If you’ve ever laced up your running shoes and covered a few kilometers in the great outdoors, you’ll likely understand the simple joys a good run can bring: the feeling of fresh air in the lungs, appreciating the beauty of nature, perhaps even finding that elusive flow state.
But in an age of high-tech tracking devices, noise-canceling headphones and overcrowded gyms, can we take some lessons from the world of mindfulness to elevate our running practice and deepen the benefits?
This article explores mindful running and mindful exercise in more detail, as well as what we can gain from combining mindfulness with our fitness journey.
This article contains:
What is Mindful Running?
With mindfulness being about ‘bringing our attention back into the here and now,’ mindful running sees us applying the concept to our run.
Being mindful involves paying attention to our breath and physical sensations, as well as how our emotions and thought processes are responding. For runners, this means they concentrate on the physical sensations that they are in control of. This includes their breath, but also their posture, gait, where they look or focus while running, and their overall form.
When we run, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with the pace you’re going at, how far you’ve run and how far you might still have to go. Mindfulness helps runners to keep the focus on the exact moment they’re in and bring their attention to the moment at hand.
How Does Mindful Running Work?
With the number of proven health benefits that mindfulness can bring to our daily lives, it makes sense that combining mindfulness with other healthy pursuits can really help elevate our sense of well-being.
Research is beginning to emerge that supports this. In one study by Alderman et al, 2016, they found that directed meditation combined with running or walking helped to reduce symptoms of depression for depressed participants by almost 40 percent.
Last year ASICs launched a world-first ‘blackout track’ alongside ongoing research devised by Professor Samuele Marcorra, Director of Research at the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise, and Dr. Jo Corbett, part of the Health Research Group at the University of Portsmouth.
Early results from the experiment have found that psychological factors, such as sight and sound, have a significant impact on performance.
The blackout track reduces sensory engagement, encouraging athletes to reflect inwardly and focus on their body, with great results.
So, how does mindful running work?
Chevy Rough, a performance and mindfulness coach with the ASICS Sound Mind Sound Body team advises it really is about being present. As with everything in mindfulness, it’s about being connected with your mind and body, your movement, and turning from external distractions to an internal focus.
Rough also advises with running, distractions can intensify as there are often other pressures associated with running including how fast you’re running, how far you’re running and beating ‘personal bests’.
Rough and Charles Oxley, another coach with ASICS Sound Mind Sound Body offer the following advice for a mindful run:
- Release yourself from external distractions and daily pressures.
- Really listen to your body: your breathing, your postures, and your senses.
- Use your breath to aid you. Mouth breathing is related to stress responses, so try to focus more on breathing through your nose.
- Connect with memories associated with your body, past injuries or experiences relating to running. This can help you create deeper internal connections.
- Keep the internal conversation between you and your body, not societal expectations.
- Don’t worry about anchor points, timings, tracking devices – just listen to your body.
Most importantly though, advise Rough and Oxley, is to bring your body to a state of calm before you even begin your run. For many people, working out is done in between other activities in an already hectic day, meaning before you even get started on your mindful run, you’re already in a state of stress.
Before your warm-up, spend some time bringing yourself into a neutral state by practicing some deep breathing mindfulness exercises. However long this takes – whether it’s five minutes or ten – take the time to prepare your mind before you prepare your body.
8 Tips For a Mindful Run
Whether you’re already a runner or wanting to get into the habit, adding mindfulness might seem like another thing to think about, but with a little practice, it’s easy to incorporate it into your running journey.
Here are 8 tips to help you:
1. Take your run outside and off the treadmill
Running outside can help you build a more mindful running practice, as you’ll have more things to focus on making it harder to get lost on your own thoughts. Trail running is a great hobby to get into. It’ll challenge you to keep your focus precisely in the moment and on the task at hand, as well as provide you with some beautiful scenery.
2. Engage all your senses and leave the headphones at home
Although listening to music while running can be a great motivator, it becomes a distraction when trying to build the habit of mindful running. Leave the headphones at home and use the time to focus on your breathing, the sounds of your body while you run, and your surroundings.
3. Try some pre-run mindful breathing
Rather than waiting until you begin your run to start getting your mind into a mindful position, you could use your pre-run warm-up or even just a simple sitting pre-run mindful session to calm your mind and focus on your breathing. Try taking some extra deep breaths during this practice to help you relax and bring your full attention to the run at hand.
4. Start slow and build from there
Mindful running is about engaging all of your senses and physical sensations and keeping your focus on how they are responding to the environment and the exercise. By starting slowly, you can pay attention to how your body responds as you slowly increase your pace and movement.
