Great athletes and runners have always known that running was largely a mental game. After all, you have to have pretty strong willpower to tackle a marathon, to say nothing of a 100-mile ultra-marathon.
However, as more physicians, scientists, and psychologists begin to champion the health benefits of repetitive acts like jogging, the act of running is starting to seem less like like “mind over matter” and more like an integrated mind-body connection.
Specifically, many runners believe that running—when performed with the proper mindset—can serve as an act of meditation. It offers a chance to practice mindfulness, an awareness and acceptance of your internal physical and mental state.
It’s that acceptance which can give you an edge in your running, whether it’s calming pre-race jitters or learning to hear and differentiate your body’s pain signals.
For instance, studies have shown that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety and improves cognitive focus. Some scientists even think it helps strengthen our immune system functioning and wards off gene damage—in essence, it could potentially extend our lifetimes. And—particularly useful for those hard workout days—it may increase your pain tolerance, too.
Ready to integrate mindfulness into your workout? Here’s how to slip a dose of calming relaxation into your daily run—without tripping over your shoes.
Take Inventory of Your Thoughts and Feelings—Before You Start
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of extra time to spare. If you’re not careful though, it can start to feel like you’re just rushing from work to your workout, without a lot of time spent enjoying either. You become kind of like a zombie: just trying to get to the next thing.
Mindfulness is pretty much the antidote to that thought pattern. So before you shove your feet in your shoes and sprint out the door, take a few moments to take some deep breaths.
Notice where you’re at mentally, where your thoughts tend to go. Feel your muscles: are there any places that feel sore? Don’t resist any negative thoughts, like stress, nervousness, or physical discomfort. Just acknowledge that they’re here with you and move on.
Work with Your Breath
Breathing is an integral part of most mindfulness practices—and of course, how you breathe can factor into how well you run, too. Deep breathing works as a form of meditation because it activates the relaxation response in our bodies. In our world of tight schedules, traffic jams, and job stress, a lot of us run in high-gear all the time—literally.
Our parasympathetic nervous systems are almost constantly in the middle of a fight-or-flight reflex, the body’s way of responding to threats. And guess what’s more likely to happen when you’re stressed out? Physical injuries that can knock you out of the running for weeks. Controlled breathing slows that process and triggers relaxation within.
But incorporating breathing practices into your running can be a little tricky at first. If you’re struggling to pull air into your lungs, how are you going to take control of your breath?
Some runners think that coordinating your breaths with your steps can help distribute stress more evenly across your body. To do so, you’ll need to breathe rhythmically and evenly, allowing your exhales to line up with your footfalls, alternating from left to right.
Generally, the idea is to even out your breathing so that you’re both exhaling and inhaling more fully and deeply. Yoga teachers and others who study breathing techniques believe that the breath gets more shallow when we’re stressed out, so controlling the breath this way reverses this pattern.
Run With Detached Awareness
When we say someone’s “detached,” it’s usually a bad thing. It means you’re not tuned into the rhythm of the room, not participating. But when you’re practicing mindfulness, a little detachment is actually good.
Feel your muscles working, even if they’re a little tight or sore. Notice where your thoughts go—are you still busily trying to draw out a solution to a problem at work or mulling over what your friend or significant other said on the phone?
Are you feeling positive or negative about your run? Instead of pushing these thoughts away, acknowledge them, like you were separate from them, watching them pass by.
Loosen Your Grip on “The Results”
We live in a pretty results-obsessed world. A lot of times, it’s not the pleasure of running itself we’re after so much as the thrill of breaking a new personal record. While it’s definitely important to carve out some well-defined fitness goals, they shouldn’t be the only thing you think about when you run—especially if you want it to be a meditative practice.
Instead, try to live in the here and now. You can do this by setting an intention before you strike out for a run. “I feel strong,” or “I am relaxed and confident” are good ones.
Notice how those phrases are set in the present tense? Feel your intentions as an accomplished action, and you’ll find it a lot easier to be in the moment.
If you try all of this out and are still struggling for insight, there are a number of personal trainers out there who specialize in holistic running practices like these. A trainer can give you tips to take your running further—in both the physical and mental sense.
How do you find your zen in running? Share with us in the comments below.
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