setbacks are inevitable. Whether it's a minor injury or a challenging run, the Zeigarnik Effect plays a role in how we perceive and overcome these hurdles. The unfinished nature of an incomplete run or an unachieved goal keeps us resilient, fostering a mindset that embraces setbacks as temporary pauses in the larger running journey.

As we lace up our shoes and hit the pavement, let's welcome the Zeigarnik Effect as a mindset we can adopt as athletes. Embracing the unfinished nature of our runs, races, and goals adds depth to the runner's experience. It's a reminder that every step, whether completed or pending, contributes to the symphony of our running story.

Wrap Up - Running Beyond Completion

In the world of runners, the Zeigarnik Effect whispers that our runs are not just a series of completed tasks but an ongoing symphony of strides, setbacks, and achievements. As we explore the unfinished nature of our running endeavors, let's cherish the cadence of the unfinished run—the rhythm that propels us forward, leaving an permanent mark on the runner's soul.

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