TLDR: Mindfulness practice is not limited to seated meditation sessions with closed eyes. With 4 simple steps, try cultivating an awareness of the present even on your next run.
In the Autumn of 2019, a continent and a half away from home, I picked up a tiny book from one of the many thrift stores in unassuming Birmingham. It was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. Cheap enough that it cost a single pound. Yet what struck me most, was the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s charming book How to Walk.
Sharing snippets on the essentials of mindfulness practice, the book is packed with short stories and illustrations of the impact mindful walking can have. The benefits are not limited to the person walking but also the world around them.
The book contains brief instructions on how slow, concentrated steps can be an opportunity to become more present. Although the contents of the book is short, walking meditation – or caṅkama in Pali – has had a long history, dating back to the Buddha’s time.
Resonating with its accessibility in my everyday life, even walks to the MRT station have become more enjoyable, despite the sweltering Singapore heat.
Yet for a working adult looking to pass his IPPT in a couple of months, long walks sometimes do not quite cut it. Naturally, I thought of taking it a couple of steps further (and faster), “Would it be possible to adopt the same concepts of walking meditation to running?”
Why Running and Mindfulness Might be a Good Idea
Some hate it, others live by it, but running has long been heralded as a tool for maintaining physical well being. However, our mental health also stands to gain from us hitting the pavement. Running releases endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine that can help relieve stress and provide a calmer state of mind. It minimizes cognitive decline, preventing degeneration of the hippocampus, the part of our brain that handles memory and learning.
Likewise, the practice of mindfulness has proven to come with several health benefits. This includes stress reduction and emotional regulation. It is even linked to lowered blood pressure and improved general health through associations with behaviours such as physical activity, avoidance of nicotine and alcohol as well as better eating patterns.
Interestingly, there is growing evidence to support the marriage of two seemingly distinct activities. By staying focused on their physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they run, studies have shown that runners can enhance performance, assist their recovery process and even reduce injury.
In 2018, ASICS even created a ‘blackout track’, whereby study participants ran in darkness and silence to focus their minds. With sensory engagement reduced, the runners were encouraged to reflect inwardly during their runs.
This became a training technique for long-distance runners to tackle the limits of their mental restraints.
Ok enough evangelising. How can we apply mindfulness to our runs? At its core, mindful running is about being anchored to the present. While it may sound at odds with an activity that is moving you from one place to another with each passing stride, this is not impossible to do.
Here is a quick 4-step guide:
1. Pay Attention to the World Around You
Firstly, you can start by paying attention to the world around you as you pass them by. Next, pay attention to the steps you take. One way of making your jog a more contemplative experience is to notice all that is around you, both visually and auditorily.
People walking by. The swaying of trees. Chirping of birds. Buildings in their various forms and colours. There is so much to take in, and yet each scene and soundbite is never more transient as you run, changing with each bend you turn and each street lamp you pass.
Above all, remember to keep a lookout for where your feet are going to land.
Note: As tempting as it is to catch up on that podcast or to blast your workout track, paying attention to your surroundings means no earphones for this run. Road safety yo.
2. Tune into Your Breath
Running is the perfect opportunity for you to practice one of the most fundamental meditation practices: watching your breath. It may seem trite and impractical to do so as you are huffing and puffing your lungs away, but that is precisely the challenge it provides in honing your concentration.
Beyond noticing each breath, running allows you to also observe how your breathing changes over the course of the run.
How does it compare at the start, middle and end? How much does it change from stride to stride? Are you breathing through your mouth or your nose? These are a few of the things you can ask yourself, as you tune into your breath.
3. Be Aware of the Rest of Your Body
Next, mindful running is also an opportunity to better synchronise yourself with your body. As you run, do a body scan. Which part of the foot is hitting the floor first: is it the ball, the heel, the toes? How do your feet feel, as it rises up and lands back down? The snugness of your feet in your shoe. The stretching of your shirt as your arms swing to the cadence of your stride. Notice the tension of your muscles – from your neck to your shoulders, thighs to calves.
Body scanning during your run provides a platform to better understand your body. Scanning helps respond to signs that you should slow down, rest and recover – preventing injuries and improving wellbeing.
4. Be Non-judgemental
Most importantly, practising mindfulness in running is to practice non-judgement. When running, too often we are caught up in performance, metrics and timing, instead of the run itself. Running mindfully does not require you to go fast, nor slow.
Running is ultimately about moving, and seeing any pace as a good pace for a run. So as you engage in these mindful runs, ditch your smartwatch and IPPT goals.
Listen to your breath, body and the present moment instead. And even if you cannot, remember to practice non-judgement on yourself.
Staying Present With Movement
In all, mindful running is another way by which we can cultivate an awareness of our present moment as we engage in our everyday lives. I have found the principles of walking meditation and mindfulness to be a perfect accompaniment to my runs. It has allowed me to feel more connected to not just myself, but also my environment.
That said, not every run has been a mindful run. But just like how fitness builds with time, whether you are a beginner athlete or a semi-pro running veteran, maybe it is time to add another tool to your exercise regime.
- Try running without headphones or distractions, just be in the moment
- Be aware of the number of times your mind criticises or praises yourself for overtaking/falling behind other runners