Article by Anna-Beth aka @GlitterMousie
‘Running is my meditation!’ How many times have you heard or stated that? It was certainly an opinion I held until I was coerced into a taster meditation session at the Manchester Buddhist Centre in early 2015 in an attempt to find a way of easing symptoms of anxiety. From the position of a staunch atheist (‘no way am I spiritual, I believe in science dammit’) this was no easy task. I was however, at least open minded enough to discover a whole new mental dimension to myself and a much needed counterbalance to the frenetic physical activity I had been subjecting myself to. Ironically, I had convinced myself that a routine of daily running and cross training with the occasional ‘rest day’ of yoga, weights and core work was the best way I had to keep myself feeling mentally balanced. Having had experience of imbalance at the other end of the movement scale through enforced immobility during teenage illness, I have truly learned the value in each of these states and have come to the conclusion that running is not my meditation, any more than sitting and thinking about how I move my body through a landscape is my running. What I have learned is that to achieve genuine health it is necessary to pay just as much attention to training the mind as to training the body but there are skills to be learned from each that anyone can effectively apply to the other. Mind training supports physical training, just as maintaining an active lifestyle is good for mental health. In some ways they are polar opposites but just like opposing colours, ultimately they are entirely complimentary and, like two ends of a spectrum, if they are aligned in relation to one another then everything else can synch up naturally in between.
Of course, this is not a new idea and it was through reading books and articles linking meditation techniques to running that I found the confidence to try meditating in the first place. I have since devised a ‘mental toolkit’ that I use to help me improve my form and focus, especially during longer runs or the dreaded darker miles. Earlier this year these were very well received when I shared some of them in a workshop at the UKRunChat training weekend in Eastbourne and positive feedback since then suggests the participants continue to utilise them during their training.
In his 2012 book Running with the Mind of Meditation, Sakyong Mipham delves deeply into the relationship between mind and body, especially when running. He links the concept of building a base for training the body with that of training the mind as a fundamental method to get them both to do what you want them to.
“The bones and tendons of the mind are mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is the mind’s strength and awareness is its flexibility.”
My interpretation of this difference is that awareness is being ‘in the moment’, which is an important start, but mindfulness is more about being deliberate in your thoughts and actions. Mipham says a key difference between mind and body is that we recognise in ourselves more physical than mental weakness. It doesn’t surprise us if we get tired running but it never occurs to us that our mind might be also become out of shape, an observation that seems really quite poignant in modern society. Movement, he says, is good for the body. Stilness, good for the mind. One key method of positively aligning the mind and body is through the act of breath management. Being aware of your breathing is a very important tool for grounding yourself in the present and is obviously absolutely critical for efficient running. My breath is now my starting point when I think about running, even before I’ve decided which pair of trainers I need. Meditation itself may not be interesting or accessible to you at this moment in your life, however there are still techniques you can try. In the following paragraphs, I’ll take you through the aspects of mindfulness I apply to different stages of training runs and racing.
In the hours before a run, as you prepare your kit before bed for an early one, or look forward to the evening session after work, try not to anticipate your experience of it. We often tell ourselves stories of how things will be that have not yet happened and in so doing we can close ourselves off to experiencing things positively when they finally do happen. If you find yourself worrying that it will be a tough run, remind yourself that this is only one possibility and that when you get there, you may feel completely different.
Time to go! I begin a run by using breathing techniques to achieve mental stillness. Counting in and out for an equal measure helps me ensure I am breathing deeply into my full lung capacity and not engaged in the quick, shallow pattern we assume during stress response. You can double this counting up to help you time your
dynamic stretches. Use your stretches to become aware of your bodily sensations too. Ask yourself ‘How do I feel?’ but take time to listen to the honest answer without preloading how you think you should feel or chiding yourself if that doesn’t match. Do you feel mentally or physically tired from other exertions? That’s OK, maybe you need to knock back a gear. Put your ego in check. Five less kilometres, or 30 seconds on your mile splits won’t hurt your fitness if your body needs you to be a bit gentler today. Maybe it’s one of those happy days where your legs feel as supple as fresh willow and you’re tingling with a ‘let’s go!’ buzz? Recognise that and enjoy it!
