Meditation In Action: How To Turn Running Into A Mindfulness Practice

How To Turn Your Run Into A Meditation
Young lady running on a rural road during sunset
Young lady running on a rural road during sunset

Running most certainly has its benefits: It's good for our hearts and our heads. Many have turned running into a daily habit. And while there's much to gain from performing the physical activity, there's a lot we're missing out on when we slip into a semi-conscious state when doing the exercise. It’s pretty normal for the mind to wander when you’re running, regardless of whether the thoughts are related to the running itself, or something quite separate. But the only way to ensure that you’re performing to the very best of your ability, is to leave the thinking behind and allow the body and mind to work together with a combined physical and mental focus. So here is a mindfulness exercise from the meditation experts at Headspace to use next time you go for your run.

Step 1
Before you get ready to go out running, try to get a sense of how you’re feeling. What’s going on in the mind? Are you feeling anxious, confident or completely indifferent? If you have the time and inclination, you can even take a couple of minutes to sit down and allow the mind to rest before you begin. If you do this each time you may start to notice a pattern that will help you to respond more skillfully.

Step 2
As you change into your running clothes, begin to notice the physical sensations in the body. Perhaps the legs feel heavy from a previous run, or the shoulders tight from sitting at the computer. Or perhaps there’s a general feeling of lightness in the body. This process isn’t done with any sense of judgment or analysis, you are simply building up an awareness of how you feel.

Step 3
Before you leave, take a few deep breaths. This will help you to focus and give you a greater sense of being grounded. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Once you’re running you can return to whatever pattern of breathing feels most natural for you. Try to do this at least four or five times before you head out.


Step 4
As you begin to run, while a keeping a strong awareness of everything that’s going on around you, bring your attention back to the body. How does it feel now that you’re moving? How are the muscles responding to the movement? Notice how the breath quickly changes as the body begins to warm up. As always, there is nothing to do except be aware of all these things. Notice how the mind responds, too. Is it with a feeling of pleasure, of having "escaped" work or home, of stretching your legs and getting some fresh air? Or is it a feeling of mild anxiety about the hard work you’re expecting to experience later in the run? What about the thoughts? Is the mind very busy, churning up all the events of the day and looking ahead to the to-do list for tomorrow? Or does it feel very settled, perhaps even comforted, by the physical movement?


Step 5
As you settle into the run, begin to notice the rhythm you’ve established. Does it feel comfortable? How does the body feel? Does it feel balanced, with an equal amount of force being used in both legs? How do the arms feel? And the shoulders? Is there anywhere in the body that feels tight? If there is, you already know what to do with it -– watch it, observe it, become aware of it. Resist the temptation to try and get rid of it somehow. You may well find that in the process of awareness, the tension naturally releases itself anyway.

Step 6
If you’re running for fun or simply to keep fit, then it’s helpful to actively encourage an awareness of what’s going on around you. This might be other runners, cars, parks, fields, buildings or anything else you pass along the way. It’s amazing how often people run exactly the same route every day and yet how little they know about it, how little they actually see. And the only reason for this is the tendency to go inwards, to become lost in thought. So remember that idea of gentle curiosity, not frantically trying to notice everything around you, but being interested in the things that grab your attention.


Step 7
Because you’re more present and more aware, it’s quite likely that the way you think when you run (your mental habits) will also become more apparent. Do you have a tendency to be hard or kind to yourself when you’re running? Where does the mind instinctively go? Is it inwards, toward thinking, or outwards, towards sensations in the body? Is there a strong feeling of confidence, or of self-consciousness? You can also notice when the body begins to respond to the running process, when it releases the endorphins, when you start to feel invincible, as though you could run forever (assuming that happens at some stage on your run).

Step 8
One of the so-called problems of being more aware is that you become aware of not only the pleasant sensations, but also the unpleasant ones. Don't worry -- the unpleasant sensations can be put to good effect. Rather than try to "get away" from physical discomfort, see what happens when you rest your attention with the feeling. Try doing it as if you and the pain are not really separate, so less of "me and my pain" and more of the simple, direct experience of "pain." The results might surprise you.

Step 9
Whether it’s the shortness of breath, the tightness of the chest, the aching of the thighs or cramping of the calves, all of these seemingly-disruptive experiences can be used as effective supports or objects of focus for your running meditation. When you first notice the pain, the instinctive reaction will be to resist it, to get rid of it, which will usually involve either stopping or beginning a long mental battle to try to forcibly overcome it, ignore it, or suppress it in some way. Obviously, you need to be aware of your own physical capabilities to respect your body, and take appropriate action when necessary. However, if you feel you can continue without doing any lasting damage, then try moving even closer to the discomfort, as if you are sinking down into that feeling and experiencing it in a very direct way. This may feel counterintuitive at first, but there’s method to the madness. In moving closer to it, in fully experiencing it and even encouraging it, you'll experience a complete shift in the usual, habitual dynamic and very often the pain is released as a result.


Step 10
Try focusing on the sensation of the foot striking the floor. The sense of rhythm can be very relaxing and it’s an obvious and stable point of focus. Whatever your object of focus, try to run with a "light touch" and relaxed mental attitude to the exercise. Even if you are pushing really hard to better your time, see just how little effort is required to run. Strange as that may sound, very often the more effort you expend, the more you tighten up. and so the more you slow down. You could even make this the entire focus of your run, simply monitoring the amount of effort being applied. Notice in turn how this then affects your running stride.


Step 11
Whether you are running for fun or taking it more seriously, you’ll find this exercise far more manageable if you break it down into sections. Some people find that stride by stride is the best way to focus, whereas for others it is street by street, or even mile by mile. One popular method is to break down the run into every ten strides, or every twenty, or even every hundred. It’s a bit like counting the breath and will help stop the mind wandering off. Obviously, the longer the distance you intend to focus on, the more difficult it is to remember these principles, so make a point of building in regular checks to see if you’re present throughout the run.

Want more tips on how to make meditation part of your day? Headspace is meditation made simple, accessible and relevant to your everyday life. Sign up for the free Take10 program to get the basics just right with guided audio programs and support to get your Headspace, anytime, anywhere on the Headspace app.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

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