Whether you have neither taken up recreational running nor been conscious of mindfulness practices or if you have been running for decades and also been conscious about mindfulness practices, here is how you too could think about the Duplet – Mindfulness and Running. [A video conversation about this is here]
i) Neither Mindfulness nor Running has caught your fancy
ii) You’ve been engaging in Mindfulness practices but never taken up Running
iii) You’ve been running for good health but never grappled with Mindfulness
iv) You’ve incorporated Mindfulness practices as well as Running into your life but not thought about them together in a structured manner.
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Method vs State
Mindfulness – What is it? What is it NOT?
Don’t Run – Don’t Meditate
Axes of Experience
Mindfulness about Mindfulness
Ego & Competition
Confluence for High ROTI
Running as a Mindfulness Practice
1234No Need for Ultras
1234No Ultras, Yes Consistency
1234Injuries as Opportunities
Mindfulness in Associated Protocols
Complex Computing Under the Hood
1234Transformation and Rewiring
1234From Altered States to Altered Traits
GPS Devices and Wearables
Tracking and Journaling
Interaction with Other Practices
Two Final Takeaways
Method vs State [top]
You already understand the simple distinction between your method of transportation and your destination.
Good physical health is a state of being and Running is one of many methods to get to it. Mindfulness is a state of being and Meditation is one of the methods to achieve that.
Today’s structured thought is about the crossover – using the method of Running towards achieving states of Mindfulness.
Mindfulness – What is it? What is it NOT? [top]
Mindfulness often seems vague or even mystical to most. A super concise practical definition is that Mindfulness is just about being ‘present in the moment’. To not be caught up with thoughts about the past or about the future but to be fully engaged with what you have to deal with right now!
Mindfulness is not about slowing down. In fact, quite the opposite – when you are mindful you can actually speed up your brain’s thinking processes. The greater speed will arise from greater clarity. Every engine runs smoother and faster when there is less gunk in it. Every driver on the road travels faster when there is no fog.
Mindfulness is also not a state of having no thoughts – trying that will only leave you with a headache!
You could think of it as ‘being in control of your thoughts’.
It is also useful to think of concentration as being like a zoom lens while mindfulness is like a clear, in-focus wide-angle lens.
Don’t Run – Don’t Meditate [top]
In just about every case, recreational running is started because of a desire to achieve a better level of physical fitness in the future than would otherwise be the case.
You need not run to be fit and you may have already read why I believe you need not run. Similarly, you don’t have to meditate to achieve better states of Mindfulness. Although meditation is a brilliant method to improve mindfulness, you may not always have the environment or the interest in meditating. You can look to non-meditation methods for training yourself in Mindfulness if that is the case. Running could be one of them. Especially if you run anyway! And if you do not, then approaching Running with the stated purpose of using it as a method for greater future Mindfulness will allow you to take up the physical activity that is typically perceived to be quite strenuous.
Axes of Experience [top]
To an outsider your running is visual – the gear, the physical movement.
For you, running alters your physical state, both in the short and the long term. Running also alters your mental state, both in the short and the long term but is more difficult to quantify objectively compared to measures like running mileage and pace, or blood cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure.
Mindfulness is a state of being. We cannot see your thoughts and your feelings – they are invisible to us. What we can see are your actions and observe your language – they reflect your ability to be mindful!
Mindfulness about Mindfulness [top]
If you tell me that you
“used to meditate daily”
and even say that
“it was really good”
“these days I haven’t been meditating”
… then I may be polite and not say it but I will be asking myself “was she really achieving anything much for a long Healthspan with that specific mindfulness practice?”. Of course, you should not really give a damn about what I think about your practice of Mindfulness. It is more important that you think about your mindfulness practice and push it forward! In any case, here is my reasoning…
Your practice which needed no money and which did not need any special equipment, if that practice did not touch you deeply enough to truly realize its value, and you have not incorporated it into your life forever – it is highly likely that you are still unaware of the value that mindfulness practices can bring into your life. Let’s pause here for a few seconds. If you replaced that meditation with some other mindfulness practice, great. If you simply stopped it, then it is worth considering what to start today as a mindfulness practice.
