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When Mary* came to me last spring, she was desperate. She had attempted 100 miles twice, and twice she DNF’d. She’d invested heavily into her physical preparation, working with a coach and a dietitian to dial things in. But each race had derailed — with negative self talk, fatigue and stress all playing a role in her decision to drop. Mary worried that maybe she couldn’t run 100 miles. She decided to focus on her mental skills and try one more time.
Immediately I knew that I wanted to introduce Mary to mindfulness. My training as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and my years as a therapist and running coach have shown me it can be the most powerful tool in a runner’s toolkit. In this article we’ll explore what mindfulness is, why every runner should incorporate it into their training, and how to do exactly that.
What is Mindfulness?
The primary function of our brain is to keep us safe. To do this, it is constantly scanning the environment for potential threats. When it encounters a threat—real or perceived—it directs our attention to that threat and activates the stress response. The stress response is an automatic process of physiological and hormonal changes that are designed to help us survive. It’s what helps us jump out of the way when we see a snake in the middle of a trail or a mountain biker barreling toward us.
But the brain doesn’t always do a great job of differentiating between a perceived threat and a real threat, especially in high pressure and high stress situations. Like race day, for example. Even though the race itself isn’t an actual threat of life or death, the brain reacts as though it is and activates the stress response. This produces cortisol and adrenaline which result in rapid heart rate, negative thoughts, an inability to think clearly, dry mouth, and tightened muscles. Mindfulness gives us the control to differentiate between perceived and real threats, while shutting off the stress response before it derails our race.
Mindfulness has its roots in eastern and Buddhist philosophy, dating back over 2,500 years, but was secularized and brought into the world of psychology in the late 1970s by Jon Kabbat-Zinn. A professor at The University of Massachusetts, Kabbat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction to marry a scientific approach with traditional eastern practices.
Kabbat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non judgmentally.” Awareness is cultivated by observing what is happening internally (thoughts, emotions, sensations) and how those are influenced by the external environment. With this awareness comes the ability to respond with intention instead of react automatically.
How Can Mindfulness Help?
It’s this awareness of what is happening inside and outside of the self, coupled with the ability to incorporate that awareness into our responses, that makes mindfulness useful in many contexts, including running. Let’s look at how Mary used mindfulness to finally reach her goal of running 100 miles.
In her previous races, Mary would notice the number of miles still ahead, focus on the person who passed her, or fixate on discomfort. These experiences would activate a stress response or a cascade of defeating thoughts. With mindfulness, Mary is better able to tell when her stress response is activated, what sets it off, and how to differentiate between a perceived threat and an actual threat. When it’s only a perceived threat, Mary can communicate to her body that it is safe, activating a relaxation response and feeling an immediate decrease in stress with lower heart rate, relaxed muscles, and the ability to access logic.
At the same time there’s greater control over the stress response, mindfulness practitioners develop the ability to control where to direct their attention. With intention, Mary can choose to focus all of her attention to the present moment. Optimally, this level of focus leads to “flow state.” These experiences, a complete immersion in the task at hand, correlate to better performance outcomes and satisfaction.
Mindfulness isn’t just effective on race day. By consistently practicing mindfulness throughout training, Mary actually changed the structure of her brain. Consistent mindfulness practice reduces overall stress by decreasing activity in the amygdala (the “alarm center of the brain” that can misinterpret threats) and shrinking the amygdala itself. Mindfulness has also been shown to have more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain associated with self regulation. These long term changes help Mary on race day even when she isn’t actively using mindfulness.
To help Mary incorporate mindfulness into her training, I did exactly what I would do with an athlete looking to gain endurance or physical strength — started small, and focused on consistency. Just as muscle and endurance can be strengthened through consistent training, the capacity for mindfulness practice can be built with repetition. It will feel hard at first, just like running a mile was hard at first, but it will get easier.
Mary used both formal and informal mindfulness practices. Formal practices include things like meditation, body scans, and guided visualizations: intentional exercises with a dedicated amount of time for the purpose of cultivating mindfulness. Apps such as Headspace, Calm,or Insight Timer are great places to start.
If formal practice is like going to the gym, informal practice is chasing your kid around the park. It’s using fitness gained from formal practice and bringing it into everyday life. Mary practiced mindfulness informally by bringing awareness into the present moment and focusing attention on a specific anchor (her breath, a scent, a sound) or action (eating, doing dishes, running). With practice, Mary could catch her mind when it wandered and bring it back to where she intended.
Overtime, Mary’s capacity for mindfulness practice increased and she was practicing 15-20 minutes/day, most days. The strongest studies linking mindfulness to changes in brain structure and long term decreases in stress are based on this frequency. But every practice, no matter how small, cultivates mindfulness.
Turns out, Mary was capable of running 100 miles. She still experienced tough moments and unhelpful thoughts, but this time she was prepared to respond.