Incorporating Mindfulness into Your Runs
Info-Overload Invading Fitness
Techniques aimed to distract or entertain runners are very commonplace. Think podcasts, YouTube videos, Pandora playlists, zombie apocalypse-themed running apps– the list goes on. It’s almost as if we’re running from something, if you ask me! The need for this myriad of running companions is intriguing and inextricably linked to our society’s addiction to technology as a whole. When’s the last time you even went to the bathroom without your mobile phone? (Be honest.) With that being said, as a runner, I feel we are naturally inclined to pare down and enjoy the simple things. We tend to lead the way in fitness trends as pacesetters, and in that spirit, a resurgence in the opposite direction (less is more approach) with our workouts is the key to assisting with this information overload. In addition, the mindful running techniques we discuss in further detail below are proven to reduce stress and improve mental clarity with time, like this ivy league neuroscientist who discovered mindfulness while training for the Boston marathon.
For the beginner, mindfulness can be compared to “getting your hands and head on the same page.” Do you ever find yourself day dreaming while you run? Escaping to a relaxing tropical beach or rocking out on a Fender in front of 30,000 people? These visualization techniques are amazing tools for self fulfilling prophecies in other areas of our life and have their time and place. Those aspects of mindfulness can become confused with the more effective and simple methods we seek to optimize our running efficiency and, most importantly, the mind frame in which we savor and take in our full exercise experience.
Quieting the mind through pre-workout meditation or relaxing breathing techniques is a beautiful way to “prime” the brain for a mindful and sensory-driven workout. The goal is to achieve the opposite of what we mentioned earlier (distracted head space) and empty out the chattering mind to create a blank slate.
Try sitting in a quiet, dark space with no electronics for 5 minutes prior to each run. Focus on your breathing and your breathing only. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. If and when thoughts pop up into your head, I kindly ask you to return to focus on your breath. Inhale, exhale. Repeat this process for the duration. Repeat this exercise for one month then increase to higher sitting increments as your “chill muscle” grows.
Fun mindfulness fact: Just as repeated activity on your muscles can produce initial discomfort and eventual muscle memory, so can mindfulness techniques. This sitting technique is aimed to prime your head to take in all of the delicious sensory experiences we’ve been dulled to with our workout-technology-overload.
Trusting your “Inner Therapist”
In psychological therapy, the process of naming your emotions as they come and go is a highly effective tool in using two people (patient and therapist) as a bouncing board to one’s inner state. It is easy to get carried away in the inner-workings of oneself (especially the negative) without a proper guide or “second opinion.” The lone runner may feel as if they don’t have the proper tools to achieve such self-regulation and counsel with all the laundry lists of to do’s and worries sitting on our shoulders. Luckily, we are all born with an inner therapist, and if we properly utilize mindfulness tools on a consistent basis and take small steps, the trust in this therapist will grow and flourish, just as your running has with training.
After taking the initial steps to finding your “chill muscle” before your run, I’d like to invite you to take it a step further and into motion. As you tie on your running shoes, loosen up your spine, and prepare to head out the door, sans headphones, note the feeling of the tight sneaker around your foot, the thoughts going through your head, the urge to resist them- do you see that? Maybe the insistence that you retie your shoe again and again until it’s perfect for the run, or perhaps stewing over the details of that argument yesterday tickles your fancy before you head out the door. See these things and note them, as a third party. It can even be compared to watching a river flow by with different leaves, logs, and matter floating in it and you are the one sitting on the riverbank. Resist the urge to attach, and watch as these “mind chatters” float by.
Mindfulness in Action
During the run, scan your body and notice any sensations. Do you notice that in the same way the mind drifted during our “pre-workout” it tends to incline towards negative thinking about the body sensations during the run as well. Making this connection is key, as we inch closer to a goal for mindful running and releasing all resistance.
If you are not tracking time/speed, notice things in nature. Fully observe and take in that bloom budding on the crate myrtle tree across the trail, the mother pushing her sweet infant on the swing, or the feel of your feet hitting the ground one after the other. Smell the fresh grass, notice the speeding and slowing of your heartbeat, note the tightness in your calf or pains as they arise. I urge you to dwell back into your headspace (that we so dutifully primed before our run) and see where your mind goes in relation to any bodily aches or pains. Most of the time, beginners can note a pattern of resistance, such as stopping when we’re short of breath or leaning over to rub the mentioned cramp. I cannot stress enough that this moment, and this moment only, is the crucial decision point in our mindful run. The decision we make at this point can send us back into a comfortable yet “stuck feeling” as quick as we decided we wanted out. So in this moment, I invite you to push over your perceived threshold. Whether it be a self imposed limit of “too tired,” “no time,” or “too painful”- let us invite our cleared headspace into the part of the body or directly into that negative thought pattern. I then invite you to release it.
Imagine the pain or painful thought as a big red balloon on a windy day. Feel the string around your hand, each fiber of it’s tiny rope. Note the red color of the bobbing balloon and the sound it makes as the wind hits it. Notice the struggle to hold on to the balloon as the elements around it or about it cause the difficulty of holding on to increase. Our thoughts and aches mimic this imaginary balloon situation and can be used any time during our runs or in daily life. The elements around the “balloon” are the energy and intention our will creates for the perceived pain or discomfort.