The bene­fits of mind­ful­ness for ultra run­ning

Mind­ful­ness has its roots in ancient Buddhist teach­ings and has been around for thou­sands of years, how­ever its prac­tice has only become main­stream in the last dec­ade or so. As more and more best-selling mind­ful­ness apps emerge, its cur­at­ive powers appear more wide-ran­ging and its inter­ested parties more diverse — from the NHS to NASA, Google to Gold­man Sachs and even the Brit­ish Mil­it­ary, every­one seems to be assess­ing the hype. But can mind­ful­ness med­it­a­tion be use­ful for run­ners, and if so, how?

Although the prac­tice of mind­ful­ness has assumed dif­fer­ent forms over the years and is nowadays largely taught inde­pend­ent of its Buddhist ori­gins, its cent­ral pur­pose has remained con­stant: to end suf­fer­ing. Here, the poten­tial bene­fit for run­ners becomes clear; the ter­min­a­tion of suf­fer­ing is some­thing that most of us, regard­less of abil­ity, exper­i­ence, or race inten­tion, will inev­it­ably long for at some point dur­ing an ultramara­thon.

So, what does ‘mind­ful­ness’ actu­ally mean?
Mind­ful­ness can mean a lot of things to a lot of dif­fer­ent people, but two cent­ral com­pon­ents are the concept of ‘non-judge­ment­al self-aware­ness’ and the decept­ively simple-sound­ing notion of ‘being present’.

Being present whilst run­ning might sound easy in the­ory, but can be dif­fi­cult in prac­tice — par­tic­u­larly as, for some, the appeal of run­ning lies dir­ectly in its mind­less­ness; a time to switch off and let go. How­ever, run­ning in its purest sense is a fully integ­rated mind-body exper­i­ence, mak­ing it the ideal activ­ity dur­ing which to prac­tice heightened aware­ness, and the bene­fits can be huge.

For run­ners, being present and men­tally con­nect­ing with your move­ment, such as focus­ing your atten­tion on the feel­ing of your feet con­tact­ing the ground or the rhythmic rise and fall of your breath, can help align your form, reduce anxi­ety, and help you relax and reach that sought-after state of flow.

Being present can also pre­vent you from being dis­trac­ted by poten­tially per­form­ance inhib­it­ing psy­cho­lo­gic­al factors, such as wor­ry­ing about wheth­er you’ve set off too fast, how long you have left to go, how quickly every­one else is going, or what that stitch-like feel­ing devel­op­ing in your mid­riff might be.⁣

Fur­ther, cul­tiv­at­ing a sense of non-judge­ment­al self-aware­ness means that when the burn­ing in your quads/hamstrings/calves/toes can no longer be ignored, these factors become neut­ral sources of inform­a­tion use­ful for pacing and re-estab­lish­ing good run­ning form, rather than indu­cing emo­tion­ally stim­u­lated pan­ic.

By teach­ing you to mon­it­or how your body actu­ally feels, while sus­pend­ing judge­ment about it, mind­ful­ness can help you pre­pare for feel­ings of dis­com­fort, there­fore avoid­ing the psy­cho­lo­gic­al mis­match between expec­ted and actu­al effort levels, and pre­vent an over­re­ac­tion to pain — ulti­mately, allow­ing you to push on fur­ther.


How can mind­ful­ness med­it­a­tion be prac­ticed?
It is use­ful to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the concept of mind­ful­ness and the prac­tice of med­it­a­tion. Dur­ing med­it­a­tion, one is delib­er­ately removed from every­day life to train the mind in mind­ful­ness tech­niques. Mind­ful run­ning then, involves going out into the world and put­ting the tech­niques into play. It is there­fore bene­fi­cial to prac­tice mind­ful med­it­a­tion when you aren’t run­ning, and there are a range of eas­ily access­ible apps that can help — Head­space and Calm are two of the most pop­u­lar.

When it comes to prac­ti­cing mind­ful run­ning, here are five simple recom­mend­a­tions to get you star­ted:

1) Take a breath­er before you begin
How many times have you set off for a run already stressed-out — think­ing about work dead­lines, fam­ily com­mit­ments, or an upcom­ing event? Take two minutes to sit down and focus on your breath­ing, bring­ing your atten­tion back to your breath when you get dis­trac­ted, before head­ing out the door.

2) Ditch the dis­trac­tions
Shed any extern­al dis­trac­tions, such as your phone, music, or GPS watch (*gasp*) — it does­n’t have to be for the whole run, in just a few minutes you’ll likely start to focus more on your tech­nique and take in more of your sur­round­ings.

3) Set an inten­tion
Know­ing what you want to gain from a workout sets the mind and body up for suc­cess. If it’s going to be a tough ses­sion, you can pre­pare for feel­ings of dis­com­fort and pre­vent pan­ic arising when it starts to hurt.

4) Focus on the senses
Bring your aware­ness to the present moment by focus­ing not just on your body, but your sur­round­ings. Take note of a few things that you can see, smell, taste and hear — even the feel­ing of the wind on your skin.

5) Don’t try not to think
Mind­ful run­ning isn’t about ban­ish­ing thoughts, it’s about being a wit­ness to them and not enga­ging with them. Let your thoughts, feel­ing and emo­tions come and go — when you notice you’ve become dis­trac­ted, refo­cus on your breath, foot strike, and the inter­ac­tion between your body and its sur­round­ings.


A huge thank you to Chris Taylor, an awe­some mem­ber of the Ultra X com­munity for this guest con­tri­bu­tion.

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