What Does It Take to Be a Mindful Runner?

People nowadays are attempting to be more conscious in all aspects of their lives. But, truly, what exactly does that imply?

The practice of mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the current moment without making judgments or assessments. Simply noticing, says Anna Hennings, MA, a mental performance consultant with an advanced degree in sport psychology based in Portland. "It's noticing your thoughts, your breath, the feelings in your body; recognizing when your mind wanders or something distracts you," she explains. And you do it without pausing or pondering on whatever it is you've noticed.

According to Charlie Dark, a Lululemon ambassador, yoga instructor, runner, and creator of the London-based Run Dem Crew, "it's about having a deeper relationship with running other than just counting up miles to share with strangers on Strava, or mindlessly prepping for your next marathon." "A mindful runner examines the influence of the run on the mind, the lessons learnt on the run, and how that information may be shared to encourage others."

When we do this, when we tap into what Dark refers to as the meditative flow of a run until it becomes simple and easy—you know, that sensation when you feel like you could run forever—the floodgates of benefits open.

What are the Advantages of Running Mindfully?

"The goal of mindfulness is to enjoy the present moment and process," says Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, CMPC, director of performance services at Texas Optimal Performance & Psychological Services and member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology's executive board. "So, while my goal is to beat a time, I'm focusing on my movement—the sensation of my body moving across the road, breathing, and feeling the wind—or hearing the birds, which keeps me in the moment and allows me to reach a flow state and run more smoothly, allowing me to hit the metrics I care about."

Mindfulness has been shown to improve performance in studies. A study published in the journal Neural Plasticity found that using mindful strategies in the lead-up to an event, as well as during the event, increased endurance. Another study published in The Sport Journal found that being more aware could help prevent burnout.

Being a conscious runner can also boost your mental well-being, which should come as no surprise. For one thing, it aids in the treatment of depression. People who completed 30 minutes of focused meditation and cardiovascular exercise (yep, running counts!) twice a week saw a 40% reduction in depression symptoms, according to an eight-week research published in Translational Psychiatry. Adding mindfulness to your jogging routine can help you feel less anxious. Mindfulness practice reduced competition-related anxiety, according to study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior. The same study discovered that being more mindful was associated with an increase in self-confidence.

Focus is Important When Running Mindfully

It may seem self-evident, but many of us enjoy zoning out. Put on some power music (cue Beyoncé's "Run the World") and go for a run. "You are unconscious of your pace, movement, and not locked into body cues that can effect performance," Cauthen explains when you aren't focused. "You may move too rapidly, or you may not be mindful of your breathing, causing yourself more tension." Being checked in, on the other hand, allows us to focus on the current moment and, in the best case scenario, enjoy the process with "a sense of calm control."

Another important factor is what's going on within your head. According to Stephen Gonzalez, PhD, CMPC, athletics director for leadership and mental performance at Dartmouth College and an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, understanding your thought pattern while running at a specific pace or intensity can teach you how to stay present and not be overwhelmed by sensations or feelings of exhaustion.

"When you detect an uncomfortable feeling, consider adjusting your self-talk from 'I am exhausted' to 'I am feeling fatigued' or 'I am recognizing that I am feeling tired,'" Hennings recommends, citing Susan David, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and her work on emotional agility. "'I am ___' is a firm statement. You are that emotion or sensation in its whole. There isn't enough space for anything else "According to Hastings. "'I'm feeling ___' or 'I'm recognizing that I'm experiencing ___', on the other hand, leaves more room for other emotions to exist. This minor adjustment permits you to become less engrossed in any one emotion or sensation."

What Can You Do to Become a More Conscious Runner?

It will take some time to fully embrace mindfulness as a learned behavior. Try run-specific meditation applications like Headspace + Nike guided runs on Nike Running and Run Mindful, or one of the five top methods below to get in touch with yourself while running.

1. Make eye contact with your breath.

A classic mindfulness exercise is to return your focus to your breath and the sensation of breathing. “Bringing yourself back into the present through your inhales and exhales is a method to bring yourself back into the present,” Hennings says, adding that the more you practice it, the more natural it will become. Her advice is to practice in and out of your running shoes. For example, “instead of reaching for your phone, take three deep, diaphragmatic breaths to anchor yourself to that moment while waiting in line.” Hennings argues that becoming a more conscious human will help you become a more thoughtful runner.

2. Go Over Your Senses One by One.

Keeping your attention on these things will help you stay in the present moment. To do this, Hennings recommends paying attention to specific bodily sensations such as your posture and shoulders, swinging arms, rotating hips, knees, and the impact of each foot plant the next time you run. Dark adds that the more workouts like these you can do, the more efficiently you can operate your body.

3. Take a Break From the Computer.

Data is king, as we all know. And runners want to keep track of everything: their pace, splits, distance, and everything else. However, it is possible for this to become all-consuming. Dark recommends abandoning your watch at least once a week to "concentrate on sensation, not data." “Begin and conclude your run with a concentration on the breath, before you even start moving,” says one method. Closing your eyes and checking in with your entire body, from your feet to your brain. Spend the first mile of your run focusing on appreciation rather than speed, and gradually warm up into your run,” Dark advises.

4. Just Imagine It.

It's a strong tool to use mental images to assist prepare the mind for an experience. Dark takes advantage of this by dedicating his runs to people in his life—those who are unable to run, friends who have passed away, and community members whom he wishes to inspire—and then, when his mind wanders, “I visualize the person in my mind and imagine I'm running towards them or that they are beside me,” he says.

5. Take a Look at the STOP Approach.

When you're out running and a break comes up, Gonzalez recommends thinking STOP:  1. Stop. 2. Take a breath 3. Observe and Pay attention to your mind and body and 4. Repeat again. “When you're at a traffic light or taking a little water break, using the STOP method can help you become more conscious of your body and mind,” he explains.

Finally, Hennings argues, a mindful runner will likely place themselves in a position to improve their performance metrics and enjoy their runs more along the way if they adopt a present-moment perspective.

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