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Mindful Running: The Ultimate Guide to Meditative Running

When you add mindfulness to your runs, you increase body awareness, build endurance, and create the conditions for flow to occur. You’ll also be doing your mind a big favor.

Some people call running a form of moving meditation, and for good reason. On the best runs, there’s a sense of flow, where you naturally tune out external distractions and enter a state of relaxed effortlessness, all the while becoming more intimately aware of yourself.

The same is true in meditation.

And when you pair the two, you weave an array of benefits for your mental and emotional well-being into your physical fitness.

Read on to learn how to bring mindfulness along on your next run.

What is Mindful Running?

Mindful running is consciously employing the tools of meditation and mindfulness practice to the physical activity of running.

As any runner knows, running can be a naturally meditative endeavor. From the kinetic experience of limbs, muscles, joints, and breath working in sync to the mantra-like rhythm of an efficient stride, on the best runs, you feel effortless, integrated in body and mind, and fully awake in the present moment.

…And then there are those times when running is just a slog: You struggle to find a comfortable pace; your breathing pattern is off; your hip (knee, ankle, fill in the blank) creaks; your thoughts go anywhere but where you actually are. And on it goes until the moment that you realize you’re finally done—and yet can barely recall anything you experienced along the way.

Running with mindfulness means actively engaging your senses and directing your attention to fully immerse yourself in your run, noticing what’s happening inside your body and outside in the environment around you, and meeting it all—effortless stride, creaky knees, and passing scenery alike—with curiosity and acceptance.

The result is a greater feeling of ease and relaxation on your run and a heightened sense of awareness of your body and your environment.

What are the Benefits of Mindful Running?

Like mindful walking or any other type of mindful movement, mindful running is an effective way to build your capacity for staying present. And this has far-reaching implications for your mental, emotional, and physical health.

It might even make you a better runner.

Here are some science-backed ways that pairing physical activity like running with mindfulness supports your body and mind:

Reduces stress.

When you’re under stress, your body moves into a state of high alert. Your muscles tense, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure spikes, and your body releases adrenaline to prepare you to flee or fight. Both running and meditation counter this effect, helping the body come down from a stressed state. Physical movement releases muscle tension and burns off excess energy. Aerobic activity triggers the release of endorphins, which are responsible for what’s known as the “runner’s high.” And following aerobic activity, the body downregulates more quickly into a parasympathetic state that makes you feel more calm and relaxed. Research also finds that those who exercise regularly, like people who practice meditation, may have greater resilience to stressful situations.

Helps manage moderate to severe depression.

Researchers have found that combining aerobic activity, like running, with meditation offers powerful support for people struggling with depression, reducing symptoms by as much as 40 percent.

Makes your brain grow.

Research suggests that the combination of aerobic activity and focused attention helps generate new neural cells and keeps them alive. This supports cognitive functions, including learning and memory, and mental and emotional well-being.

Strengthens body awareness.

Runners who run without external stimulation, such as music, and instead use a mindful focus, report feeling more in tune with their bodies, calmer, and experience a greater sense of control.

Increases endurance and skillfulness.

One study found that college athletes who did a 5-week mindfulness training showed improvements in both performance endurance and executive functioning. The study authors surmised that by strengthening mindfulness, athletes are better able to ignore external distractions and negative thoughts and can stay mentally connected and more effectively focus on the goal at hand.

Improves outlook.

When people exercise in nature, they experience a wide range of physical and psychological benefits. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and fatigue and may even boost immunity, among other benefits.

Go Deeper

Talk · 46 mins

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

Rick shares the science-backed benefits of mindfulness and how the practice affects the body and brain, and therefore our lives.

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How to Practice Mindful Running

  1. Take a few moments before your run to engage your lungs and diaphragm and to help engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Exhale fully to expel all the air in your lungs, and then inhale through your nose only for up to five seconds, filling the lower half of your lungs first; hold for the same length of time; and then exhale all the air out your mouth. Do this deep breathing exercise a few times.
  2. Start running at a slow to comfortable pace and establish a breathing pattern that you can sustain. Research indicates that a combination of nasal breathing and mouth breathing may be the most efficient for runners. But it can be difficult to do without training. You might also try a 2-2 or 3-3 pattern of mouth-only breathing, where you inhale for the same length as you exhale. Focusing on the outbreath, even vocalizing or blowing out the exhale, can also help you stay focused.
  3. Begin to tune into physical sensations, such as your footstrike and the swing of your arms. Notice areas of stiffness or ease, how your muscles engage as you move through each step, and your running form.
  4. Rest your attention lightly on an anchor, such as the rhythm of your feet hitting the ground. When your mind wanders or you get distracted, just notice that it happened and return your attention to your anchor.
  5. You can keep your awareness on one anchor for your entire running meditation or move it to a different anchor. If you begin with noticing your breathing, for example, you might then become aware of your hands—how you’re holding them, any sensation, if they feel loose or tight—and then to any sounds in your environment, and so on. Any time your attention wanders, just notice, and bring it back to one of your anchors.
  6. If you’re running outdoors, allow yourself to become aware of things like how fresh air feels on your face; listen for any sounds, such as birdsong or wind; notice how sunlight filters through the trees. Take in the full measure of the natural world around you.
  7. When your time is up or you feel ready to end your meditation: stop; take a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling out your mouth; check in to notice how your body feels; and take a look around you. Go back to your day feeling grounded and relaxed.

Try It for Yourself

Meditation · 5-20 mins

Two Feet One Breath

In this meditation, we'll do a body scan meditation, relaxing bodily tension and grounding ourselves in deep presence.

A Few Tips for Running Mindfully

  • Leave the music at home. Meditative running asks us to tune in to ourselves instead of tuning out to a pumping playlist.
  • Make it manageable. To start out, try short practices of meditative running, or make just part of a longer run mindful. You can increase the time and distance as you feel more comfortable.
  • Find the rhythm. Your breathing and footstrike rhythms present natural anchors during a mindful run. If you get distracted or get caught up in thought, just guide your awareness back to one of those rhythms.
  • Go easy on yourself. You may only experience a moment or two of mindful focus during a run, and that’s OK. The goal isn’t necessarily to run a marathon in a meditative state, but instead to learn to bring the skill of mindfulness into everyday life.

Listen to Your Body

Meditation · 5-20 mins

Head-to-Body

So much of our stress comes from being caught in our thoughts and ideas. In this meditation, we'll drop from our head to our body, the one place that is always present.

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