“I’ve been excited to discover that making small changes in the way I pay attention to my form or breath or the purpose of a workout makes the run so much more worthwhile and fulfilling, but also faster and more productive.”
This is something that Deena Kastor, a 2004 Olympic bronze medalist and the American-record holder in the marathon and half marathon, recently shared with me in a conversation about mindfulness. In doing research for my forthcoming book, Mindful Running, I’ve encountered scores of runners who feel the same way about integrating mindful awareness into their daily runs.
Mindfulness has been a big buzz word in popular culture lately, but what is it? Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not synonymous with chanting, levitation and healing crystals—even though it is connected to Buddhist belief systems and many other religions. It simply involves tuning into the present and becoming conscious of your body, mind and the environment around you. It’s about operating with greater intention as life unfolds in front of you. When you run with mindful awareness, you change the way you relate to things like physical discomfort during a workout or the disappointment of a bad race. You also become better able to recognize when your body is urging you to back off—or conversely, when you can handle increasing the pace and pushing harder.
Here are six tips on how to integrate mindfulness into your training routine for better performances and happier running.
1. Reframe running in your mind
Many runners think of running as an important time to brainstorm or work out challenges, and certainly it can be, but it inevitably turns your run into an exercise in multitasking. It might not come as a surprise that trying to do multiple things at once causes stress. In fact, brain scans have shown that multitaskers tend to have a lower density of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, which is linked to depression and anxiety.
Running in a more mindful state simply requires you to dial into your run moment by moment. “Setting an intentionally mindful headspace when you step out to run can transform the experience,” says Ashley Hunter Arnold, winner of the 2013 Leadville Trail 100 and a yoga instructor who teaches runners about mindfulness. “And while I still think running can be an excellent time to brainstorm—some of my best ideas come while running—it’s equally important to delegate ‘sacred’ run time for tuning into the present moment.”
2. Do a body scan
The body scan is a common technique used in seated meditation, but it can also be utilized on the run. In fact, not only can it help you tune into the moment, it also alerts you to inefficiencies in your stride or impending injuries that might indicate you need to adjust your workout for the day.
“The first 10 minutes or so of a run is an ideal time to check in with yourself and a body scan is helpful for this,” says Elinor Fish, a self-described mindful runner and founder of Run Wild Retreats + Wellness. “Scan for areas of tension and be aware of your posture and form and any tweaks you can make to relax, release tension, and move more efficiently and smoothly.”
3. Try doing a short seated meditation before your run
Taking a few minutes to do a quick seated meditation prior to a run can be all you need to put yourself into a more mindful headspace. In fact, researchers at Rutgers University have put this to the test, finding that 20 minutes of seated meditation and 10 minutes of walking meditation, followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (dubbed “MAP training) can offer a major psychological boost.
Even if you’re not in need of mood enhancement, a short mindfulness meditation before a run can have positive effects for physical performance too. “I find myself settling down into myself before exercising, and as a result, I’m definitely more aware of what my brain and body are feeling while my heart is pounding,” says avid runner and neuroscientist Tracey Shors, Ph.D., one of the Rutgers researchers and founder of maptrainmybrain.com. “I also find that this mental state makes me more likely to go that extra mile when I start to feel like I want to give up.”
4. Choose an anchor
An “anchor” is something that helps tether your attention to the present moment when your mind begins to wander. Harnessing mindful awareness isn’t about trying to force yourself to concentrate on your anchor, but rather to gently bring your awareness back to that thing every time it begins planning, brainstorming, or worrying about the past or future.
While many mindful runners will choose their footfall or breath as an anchor, find what works best for you. “My go-to is the sound of the birds,” Arnold says. “I tune into that sound and then from there, I can home in on the light and shadows around me, and then my breath, the sound of my feet, the feeling of the air, the expansiveness of each movement blending into the next.”
5. Take “mindful moments” throughout the day
Mindfulness isn’t something you just apply to one activity or aspect of your life. Doing brief check-ins throughout the day—recognizing if you’re engaged with what’s directly in front of you or you’re endlessly creating to-do lists and plans or worrying about the past and future—you continue the brain training that is established via meditative running.
Mindfulness helps reveal the inner workings of your mind—the things you tend to worry about or the scenarios you constantly rehearse. “Along the way, your brain ‘learns’ how to be with and aware of your own thoughts,” explains Shors. “With practice, these learning processes become habits. Just like how you have to concentrate when you first learn how to drive, but then after a while, you don’t have to think about it so much.”
6. Express gratitude
You’d be hard-pressed to enter a discussion about mindfulness that doesn’t involve the subject of gratitude. Mindfulness helps to clue you into things for which you might have taken for granted. As research suggests, purposefully identifying these things can help lift you out of a negative headspace on the run and beyond.
“Focus on something for which you can be truly grateful, even if it’s something small, such as a patch of shade on a hot, sunny trail or a smile from an aid-station volunteer during a race,” Fish advises. “Gratitude is a practice and just like running is a practice, you get better at it the more you do it.”