It does not matter what form your practice takes – the purpose is to become more mindful over time.
Ego & Competition [top]
Just like with running, where no one really cares about your podium finish or mine, there is little value in you trying to compare yourself with others when it comes to Mindfulness. What matters is that you understand that the benefit of any self-improvement practice accrues primarily to you.
Do not waste time regretting your past Mindfulness practice or worrying about whether you will be able to maintain it in the future – simply focus your thoughts on being mindful today.
You cannot change the past, and you do not know if a future will exist but you can do something today!
Confluence for High ROTI [top]
Your favourite Hollywood star who does transcendental meditation, my favourite Buddhist monk who is an Olympic level meditator and you. You all have one thing in common – 24 hours in the day. By using Running as a type of Mindfulness Practice, you can increase your ROTI. Get to a better place in multiple dimensions – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
It is not just the physical actions during a run that can contribute towards better Mindfulness but a host of things before, during, after and all around it.
Perhaps the best part about using Running as a Mindfulness Practice is that you need never run more than a handful of kilometres to benefit. In fact, there is a very real risk that your running works against your Mindfulness Practice if you focus on mindlessly increasing your running distance.
Long Timescales [top]
At the start of our running journeys, mere mortals like you and I can try to be mindful but it will typically be without a wide or deep understanding of how we can use running to be more mindful. In the earliest days of your running, it is primarily a physical activity. Even if you are already someone with a high level of mindfulness in your everyday existence, the contribution of running towards your mindfulness will continue to increase over many years and decades – that is, of course, only if you work towards it.
No Ultras, Yes Consistency [top]
As with any dimension of self-improvement, consistency is more important than the volume of work. Rather than think of long-distance running to help you with Mindfulness, it is practically more useful and will increase your probability of success if you focus on just being consistent for many years without a focus on high running mileage.
Internal – Dragging yourself out of bed early in the morning if you haven’t been sleeping early enough is not the smart thing to do for mindfulness. You will burn calories and you may even get faster over time, but you will not become as mindful as if you sleep enough every night or, at least, most nights of the week.
You may want to train in a state of dehydration, or as is most common, well-hydrated. Being aware of your physical state including any lingering aches and pains from previous training sessions is part of pre-run mindfulness. [top]
External – Being aware of the weather where you are running is important – temperature, humidity and precipitation are 3 components that are worth being aware of before you step out.
Don’t forget your house keys if you live alone! [top]
The Run [top]
External – To support your mindfulness practice through running, I suggest that you:
[a] run without listening to music
[b] run outdoors rather than on a treadmill
[c] do not run loops on a track but look for a constantly changing environment
[d] run alone, but if you cannot run alone, then
[e] run without speaking to your running buddies except when essential. [top]
Internal – From footstrike to head angle and vision control be highly aware of all your body parts and how you are using them during a run. In every part of the world that I run in, I notice approximately the same fraction of inappropriate and inefficient running-form for each part of the body. It ranges from high error rates with the most important aspects like foot strike and breathing to the lowest error rates with the least important like hand angle at the wrist joint. Whatever be your error rate in each part of your body, the opportunity to correct it is part of the practice of mindfulness through running. It makes you more mindful and it will make you a better runner. [top]
The Interface – You may remember that when speaking about the Internal-External Divide the last of the Axioms was my advice that your primary focus lies on the Interface between the Internal and the External. Thus, when running:
– liquids (perspiration rate, hydration planning, salts)
– gases (breathing correctly)
– solids (the rare and unfortunate runner’s trot, the mid-run fuel during a long run)
– light (harsh sunlight and UV protection for the eyes, being visible when it is dark)
– sound (I strongly advise you to NOT listen to music when you are running outdoors) [top]
Typically exercise, even mild intensity exercise e.g., walking in nature elevates mood. Intense exercise in nature gives mood a turbo boost. Running has been documented to do that. Be mindful, notice how your mood is lighter, happier, and you have greater awareness even though you are physically depleted in terms of fuel and may even be physically exhausted for a short while. [See: Questioning Fatigue]
Injuries as Opportunities [top]
If you are mindful about every component of your running it is almost impossible to get injured – almost by definition. Still, getting injured serves itself up as a teacher to you to learn from. Open the door and let the teacher in, accept what there is to learn and implement it. Don’t forget about The Implementation Gap. And, if you find yourself getting injured often, it is worth questioning if you are being mindful about your running!
