Picture this: you’re out for a long run, earbuds in, listening to your favorite pop-punk album to get you through the last miles when suddenly: your phone or smartwatch dies.
Bummer. It’s in these moments that we realize how much we rely on being distracted to finish a run or cure our boredom. While there’s no doubt blasting Blink-182 can get us pumped enough to pick up the pace, we might also be missing out on the beauty of mindfulness.
Mindful running can be a great way to reconnect with our body, find joy in the small moments and appreciate where we are in the given moment. Ultimately, it can lead us to have a more contented running, experiencing focus, feeling, and flow.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”(1).
There are many benefits of mindfulness such as decreasing stress, anxiety, and insomnia(2). Mastering mindfulness doesn’t happen overnight; most experts recommend an eight-week training program to fully immerse yourself in the practice.
Despite research showing that mindfulness does not lead to significant performance enhancing results(3), the psychological and emotional benefits go beyond the track.
What is flow?
The flow state is akin to being ‘in the zone’. Psychologists describe it as a mental state where a person is fully immersed in a moment, past the point of distraction. The task at hand is effortless and we feel positive.(4)
Runners who enter the flow state report being at their peak performance: distractions are cleared away, your focus is lasered in at the finish line and you’re experiencing joy. Runners who talk about the flow state self-report that they are able to perform better, running at a faster pace or covering more miles.(5) Flow state can be entered through mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness leads to motivation
Practicing mindfulness has the potential to improve our intrinsic motivation to partake in physical activity. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation for your personal enjoyment.(6)
One study noted that “mindfulness and acceptance facilitate the relapse prevention in those who have successfully initiated an exercise regimen”.(7) In other words, practicing mindfulness and acceptance could help people stick to those New Year’s resolutions or other goals.
Mindfulness allows us to practice acceptance and may help to recognize negative experiences and view them as less threatening.(8)
Practice mindfulness to alleviate discomfort—mental and physical
Practicing mindfulness during your runs is a great way to accept and dissipate discomfort or negative feelings. When a negative thought crops up while you’re out running, it can affect your performance.
Whether you suddenly remember an errand you forgot to run while you’re doing an evening run or you’re at a race and starting to choke under pressure, the approach you take to a stressor will trigger your emotional responses. This, in turn, inﬂuences performance-related behaviors(9).
What about physical pain? One study showed that meditation can help control the brain regions associated with constructing the pain experience and therefore, alleviate pain(10).
Additionally, adding mindfulness to the rehabilitation process has been shown to facilitate a quicker onset of perceived therapeutic effectiveness outcomes in runners with patellofemoral pain, or runner’s knee.(11)
Practice mindfulness during your next run
In her book, Mindful Running: How Meditative Running Can Improve Performance and Make You a Happier, More Fulfilled Person, fitness journalist Mackenzie L Harvey outlines three steps to achieving the flow state while running.
- Focus in on the body, mind and surroundings and begin to notice what thoughts, feelings and sensations you have in that moment.
- Fathom that information: appraise yourself holistically, and decide if you need to make any adjustments.
- When these steps are followed, we enter flow. You feel aware, focused and happy
Here are some of our tips to help with focus and fathom:
- Remove distractions: disconnect from tech or ignore it – music, checking stats on your watch and phone – and just bring your mind to the bodily sensations or other aspects of running (see below)
- Environmental scan: aim to notice your surroundings while you run in nature.
- Focus on your breathing: notice how it changes, aim to find a rhythm and immerse yourself in it.
- Body scan: Pay attention to other elements such as feet hitting the ground, your posture, the tensions arising throughout your body (are your shoulders and jaw tense?), but avoid thinking about it all at once, choose your “anchor” and come back to it.
- Start small: mindfulness is a practice to build up, not something you can expect to dive in right away, so start with short runs or experiments and do not feel bad if your mind is wandering, again, just bring your attention back whenever that happens, the key is notice it, not to be “perfect”
Benefits of mindfulness beyond exercise (neuroplasticity)
Like we said at the beginning, the benefits of mindfulness go beyond the track. Mindfulness gives us the ability to check in with our current emotional state and have better control over our body’s reactions to stress.
In her book, Harvey describes the term ‘neuroplasticity’. Harvey describes it:“Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change in a long-lasting fashion.”
In other words, our responses to anger and stress are not hardcoded: with mindfulness we can help rewire these responses in our brain.
A study of participants who undertook an eight-week mindfulness training found that mindfulness is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.(12)
Try it yourself
The next time you go for a run, try and leave the earpods at home! Mindful practice takes time and you might find your thoughts drifting in the beginning, but remember to check in, be kind with yourself and try again.