Everything You Need to Know About Mindful Running

Credit: UWE UMST §TTER/WESTEND61/GALLERYSTOCK

We'll hazard a guess that you are keenly aware of the benefits of mindfulness. You've likely read the stories (perhaps in this magazine) on how it gives you more clarity, energy, and creativity, and maybe you've even started your own morning meditation routine, downloaded a how-to app, or visited Zen-out studio spaces like MNDFL and Inscape.

The trend that began as a seated practice on a mat, however, has taken off as a better way to log America's most popular form of exercise: running.

What you may not know is that meditation is the ultimate tool for a runner, says Amishi Jah, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami. You're performing physically stressful activity; you're alone with your thoughts, sometimes for hours on end; and if you just let your mind wander, it’s all too easy to beat yourself up mentally. “Studies have linked mind-wandering to negative emotions,” Jha says. Those could stem from a run itself—This is hard or I feel awful today—or, because we often use running as catharsis, could mean obsessing over a problem at work or a fight with a spouse. Stewing on these thoughts jacks heart rate, tenses muscles, and makes a run instantly feel tougher. Running mindfully, on the other hand, teaches you to disengage from this mental chatter and instead focus on the actual act of running. As Jha puts it, “Learning to control your thoughts and emotions makes mindful running a physical and mental workout.”

How this works in practice isn’t a whole lot different from the typical seated meditation. First, you’ll set an intention for your run, says Elinor Fish, a former competitive ultrarunner who teaches mindful running workshops online and worldwide. Anytime your mind strays, you come back to this purpose. The intention can be just about anything—something physical, like paying attention to your breath, or a broader goal, say, making sure a recovery run is slow and steady. “The point of refocusing is to connect with your body while running, rather than letting other thoughts get in the way of the experience,” Fish says.

When negative thoughts creep in—as they inevitably do—mindful running gets tougher than traditional meditation. It’s not like you can close your eyes to focus. And simply sweeping bad thoughts aside is no easy task when you’re mid-run.

So instead, you redirect your attention to your body. Notice if your breaths are short or erratic. Are you slowing down? Shoulders hunching? Stomach churning? “Recognize that these are all part of the stress response,” Fish says. “You may not be able to stuff down negative thoughts, but you can choose to manage your body’s response to them.” To do this, she says, correct your form—pull your shoulders back and broaden your chest to suck in deep, full breaths (this activates the relaxation response). Make sure your arms are pumping rhythmically by your sides and not flailing 

How this works in practice isn’t a whole lot different from the typical seated meditation. First, you’ll set an intention for your run, says Elinor Fish, a former competitive ultrarunner who teaches mindful running workshops online and worldwide. Anytime your mind strays, you come back to this purpose. The intention can be just about anything—something physical, like paying attention to your breath, or a broader goal, say, making sure a recovery run is slow and steady. “The point of refocusing is to connect with your body while running, rather than letting other thoughts get in the way of the experience,” Fish says.

When negative thoughts creep in—as they inevitably do—mindful running gets tougher than traditional meditation. It’s not like you can close your eyes to focus. And simply sweeping bad thoughts aside is no easy task when you’re mid-run.

So instead, you redirect your attention to your body. Notice if your breaths are short or erratic. Are you slowing down? Shoulders hunching? Stomach churning? “Recognize that these are all part of the stress response,” Fish says. “You may not be able to stuff down negative thoughts, but you can choose to manage your body’s response to them.” To do this, she says, correct your form—pull your shoulders back and broaden your chest to suck in deep, full breaths (this activates the relaxation response). Make sure your arms are pumping rhythmically by your sides and not flailing outward. Synchronize your inhalations and exhalations with your footsteps: for example, taking three steps for the inhalation and two steps for the exhale. Finally, Fish says that it almost always helps to think about what is going well on a run—the fact that it’s gorgeous out, or that you’re accomplishing a hell of a lot more than if you were lying on the couch. These tweaks pay off in the moment—you loosen up, and a run feels easier—and down the line. “Learn to run relaxed in these moments of challenge or stress, says Fish, “and you’ll ultimately learn to run stronger and more efficiently.” 

That's exactly what happened for David Perry, a former collegiate cross-country runner. Perry wanted a challenge and joined the New York City Black Roses, a run club with a reputation for speed. But he was surprised to discover the group’s secret weapon was mindfulness training. “At first, I thought, ‘This is bullshit,’ ” Perry says. “I was thinking about racing at an elite level, so competitiveness, not mindfulness, was my focus.” 

At the Black Roses meet-ups, Perry begrudgingly incorporated mindfulness into his running, and it wasn’t long before he saw a transformation. Last April, he clocked a blazing-fast 5K of 15 minutes and 36 seconds at the Red Hook Crit, a race that draws elite talent from around the world. Perry says his next major race will be the 5K Championships in Central Park this November. There, he says, he’ll harness his greatest takeaway from mindful running—focusing on the process rather than the outcome. “In college, my nerves often went from being mentally debilitating to physically debilitating, and I’d blow up in a race,” he says. “Now I calmly acknowledge my emotions, and stay focused on the race rather than thinking, ‘Someone I should be able to beat just passed me.’ ”

Studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness actually have a thicker, stronger, more active prefrontal cortex—the gray matter in the brain associated with emotion regulation and perspective, says Lori Haase Alasantro, a neuropsychologist at the Neurology Center of Southern California. For runners, this means being able to push past thoughts like “I can feel myself slowing down,” or “I don’t think I can finish this run."

What's more, people with thicker pre-frontal cortex actually embrace pain and difficulty rather than feeling crushed by it, says Steven Hickman, director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. This not only reframes your outlook on a bad run, it can also lessen your risk of injury. “A mindfulness practice actually helps athletes better discern pain that will pass versus pain that shouldn’t be ignored,” Hickman says.

Last summer, ultrarunner Rickey Gates ran 3,600 miles across 11 states over 152 days, and he credits his mindfulness practice for getting him through injury-free. “When running a marathon per day for nearly five months, I found that the body can develop bad habits, most of which can be overcome through mindfulness,” Gates says. “As I ran, I’d ask myself, ‘Am I using all of my toes?’ or ‘Is my core engaged? Are my shoulders relaxed? Is my jaw clenched?’”

Same goes for Gates’ fellow ultrarunner Timothy Olson, who says he relied on his daily meditation practice to tune out negative thoughts when his quads were throbbing with pain at mile 70 of the 2012 Western States 100—a race he went on to win. Rather than focus on the pain, Olson says he focused on his breath and each step. "Running mindfully is basically an attitude switch—you’re forced to step away from your pity party.” While you might not be able to change the distance you’re covering, the hills you’ll face, or the effort required to get home, you can control your emotional response, Olson says, and doing so makes every other aspect of your run better. And what runner wouldn’t want that?