By Elinor Fish,
Before discovering mindful running, I spent two decades logging miles under the guiding principle that “more is better” until my body became too broken and exhausted to push any farther. Mindful running has become my favorite tool for noticing when things, like lingering fatigue or waning motivation, are early warning signs that I’m overdoing it, which can lead to pain or, worse, injury.
All too often people give in to the mistaken belief that running is supposed to hurt and you should push past minor pains. Unfortunately, that faulty logic generally leads to debilitating injuries, like runner’s knee, achilles tendonitis, and hip or hamstring issues. If you’ve already been sidelined by this power-through-it mentality, try not to see it as a setback, but rather as part of the biofeedback system designed to keep you from doing further harm.
Mindfulness is a powerful and effective method to becoming your own coach so that you can avoid these pitfalls in the future. Here are seven ways to apply mindfulness to running and gain better training outcomes for the long haul.
1. Know the right pace.
Eighty percent of your running volume should be at a very “easy” pace. Chances are, you’re running too “hard” too often. Save your moderate- to fast-paced workouts for speed days and just cruise the rest of the time. Ditch devices that measures your pace-per-mile and instead learn to run by feel. Mindful running lets you discern what feels easy versus hard, which will vary from day to day (so give yourself a break when you’re feeling particularly sluggish). Things like a poor nights’ sleep, being slightly dehydrated, having a stressful workday and a whole host of other factors influence your effort output.
2. Build your confidence as a runner.
Technology and smartphone apps, like MapMyRun and Strava, make it easier than ever to share your mileage, speed, and race results with friends and strangers. Comparing your performance to others’, however, can sometimes erode confidence whether you’re aware of it or not. Such comparisons distract from your intrinsic enjoyment of running and exacerbate feelings that you’re not training hard enough.
Mindful running shifts your focus from how you compare to others to how you stack up against yourself. You replace external success measurements (like race results) with internal rewards, like deriving confidence from your own evolution as a runner. The first step is to set an intention about how you want your run to feel today, thereby creating an internal and immediate reward for your efforts.
3. Achieve better fitness gains with less structure.
Rather than relying on numbers related to mileage, pace, sessions per week, laps, and intervals to manage training, mindful running frees you to focus instead on less tangible, yet far more valuable ways to build fitness and measure progress. For example, fartleks (which means “speed play”) are fun ways to pepper fast-paced running into your routine. This kind of workout, done without a watch, involves simply speeding up and slowing down at random intervals. Mindfulness is the cue for when to shift your effort level. Feeling strong and fired up? You’re ready to speed up. Heart rate maxed out or posture deteriorating? Time to slow down.
4. Get more motivated to run.
Running triggers the release of feel-good hormones and endorphins that are known to bring about sensations of happiness and a sense of well-being. However, it’s possible to miss these effects entirely when your mind is elsewhere and you are disconnected from the running experience. Using mindfulness to tune out hectic thoughts circulating through your mind allows you to notice the transformation that happens while running. This process does wonders for your motivation, as it enhances your association of running with enjoyment rather than pain, discomfort, or boredom.
5. Improve running form and efficiency.
Proper posture greatly influences your running efficiency and likelihood of developing injury. Being mindful of whether your back is straight, core is engaged, and elbows are driving back (instead of outward) can make running feel far easier. Maintaining this posture and running without tension allows the limbs to swing smoothly from their joints and requires less energy to propel you forward. With practice, your body becomes strong enough to maintain good form even at higher speeds.
6. Step it up.
Mindful running helps you recognize your training “sweet spot,” which is when your running volume and intensity aligns with your available energy, time, and health limitations. It also lets you know when you’re ready to take it to the next level by adding new elements such as strength exercises, hill repeats, track workouts, or more mileage. Mindfulness cultivates the self-knowledge needed to recognize that, when running is too easy or even boring, you’re ready to make it more challenging.
7. Find your flow.
In the magical state known as “flow” you have a heightened sense of relaxed control over your body and running feels engaging yet effortless. Mindful running cultivates the circumstances in which flow can occur. This happens because you’re focused on the sensations of running, are highly in tune with how your body is responding to the effort, and are confident in your ability to meet the challenge before you.