Why Can’t I Run In My Dreams? An Expert Account

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Every runner has dreams: dreams of running faster, dreams of finishing your first 5K, dreams of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, dreams of completing a marathon, dreams of smashing your PR, etc.

These are the types of dreams we have in our conscious minds and in our hearts that fuel us to get out there and train or to push through workouts when a run feels tough or just to have an exciting direction in our training.

But, we also dream in our sleep, the unconscious dreams that filled our nights with everything from the fantastical to the scary, the joyful to the worrisome. Some runners never seem to run in their dreams. 

They may love every aspect of the sport and live and breathe the life of a runner, yet they never have running dreams. These runners frustratingly ask, “Why can’t I run in my dreams?”

Other runners find they can only run slowly in their dreams and never seem to be able to run fast while dreaming, wondering: “Why do we run slow in our dreams?”

To learn more about why you may only run slowly in your dreams and what this means, we spoke to two experts. Keep reading to learn what they have to say to answer your question, “Why can’t I run in my dreams?”

We will cover: 

  • What Happens In the Brain When We Dream?
  • Why Can’t I Run In My Dreams? 
  • Why Can’t You Run Fast In Dreams, and What Does It Mean?
  • Should Runners Put Much Stock Into How They Run In Their Dreams?
  • Is There a Way to Visualize Running Faster and Then Have Good Running Dreams?

Let’s jump in!

A person sleeping in bed with a mask over their eyes.

What Happens In the Brain When We Dream?

Dr. Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht., a Clinical Psychologist and longtime runner who leads Dream Analysis groups on staff at Seasons Malibu, says that when we are fully awake and alert, our brain waves are in a beta state. This is a faster type of brain wave.

During sleep, our whole body slows down to recharge, and this includes brain wave activity. 

Our brain waves slow down to an alpha state during the phase of the sleep cycle in which we have dreams, which is during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.

“We do go deeper in the initial phases of sleep, but when we begin to cycle back out, we enter REM before waking up,” explains Irwin.

“This is why when we complete a sleep cycle (and we cycle through about 4-5 times per night), we are aware of what we just dreamed.”

A person sleeping in bed.

Dr. Irwin says the whole sleep cycle is about one hundred and twenty minutes, so we can awaken in the night after a dream because we then come into the lightest phase of sleep after completing the dream phase of REM.

So, for example, if you have an unsettling dream that you are slogging through a sea of peanut butter or molasses as you try to run your next marathon, you’ll wake up briefly, remembering that you were running slowly in your dreams. 

Jonathan Poston, a Certified USATF Level II Endurance Coach and Mental Performance Coach for Athletes, adds that physiological changes during REM sleep may also specifically contribute to feeling like you can’t run fast in your dreams.

“During dreaming, REM occurs in which the brain is highly active and processes a lot of information, the eyes are moving rapidly, breath rate increases, and the body is paralyzed,” explains Poston. “There is also reduced input from the muscles and the senses, which can make it feel as if one is moving more slowly or that one is stuck in place.”

A person walking.

Why Can’t I Run In My Dreams? 

Dr. Irwin says that there are different thoughts about how to interpret dreams. Many dream interpretation experts believe that if you are running slowly in your dreams or running in slow motion when you are dreaming, there is a deeper meaning behind this seeming inability to run fast.

“When a runner dreams about that, it typically means that they are feeling inept, inferior, slowed down, etc., at the time of the dream,” she explains.

“Perhaps, a marathoner dreams about running slowly. They may be releasing the fear of losing their speed. In other words, this is an anxious dream, and the gift of the dream is the realization of the feeling which must be validated to be let go.”

Poston agrees that dream imagery is known to be highly symbolic and metaphorical, so there might be a deeper meaning to why you can only run slowly in your dreams.

“Slow running could be a representation of a feeling of being held back or hindered in some aspect of life,” he explains. “It’s also possible that the slow running could be related to a sense of fear, as the brain can interpret feelings of danger as physical sensations, such as not being able to move quickly.”

A person sleeping in bed.

Why Can’t You Run Fast In Dreams, and What Does It Mean?

Many runners ask, “Why can’t you run fast in dreams?” Perhaps you’re training for a race and frequently doing speedwork, yet when it comes to running in your dreams; you’re always moving slowly and simply can’t seem to advance.

According to Dr. Irwin, “When we dream about not being able to run fast, it may literally be that we are suffering from an injury, or it is metaphorical—we are feeling powerless, not up to snuff, disappointed in ourselves.”

However, it’s important to remember that dreams are not facts! Just because you are running slowly in your dreams does not mean that you are a slow runner or are apt to have a poor race performance in an upcoming event.

“Dreams are the unconscious telling us how we feel at the time of the dream. Hence, all dreams are helpful in that they allow us to validate our feelings and process them,” notes Dr. Irwin.

“If they go unvalidated or unprocessed, the dreamer may take action accordingly (unconsciously holding the self back, underperforming, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy).”

In other words, if you are having recurring dreams of running slowly, it’s worth exploring a deeper meaning of why this might be happening and then trying to assure yourself that you are capable, you are fast, and you are a great runner in order to help dismantle the inner fears seeping into your unconscious dream state.

A person in the bed who can't sleep thinking, why can't I run in my dreams?

Should Runners Put Much Stock Into How They Run In Their Dreams?

Although many people don’t necessarily buy into dream interpretations, Dr. Irwin says runners potentially have something to gain by reflecting on why they might be running slowly in their dreams.

“From a sports psychological viewpoint, the more any athlete understands their feelings, the more able they are to manage and change to a more positive mindset for optimal performance,” explains Dr. Irwin.

Poston says that if your dreams are disturbing to you, you should consider working through potential underlying issues with a therapist.

“People dream about what they do repetitively in waking life, and often there are irrational distortions of those activities that may be meaningless, though if there is a reoccurring dream or dreaming in general that presents a concern for the runner, then it may be prudent to seek out therapy to discover the underlying causes of the disturbance,” he advises.

A person having a bad dream.

Is There a Way to Visualize Running Faster and Then Have Good Running Dreams?

From a sports psychology standpoint, Poston says you can only mentally run as fast as you can mentally visualize yourself running. Visualization training can help you see yourself running faster, but it must be done correctly.

“When you close your eyes and imagine going faster, what do you see happening? If you are picturing a body running fast, then you’ve created a passive observer scenario that may place you in the vantage of watching others race by you faster,” explains Poston.

“The trick is to not only visualize going faster but to engage mind and body from a first-person point of view, going faster.”

He advises troubleshooting the reason why you run slowly in your dreams and then trying to visualize the solution. 

A person sleeping with an alarm clock on the table.

Poston advises considering the following: “What feelings usually arise to make you feel like you are going slower in your dreams? Can you change those sensations? What sensations should be happening to make you feel like you are going faster?

Dr. Irwin has some great take-home advice about running slowly in your dreams: 

“Dreams are NOT prophetic or pre-cognitive. They are releasing the unpleasant feeling to allow more space to create success,” she says.

“The mind at night is delivering ’emails from the deep’ to help you release what is no longer needed (anxiety, stress, doubt, etc.) and be reminded that you can succeed and win.” 

Running can actually help to improve your mental health and well-being. For a deeper look into the correlation between running and mental health, check out our article: Running and Mental Health, The Remarkable Benefits of Running.

A person running at sunset.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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