Is Running Meditation?
The surprising connection between running and mindfulness.
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Meditation, and in particular mindfulness meditation, has been in the news a lot lately. A recent feature in The New Yorker titled “The Higher Life” lauded the benefits of mindfulness, including a heightened awareness of different physical sensations and an improved ability to deal with pain. Mindfulness can reportedly cure anxiety, lower blood pressure and promote better sleep. And, according to Lizzie Widdicombe, who experimented with mindfulness meditation when writing The New Yorker piece, “Like travel, the chief boon of meditation might be the way that it throws the place you came from into relief. I’d never noticed what an incredible racket was going on in my mind: to-do lists, scraps of conversations, ancient memories…As calm set in, I’d occasionally achieve a few seconds of relaxed concentration, the meditative grail, which felt as if I were walking on a balance beam.”
As I finished the New Yorker article, a singular thought filled my mind: “mindfulness” could have been replaced with “running,” and nearly everything would have held true. Does mindfulness really deserve all the hype? And why bother with meditation when I already have a robust running practice? Running is meditation—or so I thought.
Stripped down to its essence, mindfulness meditation “is being aware of what is inside and around us in the present moment,” says Elli Weisbaum, a mindfulness teacher and a co-founder of Partners in Mindfulness. “Our mind can time travel into the future or the past—and we are doing that constantly. A goal of meditation is having our mind completely resting in the here and now.”
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When I started describing to Weisbaum, formerly a professional dancer with the Ballet Creole in Toronto, what I sometimes experience while running—what many call flow, or being completely immersed in every movement and sensation, totally in the zone—she cut me off. “Mindfulness meditation is different because it’s within you,” she interjected. It doesn’t require a particular environment and it doesn’t arise organically. Rather, she says, “with meditation you are in control of your awareness. You are directing your attention.”
A common way to practice mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the breath. By focusing solely on the breath for small chunks of time—things like the sound and feeling of air filling your lungs and flowing out of your nostrils—you strengthen your attention muscle.
When thoughts arise during this practice of focusing on the breath, you are not ignoring them, writes Sakyong Mipham, an esteemed Tibetan Lama who also runs marathons and is the author of Running with the Mind of Meditation. Instead, you are acknowledging those thoughts and releasing from them by returning to the breath. “You’re developing the ability to direct your thoughts and focus them on the object of your choosing,” he writes.
Viewed in this light, maybe mindfulness meditation is, in fact, distinct from running? Perhaps it is a tool that can be integrated into running to enhance experience and even performance.
Cameron Rentch, an accomplished ultrarunner based in San Diego, thinks so. “I use [mindfulness meditation] most in runs when I’m not feeling well,” he says. “When I sense that I’m entering a dark place or to deal with pain. Instead of being consumed by the negative feelings, I go back to my breath.” When I asked Rentch if he thinks mindfulness meditation has helped his running, he didn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah. Definitely,” he says. “It’s helped my running in a huge way.”
Rentch began meditating regularly three years ago, during a time in his life when he had “some things to sort out” and what he’d been doing “just wasn’t working.” He started off small, focusing on his breath for just a minute each morning. Rentch learned how to acknowledge thoughts, worry, and angst, and then to very intentionally let them go, returning to his breath.
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Not different from how a runner builds physical strength, Rentch continued to work his mental muscle, gradually adding meditation time. He now practices mindful breathing every morning for 10-20 minutes. “It’s kind of like running,” he joked. “If I don’t practice, something about my day just feels off.”
Now none of this is to say that running can’t be a sacred practice in itself. Entering “the zone” is a beautiful thing, and the physical and psychological benefits of running on your overall health are well documented. If anything, the way running inherently connects mind and body, along with the sport’s neurochemical effects, serve as a wonderful and unique way to prime for meditation, says Weisbaum.
Count on the Tibetan dharma king to sum it up best. “I have always found a natural relationship between running and meditation. Running can be a support for meditation, and meditation can be a support for running,” writes Mipham. And as for my initial thought? Mipham writes, “People sometimes say ‘Running is my meditation.’ Even though I know what they mean, in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation.”
Start Your Own Practice On The Run
While Weisbaum says Rentch’s entry into mindfulness meditation—i.e., sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on the breath—is a more traditional one, you can also use running’s priming benefit to start a practice on the run.
— Set your watch or phone to buzz about 15-20 minutes into a run, or however long it usually takes you to find your rhythm.
— Begin focusing solely on the breath. When other thoughts pop into your mind, acknowledge them and then let them go, returning to the breath.
— Once you have sustained about 45-60 seconds of uninterrupted focus on the breath, then shift your attention to your feet, concentrating on the sensation of the ground. (It may take a few runs to progress to this point, that’s OK.) If a thought arises, and they inevitably will, go back to the breath and then re-work your focus to the feet.
— Next, play around with shifting your attention to other elements of the run. Remember Weisbaum’s definition of mindfulness: “Being aware of what is inside and around us in the present moment.” Feel your heat beat in your chest. Or perhaps direct your full attention to the sounds of nature, the energy of a vibrant city, or the stillness of a calm morning.
— Whenever you start to feel overwhelmed by thoughts that are outside of the here and now, go back to the breath to re-enter a more mindful state.
Start small, and gradually expand your practice. Weisbaum recommends using the lap function on your running device of choice to bring you out of your mindfulness practice for that run. This way you won’t have to think about checking your watch.
About The Author:
Brad Stulberg is a freelance writer covering the art and science of health and human performance. You can follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.