Trail Running as a Form of Meditation
Many people use all forms of exercise to clear their minds and work on their mental health. Whether it’s a few push-ups in the morning to wake up the brain, or a spin class led by a motivational speaker, it is no new theory that mindfulness and physical activity go hand in hand. Runners are no exception to this notion. It is easy for us to clear our minds and focus solely on the task at hand while tuning out the stresses and busyness of our daily lives while running. Whether we know it or not, we are practicing a form of mindfulness while running.
The ultimate form of mindfulness is the practice of meditation. Meditation is the act of reducing distractions and anxiety while focusing our energy and minds. Meditation doesn’t always need to be practiced sitting on a pillow with your eyes closed and legs crossed. It is not a state of the body, but rather a state of how our mind perceives out physical presence. And meditation isn’t always synonymous with silence either. Guided meditation has become extremely popular in the era of smartphones as there are dozens of meditation apps on the market today 1. These guided meditations are often meant to be followed while sitting in silence at home, however their lessons can be followed while running on a trail.
The key to meditation is to focus, and more specifically, to focus on your breathing. This is not the focus of everyone’s meditative practices, however it is a good place to start for runners, as we are used to focusing on our breathing already. Bringing our focus to each breath removes our mind from worrying about the past or the future and allows us to focus on the now. Another upside of focusing on breathing is the rhythmic breathing that develops. As most runners know, rhythmic breathing leads to rhythmic running, which in turn causes an overall steadiness in our mind and body.
This is where trail running can throw you a curve ball, because it can be anything but steady. The uneven terrain can distract from your focus on breathing and keeping a stable tempo. This distraction of focus is one place where many people often have a hard time while meditating. However, if you can keep your focus on breathing, it is one of the most serene experiences to meditate while trail running. If you are trying to meditate while trail running for the first time, I suggest finding a trail that doesn’t have too many steep hills or other obstacles as these can be easy distractions.
Be Conscious of Your Body
One of the first things you learn to do in a guided meditation is to be conscious of every part of your body, from the hairs on your head to the soles of your feet. Once you have settled into a good running and breathing tempo begin to note the physical sensations of every part of your body. Notice the comfort of the cotton sweatband on your forehead. Make note of the drop of water on your arm that fell from a tree. It is simplest to take in these sensations in an ordered way, such as from your head to your feet. Do this a few times before moving onto other parts of your meditation as it is important to be aware of your physical being the entire time you meditate.
Connecting with Nature
Once you have taken account of your own physical body it is now time to look outward at the environment around you. Being a resident of the eastern Midwest, nearly all of my trail running is done on trails in local forests. During the spring and summer these ecosystems are full of life and vibrancy. While you are on the trails you become part of that natural order. It is easy to see how we fit in to our environment when we run down through neighborhoods or by a corner coffee shop, but trails are completely different. They show us how that Mother Nature doesn’t provide us with perfectly flat roads and easy to handle corners.
The act of being in a forest also has also been show to benefit a person’s mental health. This is because humans are natural beings. Urbanized life has taken us out of that setting, and thrust us into a colder and harder reality 2. The Japanese even have a public health program that has been proved to improve mood and decrease stress called Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing 3. Though forest bathing generally requires you walk slowly through a forest to take in the healing power of nature, the same concept applies to trail running.
Sights, Smells, and Sounds
When becoming one with your environment, you use all of your senses to take in your surroundings. When trail running you take in the smell of nature around you. This is another way that you can feel connected with nature. Many scents of nature are used to calm and heal in holistic medicine, as well some modern medicine. Taking in the scents of a forest can often lead to a calmer and clearer head space. This can easily be done through deep breathing techniques used while running. Focusing on breathing, the main cornerstone of meditation, also allows you to focus on these smells.
Once you have found yourself in a calmer head space and have found a rhythm of breathing and smelling, you can open yourself up to the sounds of whatever environment your trail is in. In forests I often listen to the chirping of a cacophony of birds, especially during morning runs. I also pay attention the different sounds my feet make as they hit rocks, gross, and mud. In meditating while running on paved paths your feet will make the same sound with every step. It is easy to focus and get into a tempo while listening the constant tip tap or sneakers on asphalt, but the sounds of twigs snapping and grass under foot allows for a deeper connection with your surroundings.
Meditation isn’t always about closing your eyes and humming along to chimes. Some people, especially runners, become more relaxed while moving their body and doing what they love. Practicing mindfulness and meditation while trail running is a great way to focus on calmness and relaxation while doing what you love.