When people hear about mindfulness, the image that usually comes to mind is someone sitting on the floor cross-legged, eyes closed. This formal way of meditating is, of course, very effective, but there are many other ways that we can bring mindfulness into our lives, including running. Recent research has shown that combining mindfulness and running has a greater impact on depressive symptoms than either of the two activities alone. So how can we bring mindfulness and running together? Here are some ideas for runners of all levels:
1. Letting go of thoughts
Before you go for a run, you might notice thoughts such as "No, you're too tired today" or "What if it starts raining and I get sick?". The mindful way through this is to carefully notice the excuses that your mind tends to make. You might even give them numbers (excuse one: too tired, excuse two: the weather). But instead of taking such thoughts as the 100% truth, you might want to choose to let go of them and still put on your running shoes. If you're feeling indecisive about running one day, why not try to run for at least ten minutes? After that, if you're really too tired, or if it really starts raining, you may choose to go home. But at least you've given it a go.
2. 'Taking in the good'
Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, writes that in order to cultivate happiness in our brains, we need to consciously stay with the good stuff for at least 10 to 20 seconds. A lot of good things can happen during a running session. We might encounter cute puppies playing with each other, and choose to slow down and direct our full attention to them. Doing so, you might notice that you start smiling; you may experience a fuzzy, warm feeling inside. And it's not only your surroundings that can make you feel good when running - your body may also feel great, especially when the endorphins kick in. Try to notice that too, for 10 to 20 seconds, making time to take in the good and appreciate each moment.
3. Being with discomfort
Learning to accept discomfort is a big part of mindfulness. When we run mindfully, we may notice a feeling of tiredness, a slightly restricted breath, or simply a psychological resistance to running. In those moments, it can be helpful to slow down and turn towards the uncomfortable feelings in our minds and bodies, approaching them with curiosity and mindful attention. After a while, you'll probably notice that the uncomfortable feeling has vanished. It was just a wave of discomfort and resistance to running that you've surfed with your mindfulness surfboard!
Don't forget that being a truly mindful runner involves being kind to yourself. If we don't take care of ourselves, we'll most likely get injured and be unable to run. For this reason, it's important to wear the right gear: good shoes, comfortable clothes, a weatherproof jacket etc. And it's extremely important to pay attention to the state of our bodies, every single day. Many runners, for example, suffer from pain in their knees ("runner's knee"). So, if your knee becomes painful, start walking for a while and only start running again if the pain subsides. If it still hurts, show yourself some self-compassion and walk back home.
5. Mindfulness of the senses
Part of mindfulness is noticing when we've drifted off into thoughts about the past or the future, then choosing to gently come back to the present moment. Often, we do this by reconnecting with a sensory anchor such as the breath, sounds or bodily sensations. When running, for example, we can bring our attention to our feet, noticing how different surfaces feel to the body. We can also form an intention to consciously focus on the breath, noticing how the in breath feels different to the out breath. Or, we can decide to focus on all the sounds around us - our footsteps, nature or cars passing by.
6. Breaking from automatic pilot
An important part of mindfulness is noticing our automatic patterns and actively breaking them. The next time you run, why not take your usual route in the opposite direction and pay close attention to how different things look? How does that tree look from the opposite side? How does it feel to run a sloped path downwards instead of upwards? Many of us pretended to be an airplane at some point in our childhood - why not become an airplane for a few moments? Play your favourite song and start dancing. Or simply stop running for a short while, and shake your whole body to release some tension!
Each day we put on our running shoes, our body and mind are in a different state. One day, we might feel tired, our limbs heavy. Another day, we may feel light as a feather, able to run like a rabbit. This is how life is - ever-changing, impermanent and quite often out of our control. That's why there's no need to get annoyed with our bodies when they don't behave the way we want them to. There's also no benefit in watching other runners overtake us, then falling into self-criticism. Instead, we should treat our body like a friend whose days are full of ups and downs - with patience and kindness.
8. Expressing emotions
As a physical exercise, running is a great way to feel, express and release emotions. If we feel frustrated about something, we might listen to angry music, such as hip-hop or punk rock, stomping our feet on the floor, a bit like when we're running. If you let it all out, you'll feel better after your run. But it's not only anger that we can express - we may also express joy or gratitude. We can listen to songs that make us super happy, really let ourselves feel happiness as we run and... smile.
9. A new choice each day
Sometimes we stop running for a while. Maybe because we've been injured or maybe because we've just been a bit lazy. At these times, the last thing we should do is be self-critical - this will only de-motivate us and make things worse. If we feel down, we'll be even less likely to get back on the running track. So, if you've taken a break from running, treat yourself with kindness and care and go back to... 1. Letting go of thoughts...