Running with motivation, intention and attention

The beginning of the new year is a favourite time to set ourselves new goals for the months ahead. Often top of the list is some form of exercise regime. If running is on your list, it may be that you want to start for the first time, make it a more consistent habit or perhaps you’ve targeted a race or some other kind of challenge that will require you to take your running to a new level.

Having the drive to initially get going and then to stick with the plan can be a challenge for all of us, whether we’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. So where might a mindful approach to running help you build a habit or achieve your goals? Here’s a tried-and-tested RUN:ZEN formula we invite you to explore, that can be applied to each individual run. Understand your motivation, clarify your intention and pay attention.

Motivation

Why do you run? Becoming clear about what is motivating us to run is important because our motivation forms the psychological and emotional backdrop to our running that will to a large extent inform our attitude, how we approach and experience our runs, and may influence our intentions and goals both more generally and during specific runs.  From our experience at RUN:ZEN we have found that how we approach our running is often not dissimilar to how we approach our life in general.

And why learn to run mindfully? When we ask this question at our workshops, the typical motivations participants identify are to reduce the risk of injury, improve their performance and efficiency, and maybe most importantly to bring back more enjoyment to their running which in itself will tend to support a greater sense of all-round wellbeing.

“…checking in with and reflecting on what motivates us to run…can pay dividends once out on the trail and even in daily life itself.”

One of the features of mindful running that we teach is to become more aware of our mind’s habits – especially those habitual thought processes that negatively impact our running experience and performance, like a persistent habit to criticise, compare or judge ourselves harshly.  All of these tendencies can absolutely get in the way of the very enjoyment and wellbeing we may be seeking.

Alongside becoming more aware of these habits, with mindful running we learn methods to unpick our attention from them and place it in the present moment, offering more clarity and freeing up energy that we can utilise in more useful ways. Therefore, checking in with and reflecting on what motivates us to run, recognising any unhelpful negative mind habits that may be emerging and then consciously choosing to re-frame the motivation without them, can pay dividends once out on the trail and even in daily life itself.

For example, many people take up running to increase their fitness and get in better shape. This is a perfectly sound motivation, but what if you’re the kind of person who is prone to self-sabotage? A common experience for many of us when we dig a little is to discover an unhelpful subtext that might be something along the lines of, “I am rubbish and will never stick to this” or “other runners make it look easy. I’ll never look/be as good as them.” Unfortunately, we’re well practised at telling ourselves these kinds of stories, and if we leave them unchecked, they can quickly dismantle our motivation. Negatively charged thoughts such as these have corresponding emotional tones, which whether we are aware of them or not, are held in our body that will then impact the smooth functioning of the body as we run.

Once we learn to identify our mind’s negative habits, we can gently label them with an appropriate theme such as: “inner critic mind”, “comparing mind”, “judging mind. Crucially, without denying these habits, we can simply choose to refocus our motivation free from their extra and unnecessary burden. “I want to run to improve my fitness and get in better shape than I am now” is a clean, clear and much lighter motivation to propel you out on the trails.

Intention

When we introduce mindfulness to our running, we are making a conscious decision to apply awareness and attention to an activity which can so easily pass by on autopilot. Running on autopilot is to run with very little direct experience and awareness of what we are doing while we are doing it. An honest appraisal of our experience of running would acknowledge that we can spend much of the time zoned out, typically caught up in some form of mental activity. To avoid slipping into this kind of habit, and with our motivation already established, we can then be more specific in setting ourselves an intention. It could be to apply a particular focus of attention when running (see examples below) or it may be as simple as choosing to run with no agenda or structure at all. At the other end of the spectrum you may be following a training plan in which case your run will probably include targeted and specific activities, maybe speed work, hill reps or a recovery run. Whatever the session, our intention could be just to complete it to the best of our ability, even if on the day our best might not achieve the target at hand. 

