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.