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Mindful running: everything you need to know

It’s more than a fad. Mindful running frees your mind from everyday concerns and allows for a more immersive outdoor experience.

runner on trail with sea in distance

One of the things I enjoy most about running is how mindless it is. Compared to other activities, it doesn’t take much concentration to put one foot in front of the other. But this mindlessness is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it frees up your mind in ways other activities don’t. On the other, it leaves space for the intrusion of everyday concerns – thoughts that don’t make themselves heard while you’re trying to thread your bike through a tight corner or unlock the moves on a hard onsight attempt. If you’ve also noticed this human tendency to waste the potential for greater mental capacity, you might wish that you could quieten the cognitive jitteriness. And you can.

Mindful running is a growing trend that makes the most of the extra mental capacity available during running by turning your attention to your thoughts and the act of running itself. Many proponents point to the ways this practice can improve your running performance, but that would be to miss the main point of mindful running: what it can do for your mental wellbeing and overall quality of life when its potential is fully realised. In this article, I explain exactly what those mental benefits are and lay out some guidelines for incorporating mindfulness into your own running.

What is mindful running?

At its most simple, mindful running aims to quieten distractive and unproductive thoughts. And it does this by heightening your awareness of your mental state and by focussing on the physical act of running. The frenetic pace of modern life and the resulting need to stay connected, in touch, on the go wreaks havoc on a brain that, as wonderful as it is, was only meant to juggle a few tasks at time. In a really hectic week, a busy person might have to tend the responsibilities of their nine-to-five, negotiate a new lease with a curmudgeonly landlord, care for a sick child, and coordinate a social life with a dozen other people who are just as busy – a recipe for a cerebral meltdown if there ever was one.

Mindful running is an antidote to the chaos. As an extension of mindful meditation, it’s a type of mental training for calming and focussing the mind. By becoming aware of the signs of inattention or distraction – checking your metrics every 30 seconds or replaying an argument you had with a co-worker – you can learn to identify instances where the mind has wandered and then steer your focus in a more positive direction. The end goal is not simply to make the act of running more enjoyable or even to help you live in the moment (which it does) but to reform unproductive thought patterns and put yourself in a better frame of mind to deal with the rest of your day.

What are the benefits of mindful running?

The first question someone might ask about the benefits or mindful running is “Can it make me run faster?” Recently there has been an increase in interest in the connection between psychological factors and athletic performance, and Asics has even gone as far as to conduct an experiment into the impact of mental training on endurance running performance. But, to focus on the performance benefits of mindful running would be to discount the many ways it can help cultivate a healthy mind and body, which, for me, is the real benefit of mindful running.

Practiced diligently, mindfulness doesn’t just put you in a better frame of mind while you’re making the effort. It actually rewires your brain so that your grey matter automatically produces healthier thought patterns. How, you ask? Well, it has everything to do with your prefrontal cortex. Studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness have a thicker, stronger, more active prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with emotion regulation and perspective. As a result of their super-charged neurons, mindful people are better at embracing hardship, adopting a positive outlook, and staying calm and relaxed.

Productive thought patterns

When you’re in a bad mood, it usually takes a conscious effort to break out of your funk. And that means accepting that your emotions are within your control (most of the time). Mindfulness involves the constant examination of your thoughts and emotions so that you can recognise when they are leading you down a dark path. When you run, those thoughts could involve the activity itself – “This hurts. I suck at this” – or thoughts of past events, such as a recent faux pas. Mindfulness teaches you to suspend judgement temporarily to leave space for pure awareness, a better place from which to adopt a more positive perspective of things.

Overcome anxiety and stress

An emphasis on awareness (free of judgment and thought) teaches you that it’s okay to stop thinking and worrying about your stresses and responsibilities – at least for a short time. With experience, you learn that your concerns don’t get worse if you park them for an hour or two. Instead, by clearing your mind and making more room for creative thought, you’re often more able to solve nagging problems. It’s through this freeing up of mental space and realising that you have a degree of control over your thoughts and emotions that many people gain a sense of control and calm.