“… Through establishing a clear intention at the outset of a run,
we can help break the habit of running mechanically or in a mental fog…”

Let’s come at this from another angle. How would it be not only to ‘do’ the session – in a mechanical sense – but to actually stick with an intention which invites us to be present with each element of activity? Here we are pointing to an intention in which we actively choose to tune in rather than opting out and going through the motions. More broadly, an intention that commits us to showing up also means that we acknowledge whatever arises. If we notice reactive feelings such as frustration or resistance coming up, we can choose to honour their presence and hold them within this wider intention to be with what is, without needing to spiral off further into thought-trains which may carry us away from directly experiencing the moment.

Through establishing a clear intention at the outset of a run, we can help break the habit of running mechanically, or in a sea of reactivity, or just in a mental fog, and we can return and reconnect with our chosen intention at any point during our run.

Attention

At some point when we run, there’s no doubt that the habits of our mind will begin to intrude. We all have our own unique blend of tendencies towards rumination, daydreaming, discursive thought, self-criticism and problem solving etc that will arise. This is all perfectly normal and need not be judged as problematic or some kind of mistake. However, if our interest is to explore the benefits of running mindfully, then unless we can learn to pay attention and notice when fantasising, planning or the inner-critic has taken centre-stage, this kind of mental activity is taking us away from directly experiencing the moment at hand. This is where training in the skill of paying attention underpins a mindful approach to our running.

RUN:ZEN’s workshops introduce different kinds of focuses related to our physical and sensory experience when running that all help to cultivate our ability to pay attention. For example, one-pointed attention can be supported by focusing on the contact of our feet with the ground or the breath in our lower abdomen, and this can help stabilise a wandering mind.  Alternatively, we can work with a broader and more spacious attention that extends outwards to include our whole body, mind or the wider environment. With this more open awareness, we bring attention to whatever arises and passes in our inner and outer experience, moment-by-moment, allowing and letting be both the pleasant and the unpleasant. If we can let be in this way, we may find that we can cultivate a deepening state of relaxation and stable presence within and amongst all of our physical and sensory experience.

A mindful approach to running is something that comes together through direct experience and not simply in theory. It is something to be learnt, reflected on and applied consistently in practice to begin to notice the results until eventually it simply becomes how we run.


We hope this triad of motivation, intention and attention has given you a small glimpse into the approach and potential benefits of mindful running. Now that you have a little theory to hand, we invite you to investigate further through direct experience. You can start right now by completing the first short exercise below, moving to 2 & 3 whenever you’re ready for your next run.  

1. Understand your motivation
Spend a few minutes writing down all of the reasons why you run, i.e. what are your motivations? Remember to include the obvious and not so obvious as discussed and highlighted above. If you end up with a long list, then you can sort them into what you feel are the most important to the least important. Now look at your list again. Are your motivations kind and self-nurturing? If so, that’s great. Otherwise, see if you can identify any motivations where unhelpful or negative habits of the mind may be present within them. Once identified you could write them down in a separate list so that you can be clear what they are and therefore spot them more easily whenever they begin to creep into your thoughts and motivations. If you have identified any unhelpful habits of mind, see if you can remodel those motivations without their negative connotations. Finally, think about a useful place to put your list of skilful and nurturing motivations for running, where they can act as a reminder to support you to remain present and focused each time you hit the trail or tarmac.

Before your next run:

2. Clarify your intention
We often set out for our run in a rush, fitting it in between aspects of our life with perhaps some vague intentions that we want to run for a certain amount of time or distance or to complete our training plan, for example. However, a clearer and more focused intention can improve our clarity and focus while running, and this is quite easy to achieve. All that is required is to pause for a few minutes before we set out and reflect on what we intend our run to be about. This intention might be focused on a specific goal or could just be that we will run for the sheer joy of running!

From the mindful running perspective, our intention would include paying attention to what we are doing while we are doing it with a relaxed attention and awareness, so that we can fully turn up for the experience of running within the allotted time we have. Building the habit of pausing for a few minutes and setting our intention for our run before we start, can pay dividends in our ability to remain focused once the run is under way.

During your run:

3. Pay attention
As you run, 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 daydreaming or 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.