How to Practice Mindfulness as a Runner
I’m not a betting woman, but I’d wager that nine times out of ten, if you ask a runner how in the world he/she can possibly do something mind-blowingly incredible — like race a marathon, complete a 100-miler, or run a super fast 5k — chances are very, very high that the runner will say it’s mostly mental.
There are physical aspects to running, to be sure, but there’s also a huge mental component: one that some would even argue is more important and critical than its physical counterpart.
When you think about it — no pun intended — this actually makes a lot of sense. For many of us, when we run, we tend to “turn off” the rest of the cacophony from our lives — not thinking about work demands, or family obligations, or the next thing to accomplish from our never-ending to-do lists — and instead, we just run. There is something so inherently liberating, and so powerfully cleansing, about the simple motion of running.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that these days many runners are flocking to apps, programs, books, and workshops that aim to teach them how to not only improve their mental game — their mental fortitude and strength — but also how to be more mindful, in general, on their runs.
Much like running in general, learning how to practice mindfulness takes time and consistency. Below, we’ll dive further into the mind-body connection and explore how enhancing the intersection may result in improved running and better mindfulness.
Mindfulness and running: the connection
Runners will often admit that being a runner allows them to be more mindful and cognizant of their bodies. Because running is a whole-body activity, this makes a lot of sense; if something feels “off” anywhere, then, of course, you’re going to feel it when you’re out there pounding the pavement. Moreover, runners will quickly realize that when it comes to their running and training, they are essentially an Experiment of One. What works for one person may not work well, if at all, for them.
In addition, lots of runners will explain that running generally allows them to lead a calmer and more meditative life simply because running allows them to blow off lots of stress and steam each day. Running is an extremely repetitive activity — at its core, it’s literally one step in front of the other, hundreds of thousands of times — and for many, this repetition is as cathartic as it is cleansing. Going through the motions over, and over, and over again can do a number on people’s mental health.
But how to actually practice mindfulness as a runner?
Just because you use your entire body during a run, and just because running is this great cathartic activity that’s good for the body and soul, doesn’t mean that you’re going to become the next mindfulness master, however. Figuring out how to be more mindful of your runs takes a lot of time and practice, just like basically everything in life that we want to be good at.
As is the case with training, in general, how you practice mindfulness on your runs may likely vary pretty tremendously from your peers.
Some runners say that the best way for them to practice mindfulness mid-run is by totally disconnecting from technology — no phones, no smartwatches, no nothing — and immersing themselves in their surroundings.
Other runners say quite the opposite and claim that the best way for them to become super-mindful during their runs is by intently listening to music, podcasts, or meditative instructions while they’re racking up the mileage.
Still, other runners explain that their best mindfulness-while-running approach actually blends the former two techniques. These runners are most inclined to complete some sort of meditation, guided imagery, or journaling about their run before going out and then completing their run in silence, meditating on their focus they had focused on earlier in their journaling or meditation session.
Do an inventory about your body, from top to bottom
Personally, I think one of the best ways to improve your mindfulness practice while running stems from actively thinking about your body while you’re running. Mid-run, do a bodily check-in with yourself. Consider having an internal monologue about the answers to these questions:
How do my feet feel with each footstrike?
When I push off the ground, how are my calves and hamstrings responding? Do I feel strong?
As I lift my legs and open up my hips, how am I covering the distance? Are my strides short and staccato, or are they boundful and powerful?
My arms work in concert with my legs; how are my arms propelling me forward? Am I needlessly wasting energy up top?
(this one is especially important for races and hard workouts!) Even though this may feel hard right now, this is a choice I am making. What does my facial expression say? Frowning and gritting my teeth are energy-wasters. Simply smiling can be an enormous pick-me-up and literally change my attitude in the blink of an eye. Does my face belie my feelings?
Obviously, this fairly-specific checklist isn’t exhaustive and can be tailored to your personal preferences. If you’re overcoming a recent injury, you may want to think about how strong you feel in that particular area now versus when you were beset by injury.
Even when things feel tough, and you feel tired, reminding yourself of how you actually feel — strong, in control, ready to fight — can help put some perspective on the situation and remind you that you’re capable of more than you may believe in that particular moment.
Be your biggest and loudest cheerleader
Finally, one of the best pieces of advice I freely dole out to runners, when we talk about mindfulness and about mental fortitude, focuses on not only staying in the moment and doing a bodily inventory, as I described above, but also on being your own biggest cheerleader.
As we talked about earlier, the thing about running is that it is largely mental. If you think you can realize an audacious goal, there’s probably a good chance that you will. Likewise, if you think there’s not a chance in hell that you can, then that’s probably true, too.
When you’re in the throes of a run — and particularly the hard races and tough workouts — remember that it will behoove yourself to talk to yourself just as you would your best friend. Remind yourself often that I can do hard things and that this is temporary, but the pride in trying will last forever.
It’s during the very hard and taxing runs — the ones where you question whether you’ll be able to execute — that mindfulness will be most important. Staying present in the moment and not getting ahead of yourself (and drowning in anxiety), while believing in your capabilities, will take you far: both literally and figuratively.
You can begin by being mindful right away, even on your next run. Focus on the task at hand and stay in the moment, trying hard to not allow your mind to wander. When it does, bring it back to reality by focusing on your bodily feedback and taking in your surroundings.
For a more in-depth practice, seriously consider enlisting the help of any of the various mindfulness and meditation-for-runners apps, programs, and sports psychology literature that’s available now.
The mind-body connection is very real in running, and chances are high that once you begin exploring this mental side of your running, your running will never be the same.