Finding mindfulness when running.

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Running is like Yoga? Illustration by Sonny Ross.

Running is Meditation? Image Sonny Ross.

With practice, you get better at things…. right? Well if this is so, why do so many people find going for a workout such a terrible commitment in their lives?

My first ‘real’ blog post at Good People Run and boy oh boy it’s taken me a while to commit to just sitting and writing. But I’m here- in front of the screen finally – attempting to explain what I gain from running outside of the obvious health benefits. People say I’m a natural runner. I say that I’m able to enjoy running so I run often. With practice, you get better at things…. right? Well if this is so, why do so many people find going for a workout such a terrible commitment in their lives? I’ve asked this very question to myself many times when getting ready for a run “what motivates me to keep on running?” and “why do I like it so much?”- and after quite a few years I’ve finally got my own answer. Mindfulness.

… running connects my mind and my steps, offering a zen like realisation.

Try this thought. Running is really a physical type of meditation. It makes sense, right? There is that repetitive motion like the ‘tick tock’ of a clock and the syncing rhythm of breath with burning muscles. Like sitting in a hot sauna, where the mind swings to the reality of nothing more than HEAT… running connects my mind and my steps, offering a zen like realisation. It might take me 20 or more minutes to settle into this state of mind but 8 out of 10 runs I find this “zone” quite readily… and I like this place. There are no phones, emails, bills to pay or #firstworldproblems. During this mindful state I switch from negative thoughts to positive, from uncertainty to definite, from lies to truth. People talk of running being more of a state of mind than physical and I really do feel that I tap into some sub conscious state during longer runs, where anything is possible.

Add in music, the views, heightened awareness of my surroundings, things seem to be more colourful, senses aligned and my ultimate #runnershigh ! So back to my original thoughts on why do some of us find exercise fun and more than ‘just working out’ and others it becomes part of their life? Well, I set about doing some research and I’m not alone thinking this way it seems. A dutch group of scientists recently discovered that “Both satisfaction and mindfulness relate to sustained physical activity.” The New York Times also published an article on jump starting your exercise routine through mindfulness, along with other studies exploring how bodily discomfort can also heighten mindfulness.

Best of all I don’t need to run super long distances these days to get into a meditative zone to visualise, unclutter and refocus. I’m able to enjoy short city jogs that last more than 30 mins to find my mind is revitalised and I’d like to share with you some ways that help me relax, and train for longer distances, and focus on the positives of life. Sure, these approaches are very personal to me and i’m not a qualified doctor or therapist. But what I do have experience in is running ultra distances with a head strong approach, and regular runs that fit into my busy professional and Family life.

So here are my own tip and thoughts to help you find some mindfulness on your runs.

Breathing

Breathe deeply and consciously into your whole body deep into your belly and feel the relaxing sensation in tense areas. But the important part is to breath deep and steady, controlled and as a guide with your pace. If you start loosing your breath, slow things down underfoot, and re focus. This is your ideal running pace that connects you physically with your breathing.

Did you know: The average person takes 21,600 breaths a day, but how many are you aware of? Enjoy this awareness while running.

Positive thinking and creative visualisation

There is some science behind positive thinking and visualisation and how it can change brainwave levels and influence how our nervous system and body respond. I first heard about this while studying Biochemistry at University, so during my exams I’d repeat in my mind that ‘I would pass with flying colours’ while on the tread mill and I passed :) I just had to look into this further and discovered;

“Optimal mindset training cultivates the discipline required to search for the most productive thought in any given moment. A negative thought can be the loudest thought in your mind in that moment, but thoughts come and go quickly, and it takes discipline to suspend judgment and listen for the next loudest thought, which is likely to be a more productive one.” – Adam O’Neil, M.A. With Pinnacle Performance Psychology at DISC Sports Medicine.

So when training for my first early long distance running events for both road and dirt, when the going got tough, I’d visualise the finish line and running past it arms in the air and full of energy. It seemed to work pretty well then too, and really helped me shift my way of thinking about the outcomes around me. These days I still use creative visualisation during most of my runs during my busy week, and find that I can focus on the most stressful aspects of my life and work through them. During this time with ‘myself’ away from all of the other ‘life noise’, things seem simpler and clearer and allows a more positive take on things for me. GPR writer Janet, talks more about making an appointment with ourselves here that discusses these thoughts more.

So we control how our brains think of our world. If your brain believes that you can make it to the finish line, your chances of doing so increase profoundly. Like wise, if you tell yourself that you will finish that on going project or assignment, then you will. What about dealing with a marriage breakup or issues at work? Focussing and visualising positive outcomes while running will help.

Did you know: Negative emotions influence your brain and can activate the fight-or-flight response, where you may feel stress or fear.

