Have you heard of mindful running? Even if you’re not a regular runner, this combination of mindfulness and physical exercise may give you ideas on ways to bring mindfulness to another exercise to make it more powerful and enjoyable for you.
A common definition of mindfulness is gentle moment-to-moment awareness. When you practise mindfulness, you try to observe the thoughts, feelings, physical sensations or situations you find yourself in from one moment to the next. The key is gentle, curious attention. No criticism or judgment allowed!
In the same way, people who practise mindful running pay attention to the moment while they are powering their body forward: to physical sensations, like their breath, the impact of their feet on the ground, the movements of their arms, and more.
This focus takes the runner’s attention away from how far they’ve run, how far they have to go, what they have to do at work later, etc. Can you imagine how a marathoner would feel if all he or she was always thinking about how far they had to go? “ Only another 20K... another 19.5K...” Not much fun!
Mindful running means no listening to music! shutterstock/NDAB Creativity
The biggest plus of mindful running, and the reason it has really been catching on recently, is that it deepens and expands people’s experience of running – and of themselves. Many people run as a means to an end – they run to lose weight or reduce stress – rather than as an end in itself. So, turning running into an activity that is enjoyable is a win-win situation for runners!
When you practise mindful running, you enjoy the usual, wonderful benefits of mindfulness: more connection to the moment, less distraction, stress-relief, more self-awareness, a sense of well-being – and more. Add the benefits of running and you have an activity that is a powerhouse for mind-body health.
However, this isn't something completely new. Indeed, this kind of combination of mindfulness and physical activity is a long-standing tradition.
For example, consider yoga. It's a practise that interweaves conscious physical movement with a mindful attitude. When you do yoga poses, you’re encouraged to observe and be with physical tension and relaxation, with the limits of your body and with how your attention changes your experience of your body.
There is also an Eastern meditative tradition of walking meditation. This practice is taught as a practical way to link meditation to everyday activities. Students practise being mindful of every time their foot touches the earth, leaves the ground, pauses, and so on.
“The biggest plus of mindful running, and the reason it has really been catching on recently, is that it deepens and expands people’s experience of running – and of themselves.”
The benefits of this kind of activity has been backed up by science and there have been a few recent studies into this modern version of mindful, physical activity. For example, the combination of physical and mental effects of mindful running has led some to call it a “new therapy” for anxiety and depression.
A 2018 study from the University of Southern California involving 158 college students concluded that mindful movement helps to lower anxiety and stress levels.
Likewise, a 2016 study from Rutgers University, USA, involving 52 people found a strong correlation between mindful exercise and improved mental health. Participants had to carry out a 20 minute breath meditation followed by 10 minutes of walking meditation and then 30 minutes of aerobic exercise in the form of running on treadmills.
Significantly, the 22 volunteers with depression reported a 40 per cent reduction in symptoms of the condition. In particular, there was much less inclination to ruminate over bad memories.
Furthermore, the benefits of mindful running can be felt while in the middle of doing it, and not just following the event. Footwear company Asics looked at how psychological factors affect running performance. It found some indications that calm minds can improve performance, and reduce heart rate and other measures of body stress.
Mindful running simply means being as present as you can while you are on the move. For example, rather than listening to music or watching TV on the treadmill, daydreaming or hoping the end of the run comes soon, you focus on your moment-to-moment experience: sensations in your body, the movement of your arms and legs, the feeling of your breath and, also, the activity of your mind.
Here are some tips to help you put your best foot forward.
Before you start a run, before you even warm up, take a minute to calm your body and mind. Is running something you squeeze in after a work day? Or, is it something you “just want to get out of the way?”
If this sounds like you, it will be important for you to take just two or three minutes to slow down and become present before your run. Here are two simple mindfulness practices you can try:
I know, this is probably the hardest suggestion for most of us to follow! We can’t imagine going for a run without music to keep us energized.
But, remember, the purpose of mindful running is to deepen your connection with yourself, with how your run is affecting you. Try going without listening to a device for a week and see what happens. You may be surprised how much simpler and pleasant your running experience is.
Mindful running: observe your thought and feelings shutterstock/KieferPix
Become a dear and trusted friend to your body. You do your best to watch your breath. How is it feeling right now? Laboured or smooth? How is your balance? Are your shoulders tensed or relaxed? The trick is just to notice, without getting lost in trains of thought about anything you notice. Just notice with a gentle attention, and keep noticing.
Part of your moment-to-moment experience will no doubt include thoughts and feelings. Of course, it will! They are not a problem and are simply a part of what you are mindful of. If you feel bored, notice that kindly, then let it go. Thinking about a big project at work? Notice the thought, then keep your attention moving. What else do you notice? These are all part of the flow of the moment, as you move and breathe, move and breathe.
“When you practise mindful running, you enjoy the usual, wonderful benefits of mindfulness: more connection to the moment, less distraction, stress-relief, more self-awareness, a sense of well-being.”
If your physical sensations go beyond neutral into discomfort, this is a cue to become even more mindful and gentle. Pay attention in as open and curious a way as you can. Is the discomfort something you can watch until it passes? Or is the discomfort telling you that you’ve hit your limit for the day? The more you practise mindful running, the more familiar you will become with your body’s language. You’ll be able to distinguish between a passing signal of fatigue, a need to adjust your stride or a body signal saying, “no more today!”
When you finish your run, don’t just rush into whatever is next in your day. Just as you began your run, take two or three minutes of quiet time to connect with your body and mind. Notice if your thoughts and feelings are calm or agitated. And what is your body telling you? Again, just notice as kindly as you can and perhaps feel a little gratitude for whatever your experience has been.
This crossroads of mindfulness and running has a lot to offer – whether you're coming along the road of mindfulness or running. The tradition of bringing mind and body together is at the heart of virtually every meditative tradition around the world.
Mindful running is a way to create a bridge between mindfulness and everyday living, for each activity to support and deepen your experience of the other. Fitness giant Nike partnered with the popular mindfulness app Headspace to create a series of mindful running guided meditations. Try one out! If running isn’t a part of your life right now, consider trying mindful walking. Wherever you start, start slow and enjoy. ●
Main image: shutterstock/sutadimages
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Ann Vrlak is Founder of OneSelf Meditation and a meditation practitioner for over 25 years. She’s a Certified Meditation Teacher for adults and for children (the best job ever!). She loves to share how the perspective and practice of meditation can support people with their everyday stresses and on their journey of self-discovery.
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