When I’m endurance training, I play quite a few brain games to help me get through the mileage. (One half-marathon season, I even made a habit of recounting my favorite movies, scene by scene, to keep my mind entertained.) Hellah Sidibe, the first Black man to run across America, has his own clever way to make going the distance a little more fun: bouncing a tennis ball… while he runs.
“I met a woman named Helen four years ago in Puerto Rico when I saw her running and dribbling a tennis ball,” wrote Sidibe in a recent Instagram post. “After seeing her out a couple of times, I finally got to ask her about it, and she said she runs with it often because it keeps her mind busy.” Sidibe goes on to explain that the trick has been helping him train for a 100-mile race where he will need to keep a slower pace in order to maintain his energy late in the game and that it’s keeping him entertained on long, unrelenting training days.
According to Saara Haapanen, a PhD candidate in sports and exercise psychology as the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, Sidibe’s tennis ball trick is absolutely legit. “It provides us with some play and distraction,” she says. “It brings in a competitive component and makes it a bit harder. As humans, we like to be challenged, and the harder it is, the better we feel at it.”
Of course, you wouldn’t want to try this on, say, a treadmill where you could wind up falling off the back of the track. But if you’re just going for an outdoor walk or run on the road or sidewalk (as long as it’s not a high traffic area) it’s a pretty solid way to feel like you’re keeping your neurons firing. (Bonus, it’ll challenge your coordination while you’re logging some cardio.)
If you’re looking for some other ways to keep your mind preoccupied while you’re power walking or pounding the pavement, Haapanen has a few ideas. “I always suggest changing up the tempo, maybe going a bit faster for a block then a bit slower. Steady-state cardio is rather boring, so anything that can make it more fun. Side steps or skips are also a good way to change up the speed and tempo to get that heart pumping,” she says.
The lesson here is that workouts don’t have to be so darn serious all the time. If you’re not enjoying your run or walk, it’s time to make it playful again.