Mindful Running : Focusing on Mind and Body on the run

Are you always ‘present’ in your running? Could Mindfulness or Mindful Running be the answer

Life can be hectic. We are always ‘switched on’, connected and contactable; our focus and attention interrupted, disrupted and diverted. Can we ever truly switch off?

Going for a run was one of the few places you could. But, due to technological advances, even the open road isn’t sacred. We can’t go anywhere without an email notification, calendar reminder or text alert interrupting our flow. 

Mindful Running could be the answer.  Using principles of ‘Mindfulness’ and meditation, running ‘mindfully’ helps you switch off, keeping you mind in the present, and reminding you that you’re in control of your thoughts and your body. In practical terms, runners should pay more attention to how their physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions are responding to running, and how they’re all connected.  

The combination of meditation and physical exercise has significant potential to relieve stress and improve mood. Studies looking at participants both with and without a diagnosis of depression have reported a decrease in ruminative thoughts, anxiety, and an overall improvement in motivation. 

Some experienced runners might dismiss the idea as mumbo jumbo, but successful runners subconsciously ‘practice’ a number of these principles already. Regardless of whether you are a beginner or elite, or indeed whether you believe in the concept of Mindfulness or not, we would all benefit from being more attuned to the physical and mental feedback our bodies give us when running. As all Marathon runners will testify, the ability to ‘observe’ and disassociate from feelings of negativity will make a massive difference to your performance on race day.

So, with that in mind. Here are some practical tips for runners of all ability levels to be more ‘mindful’ on the run.

  • Run Outside and Unplug the Headphones

I love a good podcast or inspirational playlist, but, in order to give our senses more opportunity to connect, perhaps we should ditch the headphones once in a while.

If being ‘mindful’ is a consideration, be more selective about where you are going to run. Try to hit the trails or run through a park. Changes in terrain, varied weather conditions...and a pack of menacing Jackdaws all keep you ‘in the moment’ and prevent your mind from wandering to your email inbox. Most importantly find a route where you can focus on what you are doing without the diversions of slaloming through traffic.

  • Tune into your breathing before you start

Mindful running relies on keeping your mind on the present- and what could be more ‘in the moment’ than your breath. During the run, when you start to lose focus, bringing your focus back to your breath and help resettle your thoughts. Don’t worry about breathing patterns- just focus on the natural rhythm of your breath. Before the run it’s a good idea to set the tone for this by spending some time concentrating on your breathing. Take several long slow deep breaths breathing in fully and exhaling fully. Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth.

  • Ignore the numbers and run

We can all become a bit addicted to numbers- mileage targets, heart rate zones, average paces and daily step totals. We are always chasing something, trying to reach some obscure end goal. Watches and apps constantly tell us where we are and where we should be- beeping at every mile marker and notifying you about every email received. To be ‘mindful’ we need to ‘disconnect’ and minimise these distractions. 

You don’t need to ditch the watch- data is useful to analyse post run, but turning off notifications is a must.

We also recommend changing the way you approach your runs- trying to structure them by time as opposed to distance. This takes the pressure off. You don’t need to squeeze x miles into your lunch break or hit specific times and paces- you just need to run.  It also helps you be consistent- a 3 mile run in the wind and rain on a hilly course is harder than a 3 mile run along a flat tarmac road, but a 30min steady run is always a 30min steady run!  

Having a ‘debrief’ in the form of a running diary is a really useful exercise. How did it go? Was it painful? How did it feel? The ‘objective feedback’ provided by the data is incredibly helpful here- reinforcing your subjective observations. If certain sections of the run were faster what was happening? How were you feeling? Can you replicate this?

  • Experiment

Mindful running is about connecting with and learning from the feedback your body gives you. So, explore! Take a few risks, see what it feels like to push hard up a hill or sprint to the next lamp post. You don’t have to do it all the time but try to keep things interesting and exciting. It’s important to test your body in different ways and bring about varied fitness improvement. 

  • Create and use your own ‘running form’ checklist

Focusing on how the body is moving, your running technique, is a great way to refocus your mind on the present, but running with improved technique can also help improve efficiency and reduce injury risk. But where do you start? What bits of the body should you focus on? 

It’s useful to have a short checklist of areas you can run through your mind every so often when you’re out on the run. Here’s some ideas

  • Posture. Are your standing tall? There should be an imaginary street line that runs down the outside of your body, connecting ears, shoulders, hips and ankles. 

  • Arms- Is there any stiffness around the shoulders? Are they ‘low’ (not hunched!) and relaxed? Are you arms moving forwards and backwards like a pendulum from the shoulder joint

  • Hips- Are you holding hips ‘high’ to keep your posture tall? Is there rotation around the hips and torso you could try to eliminate?

  • Ground Contact. Can you hear your footstrike? If you can try and shorten your stride (increase cadence / turnover) and land lightly on the ground underneath your hips. Don’t worry about which part of the foot hits the ground- ‘apply’ the whole foot to the ground.

Going through this list of cues helps bring your mind back to the present and away from distractions. For experienced runners it is also a great way to take your mind of feelings of fatigue or apprehension during races.

  • Observe your thoughts

During the course of your run your mind will stray, and that’s fine. But try to dissociate yourself from these thoughts as they come into your mind. Watch them like a passive observer but don’t ‘deal’ with them. Return you focus to your run, your breath or your body and deal with them later!

This is incredibly helpful to when you start to struggle. Acknowledge thoughts of fatigue but don’t give into them. What are they really telling you? Do you really need to stop or can you make the next mile marker or pop an energy gel to give your brain a boost. Becoming a passive observer is key to mastering your mental demons.

Check out our latest running podcasts from more interesting running stories, hints and tips