Notice how your breathing quickens. Does it become more shallow or deeper as you take up a new pace? Can you feel your heart in your chest? How does it sound? Is your body beginning to warm up? Where does that heat start from and how does it spread?
Notice if any parts of your body become tense, and how your muscles feel as they get warmed up. With a mindful run, the idea is to become aware of all these subtle changes without thinking too much about them.
5. Pay attention to your thoughts
After focusing on your physical responses, you can turn to your thoughts and feelings. What are you thinking as you settle into your run? Are you criticizing yourself? Are you replaying scenarios or conversations in your head? Are you finding gratitude for being able to physically run and find the time to take this moment to yourself?
Allow thoughts and feelings to be acknowledged but don’t dwell on them. If you find yourself ruminating of becoming critical, gently bring your attention back to your breath instead of these thoughts.
6. Check where your feet land
If you do find you’re struggling to steer clear of negative thoughts, another good aspect to turn your focus to within a mindful run is purely the physical sensation of where your feet land.
How does the physical sensation feel – on your toes, your whole foot, and your ankle? How does the sensation move up your leg? How does your core react? Focus on your form and correcting anything that doesn’t feel quite right. Try to keep your movements light. You can try the mantra ‘Light on my feet’ and keep this as your focus.
7. Allow discomfort to be acknowledged
As you get further into your run, pay attention to how your body is continuing to respond. Are you starting to feel any discomfort or pain? Are you getting a stitch in your side? How is your breathing? What is this discomfort telling you? Do you need to slow down, stop or take a short break? Have you met your limit for the day or can you challenge yourself a little more?
If you’re an experienced runner, you’ll know discomfort can be a sign of pushing your endurance but if you’re newer, it could signify the time for a break as you build up your fitness over time.
8. Take the time to reflect at the finish line
As you come to the end of your run, continue to engage in a mindful practice. As you move through some cool-down exercises, reflect on how you’re feeling. Focus on your breathing as it becomes fuller and deeper as you recover. Listen as your heart begins to slow. Feel your body begin to cool.
When working through your stretches, feel each muscle and what it’s telling you. Reflect on your feelings and thoughts. Are you feeling elated, happy, or disappointed? Why might that be? Attempt to bring your thoughts back to a place of neutrality and try to finish this exercise with a small gratitude practice.
Once you’re all done, you might want to make some notes reflecting on your run. Over time, you can review your notes and observe how your physical and emotional responses change over time.
A Look at Mindful Walking
If mindful running doesn’t quite sound like your thing, there’s nothing to stop you trying out the same principles with mindful walking instead.
A mindful walk out in nature can have equally promising health benefits, with research showing that a break in nature can have a rejuvenating effect on the brain (Bratman et al, 2015).
Meditation combined with walking has also been shown to improve states of anxiety in young people (Edwards, Rosenbaum & Loprinzi, 2017).
Incorporating a mindful walk as a daily habit can help bring a greater sense of self-awareness and reduce stress. A few tips to help you approach a mindful walk include:
- Bring your attention to your physical presence. Start at the top of your head and work your way all the way down to your toes. Focus on each of your facial features, your limbs, your back, and the abdomen. Notice the full connectedness of your body as you walk, and how every muscle is involved.
- Notice how your arms and legs move as you walk, the feeling of the ground as you lay each foot down and move forward.
- Bring your mind to your breath, feel it as you inhale and draw each breath deep into your lungs, feeling your ribs expand. Slowly exhale.
- Engage all of your senses as you walk: what can you see, smell, hear and taste. How does the air feel against your skin?
- Take in each sensation with curiosity and openness.
It’s normal if your mind becomes distracted. As with other mindfulness practices, don’t try and push the thoughts away. Allow them to enter your mind and gently let them go, bringing your mind calmly back to the present moment.
What Does A Mindful Workout Involve?
There is something comforting about allowing ourselves to zone out during a workout. It’s easy to go through the motions of activity – like running or walking – and let our minds wander while our body does its thing.
The difference in a mindful workout is instead of zoning out, we draw our mind back to the physical activity and focus on connecting the two back together. A mindful workout involves paying attention to the flow that happens in our body when we’re exercising, and the unity that exists between mind, body, and breath.
5 Tips to Help Use Mindfulness with Exercise
The idea of mindfulness with exercise often sounds easier than reality. Again, I’ve taken a good look at the existing literature available and compiled the below five tips to help you create a more grounded practice of mindfulness when exercising:
1. Prepare your mind before your body
As mentioned earlier, we often approach exercise within an already busy schedule. Make sure you take the time to bring your mind to a neutral state before beginning your exercise regime. A few minutes of deep, considered breathing should help to clear your mind, ready for your warm-up.
