Looking forward to the end: how anticipating the end of exercise is important

An uncertain ending looks pretty in a photo but might be unsettling or even unpleasant when you’re exercising


As part of my Running Commentary study, I asked people to talk aloud about how they felt during exercise. Some previous research has been done in a lab using a similar method (full paper here), and one of the findings was that participants knowing that they were nearly at the end of the session improved how they were feeling. There are a few studies (e.g. this one) showing that deceiving people about how long an exercise session will last influences how they feel (negatively, unsurprisingly, though who feels good about being lied to…?!). There is also a study (also paywalled, thank you, academic publishers) showing that ‘peak and end’ effects both influence people’s global evaluations of the session afterwards (basically, how people feel (best and worst bits during exercise) and how people feel at the end both contribute to an overall evaluation of the session). So the end of exercise seems psychologically important, but how? And can we make use of this somehow so that people want to exercise again in the future?

Well, it turned out when I looked at my Running Commentary results that my participants also felt that the end of a session was important. I also observed this in action, for example one group ran an unfamiliar circular route, and the end of the run was just after a blind corner. Many of the participants were feeling very tired and had started walking before they reached the end, and they expressed disappointment at not having known where the end was. They felt that if they had known the end was so near, they could have run further, and felt more of a sense of achievement at the finish. Little details like this are important in real life scenarios, but are difficult or impossible to capture on a treadmill.

Some of the findings relating to anticipation of the end from the Running Commentary study are covered in a poster I presented at a conference in 2015, you can see this here:

Preliminary findings on anticipation of the end

I think these results are exciting, because they suggest some applications for helping people to feel better during exercise, and therefore hopefully to help people to continue to exercise in the future.

Also exciting is that Alex Hutchinson, an exercise science writer, has covered some of these findings as a counterpoint to a recent study which found that starting fast and finishing slow made people feel better about a workout than the opposite direction. Alex did an excellent job of covering that paper so I’m not going to talk about it here, but for my take on why sprint finishes might be psychologically important, go check out his article.

If you’re interested in further findings from the Running Commentary study, just follow my blog and you can choose to receive (probably infrequent) updates via email. It has taken absolutely aeons to transcribe and analyse the mountain of data from this study, but I can finally see the finish line! I look forward to sharing some more fascinating insights into how people feel during exercise and how we can help make a difference.