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Running is physically hard. But as a primarily solo and introspective endeavor, it’s also mentally demanding. Hard workouts and long runs require discipline and a willingness to push through physical and mental discomfort. Sure, the more we run, the more we’re able to tolerate the challenges that come along with it, but what if the key to becoming a better runner actually has nothing to do with the physical at all? It turns out seated meditation might be that key.
Research demonstrates that meditation can balance hormones, enhance your ability to process information, boost your immune system, increase sleep quality and decrease depression and anxiety. It also can increase pain tolerance and your capacity to focus, a powerful combination in building the maturity and emotional stability required for success on the trail.
What Is Meditation?
Much like lifting weights tones our body, meditation strengthens and transforms the mind through holding a single-pointed focus for an extended period. The focus can be on the breath, a mantra, a sensation or even a thought. This requires a deep inward concentration, something that is best achieved through stillness and the elimination of external distraction, like movement.
As runners, we like to be in motion, so the idea of sitting in stillness might be difficult at first, but it’s a necessary step. Sakyong Mipham, head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and author of Running with the Mind of Meditation, says, “Movement is good for the body, and stillness is good for the mind.”
Like running, cultivating a sustainable meditation practice takes discipline. It also requires holding your attention tightly enough on the focus point that you don’t get bored, but loosely enough that you don’t feel agitated. And when the mind drifts away, it’s gently nudging ourselves back to the point of focus over and over again.
So how does this lead to better performance on the trail?
Toning the Mind to Optimize Performance
Studies confirm that over time and with consistent meditation practice, you are able to concentrate for longer periods without your mind wandering. This not only creates a more relaxed mind and body, but it develops positive thought patterns and increases grey matter in your brain—the area responsible for emotions, motor skills, decision making and self control.
What’s more, studies indicate that people who meditate exhibit more emotional stability than those who don’t. And on race day, simply how you handle stress might be the difference between a personal best and a DNF.
A 2015 study by Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., Associate Director of Neuroscience at the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine in North Carolina, found that mindful meditation eases pain by deactivating the parts of our brain that deal with anxiety. “After just a couple of days of practice, meditation diminished both the intensity and unpleasantness of pain,” says Zeidan.
Further, he discovered that a long-term meditation practice actually changes the meditator’s relationship with pain altogether. Participants were able to recognize pain as temporary and then accept and “let go” of it, an essential skill when it comes to bettering athletic performance. And examples in the trail-running world abound (see “Cases In Point”).
The more you accept discomfort as inherent to running, the more pain you are able to endure, says Mackenzie Havey, author of the forthcoming book Mindful Running. “Often we realize that the pain and discomfort aren’t as bad as we first perceived. And this can lead to a more enjoyable running experience and better running performances.”
After all, running, as we have so often heard, is only 10-percent physical and 90-percent mental.
Cases in Point
How elite trail runners use meditation to fuel performance.
Darcy Piceu, 42, a top-level ultrarunner from Boulder, Colorado, says meditation helps mitigate debilitating thoughts during a race.
“There is a point in every ultra when my body wants to quit. It’s at this point that my ability to work with my mind becomes crucial,” she says. “I notice the thoughts telling me to stop and I let them go.”
Elite ultrarunner Timothy Olson, 33, of Boulder, partly attributes his course-record performance at the 2012 Western States 100 to the emotional stability and awareness he gains from a seated meditation practice. When he ran out of gels at mile 62, just before dropping into the blistering-hot canyons, things could have turned ugly.
“I analyzed my situation, slowed down and to my surprise I was OK without gels,” he says. “My awareness in that moment and my ability to let the day flow is the biggest reason I set the course record.”
Melody Fairchild, 43, a top U.S. masters runner in Boulder, practices meditation before every race in order to calm down and focus.
“When I meditate before a race, it helps me deal with stress,” she says. “I feel turned on and tapped in when I’m racing.”
Clare Gallagher, 25, winner of the 2016 Leadville Trail 100, also from Boulder, says lessons learned in meditation help her build mental stamina required during long races.
“I’ll focus intensely inward when I’m in pain, taking every second at a time,” she says. “This can be monotonous, but eventually, I find myself at the finish line.”
Mindful Meditation 101
1. To start, find a quiet, uncluttered area in your home—a corner, room, a closet even—that you can turn into your “meditation station,” a place you can go to practice every day. Sit comfortably with a tall, erect spine. Either use a chair or, if seated in a cross-legged position (lotus), prop your hips up on a yoga block or bolster so that they are above your knees (it is important to be comfortable).
2. Don’t jump into meditating for long periods of time. Studies show that the most benefits occur at or just after 10 minutes, so start there. In fact, if 10 minutes is all you ever feel like doing, that’s fine. Just stick to it. Use a timer to keep track of the minutes so you don’t have to. Once you’re comfortable, close your eyes and relax your facial muscles.
3. Mindful meditation involves using the breath as a point of focus. For beginners, focus on the breath by counting the length of each inhale and exhale. As this gets easier, begin to simply observe the breath as it comes and goes. When focus departs from the breath, notice, and gently bring it back again by resuming to count the length of each inhale and exhale.
4. If you grow bored, extend your exhale. If you become agitated, lengthen your inhale. This creates balance in the practice.
5. When the timer is up and your meditation is complete, take a moment to thank yourself for practicing and make a commitment to return again the next day. Meditation is not always easy. Sometimes, out of 10 minutes, you may only feel “in the zone” for 10 seconds. It is simply part of the process. Just like running, with both time and practice, meditation will become easier.
Ashley Arnold is a former Associate Editor of Trail Runner. She meditates daily and teaches Yoga for Runners in Asheville, North Carolina.