How to Be a Mindful Runner
Mindfulness pros break down why mindfulness and your running shoes go so well together—and how to practice mindfulness while you’re in motion.
These days, folks are striving to be more mindful in every part of their lives. But seriously, what does that even mean?
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment or evaluation. In other words, simply noticing, says Anna Hennings, MA, a Portland-based mental performance consultant with an advanced degree in sport psychology. "[It's] noticing your thoughts, your breath, the sensations in your body; noticing when your mind wanders off or when something distracts you," she says. And you do this without lingering or ruminating on whatever your observation.
As a runner, specifically, "it's about developing a deeper relationship with running other than just clocking up miles to share with strangers on Strava, or blindly preparing for your next marathon," says Charlie Dark, a Lululemon ambassador, yoga instructor, runner, and founder of the London-based Run Dem Crew. "A mindful runner is someone who strives to evaluate their run beyond just metrics on a watch and the performance of the body, and doesn't just focus on distance and time, but also considers the impact of the run on the mind, the lessons learned on the run, and how that information can be shared to inspire others."
When we do this, when we tap into what Dark calls the meditative flow of a run until it becomes effortless and easy—you know, that feeling where you could run forever—that's when the flood gates of benefits open.
What are the benefits of mindful running?
"The intent with mindfulness is enjoying the present moment and process that allows one to reach their outcome without the pressure of having the metrics control you," explains Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, CMPC, director of performance services at Texas Optimal Performance & Psychological Services and an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. "So while I may have my goal to hit a time, while running I am focusing on my movement—the feeling of my body moving across the road, breathing, and feeling the wind—or hearing the birds, which locks me into the moment and can allow me to hit a flow state and run smoother, ultimately hitting the metrics I care about."
Research backs up mindfulness as a performance aid. One study published in the journal Neural Plasticity showed a boost in endurance when mindful techniques were used in preparation for an event, as well as during an athletic feat. Another study appearing in The Sport Journal revealed that being more mindful had the ability to thwart burnout.
It should also come as no surprise that being a mindful runner can improve your mental well-being, too. For one, it helps with depression. An eight-week study published in Translational Psychiatry revealed that when people did 30 minutes of focused meditation and aerobic exercise (yes, running counts!) combo twice a week, they experienced a 40 percent drop in depressive symptoms. Bringing mindfulness to running can also be a method of alleviating anxiety. According to research published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, engaging in mindfulness diminished competition-related anxiety. That same research also found that being more mindful came with an uptick in self-confidence.
Focus is essential when running mindfully
It seems obvious, but a lot of us like to zone out. You know, put on power songs (Cue Beyoncé's "Run the World"), and just run. But when you aren't focused, "you are unaware of your pace, movement, and not locked into body cues that can impact performance," Cauthen says. The result: "You may go too fast, or not be aware of breathing and cause more stress to yourself." Being checked in, though, allows us to pay attention to the present moment and ideally enjoy the process with "a sense of relaxed control."
Another crucial element involves what's going on in your noggin. Understanding your thought pattern while running at a particular pace or intensity can teach you how to stay present and not get overwhelmed by the sensations or feelings of exhaustion, according to Stephen Gonzalez, PhD, CMPC, athletics director for leadership and mental performance at Dartmouth College and an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
"When you notice an unpleasant feeling, try shifting your self-talk from 'I am tired' to 'I am feeling tired' or 'I am noticing that I am feeling tired,'" Hennings suggests, referring to the emotional agility work of Susan David, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. "'I am ___' is definitive. You are 100 percent that emotion or sensation. There is no room for anything else," Hastings says. "However, 'I am feeling ___' or 'I am noticing that I am feeling ___' leaves more room for other feelings to exist. This small change allows you to not get so stuck in any one emotion or sensation."
How to be a more mindful runner
Mindfulness is a learned behavior, and it will take some time to embody this approach. To get in tune with yourself while running, try run-specific meditation apps, such as Headspace + Nike guided runs on Nike Running and Run Mindful, or one of the five pro tips below.
Connect with your breath
Bringing your attention back to your breath and the sensation of breathing is a quintessential mindfulness exercise. “Guiding yourself through your inhales and exhales is a way to bring yourself back into the present,” Hennings says, adding that this skill will become more natural the more you do it. Her rec: practicing both in and out of your running shoes. For example, while waiting in line, “instead of immediately grabbing your phone, take three deep, diaphragmatic breaths to anchor yourself to that moment. Becoming a more mindful human will help you become a more mindful runner,” Hennings says.
Run through your senses
Focusing on these things helps keep you connected to the present moment. Next time you run, Hennings suggests you tune into specific physical sensations, like your posture and shoulders, your swinging arms, your rotating hips, your knees, and the impact of each foot plant to help achieve this. The more you can do exercises like this, the more efficiently you can run your body, Dark adds.
Take a break from tech
We know data is king. And runners want to record everything: pace, splits, distance—all the things. But that can become all-consuming. Instead, Dark suggests ditching your watch at least once a week to “focus on feeling, not metrics.” Ways to do this: “Beginning and ending your run with focus on the breath, before you even start moving. Closing your eyes and checking in with your body, from the feet, all the way up to the head. Spending the first mile of the run focusing on the feeling of gratitude rather than speed, gently warming up into your run,” Dark says.
Just visualize it
Using mental images to help prep the mind for an experience is a powerful tool. Dark takes advantage of this by first dedicating his runs to people in his life—those who are unable to run, friends who are no longer here, people within the community who he wants to inspire—and then “I visualize the person in my mind and imagine I’m running towards them or that they are beside me,” when his mind begins to wonder, he says.
Try the STOP method
When out running and a break presents itself, Gonzalez suggests thinking STOP: 1. Stop. 2. Take a breath 3. Observe your mind and body. and 4. Proceed again. “Doing the STOP method when at a traffic light or taking a quick water break can help you become more aware of your body and mind,” he says.
Ultimately, with a present-moment mindset, a mindful runner will likely put themselves in the position to increase their performance metrics, Hennings says, and enjoy their runs more along the way.