Cultivate confidence

Running itself is a great way to boost confidence, but with mindfulness, you can extend that can-do-anything feeling into other aspects of your life. With the aforementioned sense of control comes greater confidence, and diligent practitioners of mindfulness report feeling more confident in being to face life’s challenges regardless of whether those are related to self-discipline or their ability to solve difficult problems under stressful conditions. By practicing mindfulness, you may also feel more confident simply because you are taking responsibility for your wellbeing. Any concerted effort to improve your situation proves that you can look after yourself and strive for self improvement if you feel the need to.

Biofeedback and form

Mindful running is also good for your running (I was going to get there eventually). Besides putting a focus on good form and technique, mindfulness also puts much emphasis on listening to your body. With this closer attention to biofeedback, mindful runners are more aware of any tightness or strain, and over time can learn to distinguish between benign pain and pain that can result in damage. By listening carefully to these signals, runners can correct any errors in technique, run more efficiently, and avoid injury. This can be a big plus for runners who have a tendency to overtrain and suffer from overuse injuries.

Find the flow

Last but not least, mindful running puts you in a frame of mind more conducive to the psychological state known as ‘flow’. Runners, like most athletes, can benefit greatly from the heightened sense of relaxed control often described as ‘being in the zone’. In extreme sports, flow allows surfers and mountain bikers to focus on a task with total absorption and little fear for the consequences of failure (Laird Hamilton in a Teahupoo barrel), but in running, the effects of flow are seen in an effortless focus on foot placement, cadence and breathing. This harmony in movement and energy can greatly improve your efficiency and make running a more enjoyable experience.

How do you practice mindful running?

In practice, mindful running is not that different to seated meditation. First, you decide on something to  focus on – your pace or breathing are obvious choices since they’re important aspects of running – and then quieten your mind, slowly pushing aside any thoughts. This leaves more space for awareness of biofeedback and other sensations. Anytime your mind strays (and it will), gently bring it back into focus while including other sensations in your awareness.

Of course, there are ways in which mindful running is different to meditation. When running, you can’t close your eyes to help you refocus. Instead, you have to return your attention to your body – how it feels and moves. Are you running upright and with your glutes engaged? Are your strides short and quick? Do you feel relaxed? Acknowledging and correcting these while withholding judgement is the key to mindful running.

Cool down before you warm up

It’s hard to even begin to strive for mindfulness if you have just left the office and still have a to-do list swirling around inside your head. To calm your mind, it helps to put aside a few minutes to practice some breathing exercises. You can even do this in your car at the trailhead. I don’t recommend running with music (unless on a closed track), but listening to calming music can help shut out the rest of the world while you practice your pre-run breathing exercises. Five minutes is usually enough to quieten the chorus of urgent thoughts. 

Go without the tech

I prefer to not run with music. When wearing earphones, you don’t hear other trail users coming, and you miss out on the sounds (or quiet) of nature. But you could also extend the conditions of your tech-free time to exclude your sports watch – that is to actually go without all the metrics and digital feedback about your performance. It’s just so much easier to resist a distraction when it’s not there. On pace runs, I do sometimes wear a sport watch to gauge my speed on certain sections of a trail. But on most runs I go completely tech-free. If I want to time myself on a circuit, I can set the stopwatch on my phone and leave it in the car.

Take up meditation

Some might see mindful running as an extension of their meditation practice. But if you haven’t started meditating yet, you could also see meditation as a way to extend the benefits of mindful running. There are several good apps out there that can introduce you to guided meditation through sessions lasting between three and thirty minutes. I like Sam Harris’s Waking Up because it gradually makes those sessions longer as your capacity for mindfulness increases. A good meditation app will also include lessons on how to apply mindfulness to the rest of your day.

Tip: a good way to clear your mind before a run or meditation session is to put all to-do items on a list (app or paper). With these safely stored off your mental harddrive, you can forget about them for a few hours. They’ll still be there when you have to “do life” again.

Get out there

The only way you’re really going to understand the benefits of mindful running is to get out there and try it yourself. Just accept that it might not be easy at first, especially if you’re a very busy person with a lot on your mind. But stick at, and you’re very likely to see an improvement in your running and your general mental wellbeing, doubly so if you also practice meditation. In fact, if there’s only one piece of advice that I could give everyone, it’s to explore mindfulness and its potential to help you experience life to the fullest.