Awareness of good form to avoid injuries

Forget the GPS, heart rate monitor and app. You have all of the tools at hand to know how to run better and more sustainably. I see good form as an important role in helping to achieve enjoyable regular running, and to avoid injuries. When I’m being mindful of my form, it’s as if my running becomes a muscle reflex, and is so fluid. When in ‘this moment’, nothing feels better, and I feel very relaxed.

I focus on maintaining a short, quick stride (or cadence) and a positive arm swing. Running tall with head high I then feel the act of swinging my arms while turning over my feet quickly. What I learnt many years ago is that proper running mechanics begin with the head down to the feet, and something our friend James kuegler Coaching teaches in their running workshops.

“Begin by releasing unnecessary tension from your jaw and shoulders while engaging your core. Focus on running tall with an erect but relaxed posture and short, smooth strides.”  – Mario Fraioli, Senior Editor of Competitor magazine and an elite level running coach.

Did you know: The optimal running cadence is 180 steps per minute. So next run, think and focus on short strides and finding your ideal rhythm.

Being present in the now is a beautiful thing.  Photo by Paul Petch.

Being present in the now is a beautiful thing. Photo by Paul Petch.

Be present in the now

I’m sure that like me, your life is full of distractions. Digital media, family, kids, paying bills, TV, Ebay :) I’m not particularly good at relaxing at all, and find that running is the way for me to get away from the noise. When I run, my mind as usual starts to wander, but I bring it back. I take in my surroundings. Focus on the rhythm of my movement, breathing and form… and the stillness within this place. I’m a huge music listener on my runs so find this is an efficient way to connect all of these together and be present right now. To help me find my “now” I allow myself to contemplate and think about my day, life in general, and what’s important to me.

“Running is 10% physical and 90% mental”. How many times have you heard this expression? “Reaching your potential in athletics requires the ability to harness that mental presence to transcend what you thought was possible.” –  Runners World.

Did you know: You think 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. We can’t stop the thoughts, but we can be at peace with them.

Good energy of people

Running while not always a perfectly pain free experience (!!) is such an up lifting hobby or in some cases a career. When I’m out jogging I like to take in the energy of other runners with a hello or eye contact and ‘head nod’. As an urban solo runner most of the time, this social aspect might seem trivial to many, but us runners have an understanding.. and no need for to many words :) If you are more of a social runner then great, you have a bunch of like minded people to feel good about and chew the fat. Enjoy the small stuff.

I make sure to connect with as many other runners regardless of their abilities when I’m out on foot as we all started at the same place. For the past few years I’ve also run sun glass free to make life simpler (less to carry!), but to also have the ability to connect with others in some small way with my eyes. I have noticed a trend though, that runners on the return leg of my regular street route seem the happiest to connect! I wonder why!

Did you know: Running releases endorphins in your body, which are natural mood-boosters. In effect you can help yourself choose happiness simply by running. Don’t think you have to run for miles to get these feelings though, as any activity will help. GPR ambassador Dr. Michelle Dickinson recently blogged about this, and worth a read over here.

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I’d love your thoughts on this topic.

  • How do you see running makes you a better person?
  • Is this all mumbo jumbo? Do you run with a totally different mindset? What is it?
  • I’d like to hear your own story… so please add your comments below.

Article illustration by Sonny Ross.

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Paul Petch
Director of Good People Run, pro photographer, tutor and a recovering 'runaholic'. Based in Auckland City, my work is at www.paulpetch.co.nz
Paul Petch

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  • Robyn Santa Maria

    This is a great post, thanks Paul. It definitely resonates with me, in particular your points about using breathing, positive thinking & visualization to focus while running. I’ve been a bit of a negative ninny lately, about a lot of things in general and in particular about how I run. I completed a 23km trail run recently and it hurt! I felt quite sick half way through, hated the steep decent and really wanted to pull out. With encouragement from my husband, I made it to the end but was beating myself up for not having ‘run better’. My husband often says to me that I need to be more positive about my running ability. We are now training for our first ‘sky race’, in two weeks’ time. We are doing the ‘mini’ course, which is 13km with a positive gain of 750m+. When we were running this morning I noticed how much more I focused on my breathing and was using it to really concentrate on my foot fall and overall form. Last weekend, when we did a 1.5hr trail run in our local forest, I really focused on the decent, bending my knees more and using my body weight and arms to run more freely downhill – I was a lot less anxious and really enjoyed it! But what also helped was visualizing how I will feel during the upcoming sky race and how great it will be to compete in an event I once never knew existed! It’s all small steps for me, but I can already feel the positive benefits of being much more mindful when I run. And the knock on effect is that I am feeling more positive about everything in general – win-win!

    • Small steps for sure! I’m due for surgery on my knee soon after years of ignoring tears to the meniscus, and the thought of starting over again bums me out. But the bigger picture is that it’s not the end of the world, and being mindful of this makes me happy :) Once you experience what’s possible on two feet once you put your mind to it, it’s hard to ignore.

      It sounds like visualising is working well for you guys and during events, I can’t help but to visualise a cold icy coke!!