So let's start with the basics. What is Mindfulness? Mindfulness is the intentional non-judgemental awareness of the experience we find ourselves in at a single moment in time.
Some of you might be familiar with it and maybe even dismissed it because 'sitting quietly' just doesn't seem appealing as you prefer to run to clear your mind. In fact, a lot of runners I work with say that running is their form of meditation. But, let’s be honest...when was the last time that you took off your headphones, left your watch at home and went for a run with only the wind on your face, your footsteps and breath as the beat and not heard a little voice in your head saying “this is harder than it should be” or “why am I breathing so hard?” So many of us have gotten accustomed to running and racing with audio distraction, that the idea of running solely to the sound of our breath (or the sound of other runners breathing heavily next to us when we race) is really unappealing. We want to block it all out and run in blissful ignorance of all that is going on around us so we can put all our attention into our efforts. For the most part, we have become happy running mindlessly.
BUT, what if we were to run mindfully?
Running mindfully means being aware of one thing at a time as we run. This could be something in our environment or it could be sensations in our body. It’s often easier to focus our attention outside of ourselves onto what we can see as we run. However, if we can be more mindful of our bodies too then we are able to capitalise something called biofeedback. Biofeedback is the process of training our body to control involuntary reactions such as breathing and heart rate. Controlling these means we have some influence over our autonomic nervous system and if we can do this, we can also influence the stress on our body. For example, there is some evidence that focussing on our breath increases parasympathetic nervous system activity, the more relaxed branch of our nervous system, thus reducing stress.
But let’s backtrack a little… before we can control reactions we need to be able to feel and identify them (this is the mindful bit) which is arguably hard to do especially when we’re listening to headphones or intentionally distracted by music. Ok yes...music can be motivating and help set our pace if we choose the right kind of song and knowing our splits can help make sure we are training appropriately. After all, to get faster, we need to run fast. But what if we have the capability within us to interpret perceived exertion and perceived recovery between sets simply by paying attention to our bodies and we don't always need these external devices?
A few years ago, I was a researcher on a project that investigated cyclists’ ability to accurately predict recovery between bouts of high-intensity effort. In this study*, we asked cyclists to work at high intensity interspersed by rest periods the duration of which they controlled themselves. So essentially, they decided when to sprint again depending on their perceived exertion. Results revealed that they were able to closely predict full recovery without using external timepieces. In essence, it means that when the cyclists paid attention to their body (were mindful) they were able to accurately predict when they were ready to perform again. Why do this, when they could just use a watch? Well two reasons, firstly externally dictated recovery times might be too short meaning there’s a risk the performer isn’t actually ready to perform again and so they don’t get the most from their efforts. And secondly, practicing mindfulness as we run and train is a great opportunity to develop it as a skill that we can the carry over into our day to day lives thus helping how we tackle stress and anxiety.
How to optimise your mindful practice for running
When we are training it may be more helpful to focus our mind on internal cues such as our breath (a process called association in the field of sport psychology) so that we can learn from our training session, get better at interpreting exertion and also be more in the moment lowering anxiety. But when we are racing (or doing a high intensity/hard session) it may be more helpful to be more mindful of external cues (disassociate) such as nature or objects in our environment which might help take our mind off the exertion we’re experiencing and get us through the session/race.
Want to be a more mindful runner? Here are some different ways you can try it out:
- Try doing one tech-free run/training session per week. That's it. Don’t try to ‘do’ anything to ‘be mindful’. Just get used to running with no music or watch.
- Pay attention to one part of your body at a time (breath, heart rate, sensation in your feet, hands) take in as much information as you can.
- Notice what your automatic thoughts/judgments are about how you feel.
- Notice how long it takes before your mind wanders to something in the past, or something on your ‘to-do list’. Don’t get frustrated by this, just bring your attention back to whatever you wish to be mindful of. This is likely to happen A LOT as you run. That’s totally normal and natural. The skill is noticing it and bringing your attention back.
- For harder/threshold sessions switch your attention to the world around you. Try to be mindful of what you see, focus on the different shades of green you can see, wildlife, or maybe even architecture that you never noticed before.
- For slower/recovery sessions try to be in the moment as much as you can. What can you feel? How do your shoes feel as you run? What does it feel like to move across the terrain? And also what can you see in nature around you? Try to appreciate the world you are moving so freely in.
Good luck with your hopefully new mindful approach to running!
*Glaister, M, Pattison JR, Dancy B, McInnes G. (2012). Perceptual and Physiological Responses to Recovery from a Maximal 30 s Sprint. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 26(10): 2850-2857.
Health Coach for Stress and Mental Health from London
Age group: 35-40
Club: RunWell Club
Coach: Karen Weir www.runwithkaren.com