While you might consider running and practising mindfulness to be very different activities, there is a good deal of overlap in the benefits both can provide. Both, after all, give you the chance to take a break from the hubbub of everyday life, and if you struggle with the stillness of meditation, you might even find that running is a more effective way of doing so than traditional meditation.
Mindful running can be seen as using your running as an opportunity to set aside whatever in the past is troubling you, ignore any potential future problems and just be in the present. It’s an activity that can provide as much of a boost to your mental health as to your physical, giving you a reason to enjoy – and even look forward to – running that goes beyond simply losing weight or improving your fitness.
“People often struggle to find the motivation to get out for a run, approaching it with a view that they would rather be doing something else or that they are only doing it because they think they should for the physical benefits,” says psychotherapist Michelle Shanley, who is working with running-gear retailer SportsShoes.com.
“This negative perspective isn’t motivating. Instead, approach a run with an attitude of ‘I want to give my mind a rest, connect with my body, improve my wellbeing and offer myself time to appreciate my surroundings’. That presents a run as a positive opportunity, rather than an obstacle.”
How To Start Mindful Running
For your first foray into mindful running, Shanley recommends changing your route, or if you do have to stick with your usual route, at least run it the other way around.
“This will be a constant reminder to you that this run is different, and help you think about what different sights and sounds you’re perceiving,” says Shanley.
Shanley also recommends checking in on your body before you start running.
“Take a few moments before you start to really notice how your muscles are feeling,” says Shanley. “Notice if your shoulders feel tight or if your legs are heavy from your previous run. You might be aware of feeling energised or tired. Allow yourself to do this without berating yourself in any way, but instead use it to simply increase your awareness. Repeat this process when you return from your run, making sure to notice any differences.”
Getting to know your body will also have the benefit of enabling you to set mindful targets for your runs based on how you’re feeling.
“Increased body awareness enables us listen to what our bodies are telling us,” says Shanley. “As you become more adept at doing this you learn to tailor your run based on this information, rather that setting yourself goals that ignore how you are feeling that day.”
Listening to your body during your run can also help you avoid niggles turning into serious injuries. As you become accustomed to how your body feels at different stages of a run, you can identify which aches and pains are normal, and which might be a potential problem.
It’s all too easy to be harsh on yourself when running if you’re not performing as well as you’d hoped, focussing on negative thoughts like how hard the run is feeling or how far off a target time or pace you are. This is an issue that can affect you outside of your exercise routine too, of course, and Shanley suggest that taking a mindful approach can help you deal with this negativity.
“We are often our own harshest critic and this mentality can become toxic for our overall wellbeing,” says Shanley. "Awareness and acceptance provide the tonic to this and running provides the ideal opportunity to train your brain to be kinder to yourself. This is a practice that will not only benefit you while running, but will also benefit your overall wellbeing.
“Picture a large tree next to a gently flowing river. Every few seconds a leaf slowly floats down from the tree, lands on the river and slowly floats downstream. Every time you experience a thought that is unhelpful, picture it settling on a leaf and floating away.
“Accepting that you have these thoughts while knowing you do not have to internalise them enables you to feel increasingly empowered and autonomous.”
While many assume one of the requirements of a mindful run is that you get away from technology, you can also use technology to help you get used to the idea. The Nike+ Run Club app, one of the best running apps, has partnered with mindfulness app Headspace to provide a series of guided mindful runs, where Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe talks you through the process.
I gave the “End Of Day Run With Headspace” guided run a try on the Nike+ Run Club app, during which Puddicombe and Nike running coach Chris Bennett discuss how to run mindfully to release the stress of the day. This revolved around focussing on the body and the foot strike in particular as a way to drag your thoughts back to the present moment when you find yourself starting to think about work or other concerns. If you’re unsure of how to go about running mindfully and appreciate the idea of being taken through it step-by-step, these guided runs, which are all free on the Nike app, are a great place to start.
More About Mindfulness
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.