As you begin, notice how your breathing and heart rate changes as your body adapts to the new demands for oxygen and blood flow. Allow yourself to breathe as needed, taking oxygen in to fuel your muscles as deeply as feels comfortable. Don’t judge the run too soon; you’re warming up. Legs feel heavy? That’s fine, the blood just hasn’t got flowing yet. Relax into your experience at the pace that feels right for today. Don’t fix your experience too soon or judge the whole run by the first mile. Remember this run is a one off, never to be repeated event.
Become aware of your environment, even if you’re using a treadmill. How is your body responding to and moving through the space? Take time to focus on each of your senses; what can you see, hear and smell? How does that energy drink really taste? (Don’t dwell on that one!) How are your feet interacting with the running surface? Is it springy and receptive or hard and unforgiving? Is an uneven terrain making your ankles work harder than usual or is a track surface speeding you along unimpeded?
The midsection of the run is the ideal opportunity to start working with your thoughts. You will inevitably become aware that you are thinking particular things that are either related to, or completely separate from your running experience. Sometimes, one of the best things about running is the space and time we find in order to think over a particular problem or tackle a specific issue and I have done some of my most creative thinking whilst out running; if that’s your experience today then go with it. If you are experiencing unhelpful thoughts however, or finding this run particularly physically challenging, then it can be helpful to gently place your mind on a more positive train of thought instead. Some people find that repeating a simple mantra can help them run strong and stay focussed and you may want to experiment with finding one that works for you. Some alternatives include returning to counting your breaths; how many intakes do you currently need per stride? (This can take a few attempts to get!) You can also try working out your cadence; how many times does your left foot strike the ground in 15 seconds? If you are not in the mood for anything that taxing, simply maintaining mindfulness of your environment can be just as good. Take time to really fully experience your entire bodily sensation and not just the one tiny little bit of it that might be grumbling. Imagine your whole awareness filling every part of your body like water filling a jug. Feel the air move past your face, your clothes brushing your skin. Listen to sounds around you; traffic? Birds? Feet pounding treadmills? Notice details; what are the seasonal indicators in your environment? Leaves sprouting or falling? People in summer or winter wear?
Whatever technique you employ, don’t berate yourself when you realise you’ve started worrying about that report you still haven’t written or planning what’s for dinner. Gently invite your mind back onto the experience. This is all part of mental training and recognising that your mind has wandered is a positive way of managing a simple inevitability!
And it’s done! As you cool down and stretch, repeat the ‘body scan’ that you started with. How are you feeling? Don’t start assessing whether you ‘did well enough’, you can do that later when you review your training log. If you stopped early or ran slower than planned, well done, you listened to your body and made the adjustments it needed; that’s not easy to do. If it was one of those blissful runs that went better than planned, fantastic, enjoy that afterglow! Check through each part of you; how are your feet? Feeling good? Shoes still in good repair or is it approaching upgrade time? How are the legs? Any areas need a longer stretch than others? Any injury or niggle warning lights? Core and upper body feeling strong or could you benefit from an extra strength session this week? Skin good or is there dryness or chafing that might need some TLC? This is also a good time to do more breath work. At this point I count in and out cycles for repetitions of 10, becoming aware
of how these naturally slow down and lengthen as my body comes to stillness. Over and above, I have found it a really important part of my cool down to be simply thank my body for the amazing thing it’s just done for me. I try and put into perspective how fortunate I am to have the health and mobility that allowed the run in the first place, regardless of how I experienced it. I find that if I remember that, even the harder runs become genuine opportunities for celebrating and accepting my body just as it is.
As I have come to recognise sitting meditation is an important part of maintaining my health, I no longer view running as meditation, nor do I view mindfulness as a fashionable self-help tool. I recently read that the Tibetan word for meditation is ‘gom’, which I now like to think of now as ‘gym’ for the mind! I take my body to the gym and I take my mind to the gom. Regardless of how intensively I am maintaining my meditation practice however, I find mindfulness when running can help tackle the thoughts that come in and say ‘this hurts’ or ‘I’m tired’, enabling me to manage these rather than entering a negative mental spiral or chasing them away while I try and distract myself and end up with an injury because I’ve ignored a niggle! Hopefully you may also find one or more of these ideas useful to help you really experience and then enjoy every run; even the tough ones!