Mindful running – what is it?

At RUN:ZEN we offer a variety of workshops that teach mindful running. When people are signing up, there are often two questions they are curious about having answered on a workshop. First, they wonder, ‘What does mindful running actually mean?’ and second, ‘Why might I find it useful?’ So, we’d like to start to unpack mindful running for you in the way that we experience and teach it.

What is mindful running?

The most useful way to address this question is to see mindfulness as the application of particular attitudes and a skill or way of being that we consciously train in and apply to our running.

Jon Kabat Zinn, one of the founders of modern-day mindfulness in the West, offers a definition of mindfulness and its core qualities which can help us here:

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way:
on purpose,
in the present moment
and non-judgmentally.

Paying attention
A tendency when many of us run is to be on autopilot, which is when we find our mind everywhere else but present and aware of the embodied and rich sensorial experience of running. So, running mindfully begins with paying attention by becoming more aware of our inner and outer experience as it unfolds with less reactivity and more stability of mind and by natural extension, the body. Seemingly an easy and straightforward enough proposition, but in fact this requires a radical shift from the deeply worn habit of the mind to wander off into reviewing the past, projecting off into the future or commenting on the present. Indeed, this habit or tendency towards distraction is one of the earliest discoveries a new practitioner of mindfulness-meditation wakes up to.

…on purpose
The first quality of how we pay attention is to do so on purpose. Here we are taking a conscious decision to pay attention. We make a choice and an intention – to run and know that we are running. By this we don’t just mean having the thought “I am running”, rather the knowing that is being pointed to here is a fully embodied experience of “being in the run”, as opposed to being caught up in our head.

…in the present moment
Next we pay attention in the present moment. As mentioned, here we recognise the mind’s tendency to ruminate on past events or project forward into a future that has not or may never happen. Instead we pay attention to running in the here and now focused on the activity at hand. We do this by learning and applying a number of mindfulness meditations. Firstly, in stillness and then secondly in movement through the application of a specific sequence designed by RUN:ZEN to develop and eventually fully integrate one’s natural state of relaxed presence and awareness into all aspects of your run. Again, it sounds simple, but check for yourself the next time you run. Where is your mind moment by moment – in your body; in connection with your senses and the environment; or somewhere else?

Lastly, we pay attention to our running without judgement. At the core of a non-judgemental attitude is the quality of acceptance or being kind towards our present moment experience, whatever it might be. Here then we are acknowledging things as they are right now – so often an enormous test when we run and fatigue sets in and we spiral off into negative thinking, for example.

The quality of acceptance when applying a mindful approach sometimes gets a bad rap, being construed as passive resignation, impotence or giving up/giving in. This misinterprets the point being made. To acknowledge and accept ‘I am tired’ or ‘my knees are hurting’ honours our present moment experience just as it is, without needing to judge this experience as good or bad, and without needing to fix our experience, so in this way we slowly learn to accept and be in peace with what is, which pays dividends on the trail and in our daily life.

From a basis of acceptance, we can make skilful choices. It may be that we simply experience that these feelings and sensations are present but choose to carry on, helping us cultivate other qualities such as patience and resilience. On another occasion we may be able to intuit that we are pushing ourselves too hard, risking injury and that we need to hold back or stop, which results in us becoming more sustainable runners and people in our daily lives.

Finally, we want to be clear that mindfulness as an approach or skill is not antagonistic towards the thinking mind. Thinking is part of the mind’s nature and is a vital component of our ability to function in the day-to-day, such as planning and organising a run and keeping safe while we do it. So, what we’re talking about here are the less helpful habits of the wandering mind, which may range from basic distractedness through to mindlessly believing thoughts which are counterproductive to our runs and may also more generally disturb our peace of mind in our life.

Some well-worn examples of unhelpful habits of the wandering mind that runners often report getting caught up in include, ‘I’m no good at this’ and ‘I can’t do this.’ Equally the comparing mind can derail us with thoughts such as ‘she’s better than me’ or ‘I wish I could run like him.’ You are sure to have your own versions of these unhelpful thinking patterns and becoming familiar with yours and recognising in awareness is the first step to being able to let them go and come back home into your body, into your run and connect with the unmediated joy of it all as it simply unfolds effortlessly, moment by moment and step by step. So next time you hit the trail or streets, we invite you to bring to mind the three qualities of mindful running, paying attention: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement and to get you going you can try these two short exercises below.

A practice for home
Sit comfortably, with your feet on the ground and your back upright but not stiff. Your eyes may be closed or your gaze lowered. Allow your attention to rest on your breathing at your lower abdomen, tuning in to the sensations of the in-breath, out-breath and gap between breaths. Each time the mind gets caught up in thinking or worry for example, simply acknowledge it without pushing it away or following the storyline. Instead choose to let go and come back home to the present through the body by connecting to the sensations of breathing in a relaxed and aware way, moment by moment.

During your run
Instead of using the breath as the anchor point, bring your attention to the soles of your feet for five minutes at a time, concentrating on the sensations of contact with each footfall. Each time you notice you become caught up, perhaps in self-concern, congratulate yourself for waking up to that habit and train in letting it go by coming back home to the sensations of your feet making contact with the ground, step by step and moment by moment.