2. Create a purpose every time you exercise
Exercise is often linked to one purpose: weight loss. While this purpose is fine in the long term, creating another purpose around this end goal can help you maintain focus. This could be anything from working out for a set amount of time or focusing on a specific muscle group, to increasing your energy for the day or reducing stress.
3. Take it slow
Don’t approach exercise as another ‘to-do’ item on your chore list to be rushed through and ticked off. Give yourself permission to take your time, engage with your full body, acknowledge and appreciate how exercise is benefiting your mind and body.
4. Bring attention to your breathing
When your mind starts to wander, bring your attention back to your breathing. Focus on the inhalation, through your nose, and exhalation. Feel your breath move through your body and out again.
5. Remember to reflect
Take a moment after your workout to reflect on how you’re feeling. During your cool down, pay attention to your heart rate as it slows, the stretch of your muscles, and your breathing. Allow yourself to feel satisfied with the work you’ve put into your health.
What Research Says About Mindfulness in Sport
While a lot of research has been dedicated to the general health benefits of mindfulness, fewer studies have focused on the benefits of mindfulness during exercise.
A study by Ulmer, Stetson & Salmon (2010) looked at the use of mindfulness in exercise to promote exercise initiation and maintenance.
They found that individuals who maintained a program of exercise for longer tended to score higher on measures for mindfulness and acceptance.
Roberts and Danoff-burg (2015) studied university students and the relationship between mindfulness, health activities and stress. They found that students who deliberately immerse themselves in physical activity were more likely to want to exercise again. They also found that mindfulness contributed to decreased stress levels, which resulted in increased positive perceptions about overall health and participation in health behaviors.
The above research has been criticized for focusing on participating in exercise rather than the satisfaction derived from the exercise itself. This is an important distinction to make as those who find exercise satisfying are more likely to exercise, whether they participate in mindfulness or not.
Another study by researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands focused more on how mindfulness impacted participants’ perception of how satisfying exercise was, rather than their ongoing interest in exercise.
They found that participants who reported being the most satisfied with their exercise habits were also the ones who exercised the most. But they also found that participants who reported practicing mindfulness during exercise generally felt more satisfied with their exercise regime (Tsafou, De Ridder, van Ee & Lacroix, 2016).
Overall the research does support the idea that mindfulness in exercise and sport plays a positive contribution, whether it’s your perception of your feelings of general health or the satisfaction you take from exercise.
How Mindfulness Can Help You Quit Smoking
Mindfulness is also showing promising results in addiction recovery. When used alongside other psychologically proven addiction recovery methods, mindfulness has been shown to thicken the mid-prefrontal cortex and mid-insular region of the brain, promoting a greater sense of well-being and aiding in overcoming cravings (Lazar et al., 2005).
Addictive habits are often adopted in order to avoid difficult feelings or situations. Mindfulness helps to counter this by promoting a deliberate focus on the same difficult feelings in order to confront and overcome them safely. Where addiction can be seen as avoidant behavior, mindfulness promotes a greater sense of taking responsibility for how we feel and respond to different situations.
Research by Brewer et al (2012) specifically looked at the use of mindfulness with participants who were attempting to quit smoking. Participants in the study were assigned to training with either mindfulness or a standard program for quitting smoking.
At the end of the study, the mindfulness group had a greater reduction in smoking. The results had a lasting impact too, with 31% of the mindfulness group smoke-free four months after treatment finished compared to only 6% of the standard program group.
When using mindfulness to quit smoking, Dr. Brewer recommends following the RAIN acronym:
- Recognize – Recognize when a strong emotion or craving is present and instead of turning to smoking to avoid it, openly acknowledge what you’re feeling and without judgment.
- Accept – Accept that this is how you’re feeling, without assigning it a positive or negative label. It is what it is.
- Investigate – Investigate why the craving has arisen. What is happening in your surroundings? How is your body responding? How are your emotions responding? Take the time to be present in everything you’re experiencing.
- Non-identification – Acknowledge that the craving is a physical reaction, it is not you and you do not need to act on it. You can feel the physical sensations until they subside without giving into them.
A Take-Home Message
Whether you’re a veteran runner, a beginner, you prefer walking or engage in any other physical activity, I hope this article has shed a little light on how adding in a little mindfulness could help to elevate your practice.
Personally I am not a runner, but I have found the practice of mindfulness during my daily walks has really helped me to feel more connected to myself and my environment, helping me to feel more grounded in the day. If you’re a coach working with clients, this could a great additional resource to help support them.
Have you tried mindfulness with your exercise regime? How has it worked or not worked for you? Do you have any other tips that you’d like to share? Please leave your comments below – I’d love to hear about them.
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