Maybe you want to start meditating to feel less stressed, more present, more focused, or you’ve heard of the running performance benefits. Maybe you want to grow your self-awareness or build better relationships with those around you. There are plenty of reasons to dive into a meditation practice, but what’s a runner to do if they’re not the sort of person who’s dying to sit with themselves quietly for any stretch of time?
Many of us do not exactly love the idea of sitting still, and meditation may conjure up the scent of patchouli, and maybe a salt lamp. In fact, running an ultra may feel more doable than sitting quietly for five minutes. But take the first step, or should we say sit, and it might just change your life. But, like training for an ultra, meditation is a practice that takes putting in the minutes.
“It’s so easy for us to get pulled into a comparison cycle with other runners. Meditation is private and non-competitive,” says Katie Arnold, a writer and the winner of the 2018 Leadville Trail 100. “You can’t qualify it. No one wins at it. You can sit for 30 years and still be a beginner. I love this as a counterbalance to my competitive side as a trail runner.”
The NBA, NFL, US Swim Team and English Premier League have increasingly turned to meditation as a part of their mental training. They’re not sitting cross-legged beneath a bodhi tree and burning incense. They simply understand that their mental health is as important to performance as their physical health.
“I started meditating a few months ago, because I felt like my brain was always occupied in thought and that I could benefit from strategies to improve focus, performance and general life relaxation,” says Megan Roche, an elite trail runner and a coach at Some Work All Play.
Getting started might be the hardest part, particularly for those of us who feel uncomfortable or down-right itchy when forced to really sit with our thoughts and feelings. If you’re like many folks, your brain might feel like a crowded street corner on a good day, and like it’s on fire on the rougher days. The idea of just … sitting … and being can be downright scary.
“Many of us have this image of sitting pretzel style, blissed out on a cushion, unperturbed by life,” says Kriste Peoples, a trail runner and meditation instructor. “But starting a practice doesn’t look like that at all. Meditating doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be free of stress or challenging emotions.”
Peoples emphasizes that runners shouldn’t expect to feel immediate peace or instant enlightenment. “What tends to happen is we realize how hard it can be to sit still, how difficult it is to quiet a mind that’s being constantly pulled in every direction by distracting thoughts or feelings.”
Don’t show up to a new meditation session expecting to send it, mentally. It’s called a practice because, well, it takes practice. Just like training, it’s going to take work, and a whole lot of patience and discipline to make progress.
“I was terrible at meditating at the start and still have some days where I will get through a meditation and either fall asleep or realize my brain was elsewhere throughout the entire session,” says Roche. “Outside of meditation, I struggle with self-judgment, and I’ve learned to just keep showing up for meditation sessions without judging my meditation performance.”
Set The Scene
If you want to commit to a regular practice, a few times a week is a good place to start. Like running, frequency is strongly correlated with results. Try to set aside 10 to 15 minutes where you can just sit in a quiet place without disruption or with minimal distractions.
Actually meditating is pretty simple. Just sit, and practice. Close your eyes, tune into your breath without forcing it, and let your brain do it’s thing.
“The point is not to be without thoughts but to not get attached to the thoughts as they arise. I like to imagine them like clouds—I see them come, and let them pass,” says Arnold. She recommends counting and connecting with breath to avoid over-identifying with or dwelling on thoughts. “It’s impossible to be bad at meditation. Whatever is there when you sit down—anger, impatience, etc—is exactly right. You are just there to meet it.”
“Give up any expectation of ‘getting somewhere’ or of fixing anything,” says Peoples. Try not to do anything. Simply maintain awareness, and the moment you recognize that you’ve drifted off in thought, bring your mind back to the object of focus, like your breath, a mantra or a visualization. With practice, that time between distraction and awareness will get longer.
Here’s a guided meditation from Peoples that you can use before a run as a warm-up, and here’s a basic, beginner visualization.
You can meditate just about anywhere. You can sit on a chair, the floor, a cushion, a park bench or whatever works for you. Some people even meditate lying down. The position doesn’t matter as much as making sure that you’re comfortable and relaxed, not holding any tension in your body.
Arnold likes to meditate before her runs as a way of opening her mind. Roche likes to meditate before bed for better sleep. Peoples likes to meditate just about everywhere, sitting, or even walking outside.
Again, there is no such thing as good or bad meditation. This part is particularly sticky for the Strava-inclined amongst us who may be a little bit too dependent on kudos, gold stars and carrots to propel us through life. There is no such thing as meditation failure, just awareness and non-awareness.
Ultra athletes may be inclined to shoot for an endurance session right off the bat, but Peoples cautions against this approach, and advises newbies start with shorter sessions of however long feels good, and not stressful, maybe just a minute or two. She recommends not diving in too quickly and signing up for a multi-day retreat off the couch. “If you’re hoping to establish a practice, it’s not unlike running in that you start from where you are and you build a practice that works for you.”
Frequency is more important than duration, and you can increase the duration of meditation sessions as you notice your awareness growing within shorter sessions. Apps like Headspace, 10% Happier and Calm are great places to start.
Motivate To Meditate
Having a clear sense of your motivation can help you establish a meditation practice. If you don’t have a good idea of why you want to start, you might struggle to stick to the practice. Be clear with yourself about what you want out of your practice, whether it’s to feel happier, calmer, more focused, less stressed or to enhance athletic performance. Hold the goal and motivation lightly without obsessing over progress and results.
“Meditation has been a huge part of my mental training,” says Arnold. “It’s a way to stay connected to myself and my own deeper reasons for running. Running itself has become a kind of Zen practice for me—a way to be present and open to the impermanence and ordinary wonder of everyday life.”
Peoples says not to expect transcendence or even relief right away. “What tends to happen is we realize how hard it can be to sit still, how difficult it is to quiet a mind that’s being constantly pulled in every direction by distracting thoughts or feelings,” she says. “Another big challenge to starting a meditation practice is that nothing really happens. Sure, you might experience moments of bliss or deep peace, even a flicker of transcendence, but it’s fleeting. Meditation can be boring, frankly, and people are surprised to learn how challenging it can be.”
Meditation makes us more aware of the present moment. It’s a skill that we can apply throughout our training and lives. After a meditation, reflect on your awareness and set an intention to carry it into the rest of your day.
“I am pleasantly surprised to find myself cueing into meditation mindsets outside of sessions,” says Roche. “Sometimes I’ll be out on the trails and be able to clear thoughts from looping in my brain, and instead focus on my breath, or the trails, or just nothing.”
Interested in learning more? Join us for the inaugural O2 Outdoor Women’s Festival this September in Carbondale, Colorado, where Kriste Peoples will be leading a meditation workshop.
Zoë Rom is associate editor of Trail Runner and host/producer of the DNF Podcast.