Mindfulness in Associated Protocols [top]
Your lifestyle affects your running ability and progress. Whether it is your sleep, nutrition, other forms of exercise, other forms of mindfulness practices, and the timing of all of these components – they will affect your running and be affected by your running. Being aware of the connections each time you eat, sleep, meditate or do yoga asanas, will play an important part in seeing with greater clarity.
Complex Computing Under the Hood [top]
Brain Waves [top]
The investigation by scientists of different categories of brain waves (e.g., alpha, beta, gamma, delta, theta) and how they are affected both during and after meditation for both early practitioners and experienced practitioners of mindfulness is still in early stages. In the future, depending on
[a] the type of brain waves
[b] the different parts of the brain
[c] the actual type of mindfulness practice
[d] the hours of experience and level of expertise
we will learn more from scientists conducting research in this space. Of course, for you and me, today, what we care about is to have a life that is one of greater awareness for as many of our waking hours as possible. If scientists are able to objectively measure the physical outcomes of that which the mindfulness masters of the past have guided us to do, then that can only improve the path we follow. Until then, we must anyway continue our practice.
Transformation and Rewiring [top]
What will, indeed, happen is that parts of your brain will enlarge while other parts get physically smaller, some parts will become more responsive and others less so. In addition, the connections between different parts of your brain will also change. All of this will be for the better.
What matters most to you and me, of course, is that our ability to handle stress, depression or anxiety will improve and if we are lucky to not suffer from any of these then our mindfulness practice like running will help keep them at bay.
Research into the psychological benefits of running has been numerous. Even when you are relatively new to running and not quite being ‘mindful’ about running your mood is elevated after a run. It is thus of academic interest to understand how much of that is specifically because of mindfulness as your practice of both running and mindfulness-during-running evolves.
From Altered States to Altered Traits [top]
At the time that you run, you have an altered state. If you are otherwise sedentary, that altered state will only last for the duration of the run. That one run will do very little for you unless you make running (or similar activity) a regular practice. Similarly, with a mindfulness practice, be it is running or meditation, very little will happen to your mental state beyond the duration of that practice.
In order to ensure you benefit in general i.e., develop traits – you must make it a regular part of your life. Focus on going from altered states to altered traits!
Running Events [top]
There should be no need to consciously stay away from running events if you enjoy going to them. If you wonder whether they negatively affect your mindfulness practice then it’s quite simple to understand why you should not be concerned. First, unlike your actual training, running events are not a regular affair. Second, it is good to observe your thoughts and how they differ at an event versus during your normal training sessions.
GPS Devices and Wearables [top]
You may want to use GPS devices and wearables to support your effort – whether it be for running or mindfulness or to be more mindful through running. I do all 3 – I believe that just like the technology that is in your hand (i.e. your internet device) to read these words can be misused, you have to decide to what extent technology for running or for mindfulness helps you versus hindering your progress. And, if you think something hinders your progress, ask whether it is a shortcoming of the technology or your own shortcoming. I use my tracking devices for many more aspects of and protocols in my life than I do specifically for my running!
Tracking and Journaling [top]
Irrespective of the extent to which you use technology to track the numerical stats of a specific workout while doing it and immediately after you finish, it is good to also track it within your longer journey across decades. In addition, there are immense mindfulness benefits in journaling the non-numerical aspects of the activity too. You may never again read what you wrote (e.g., how you felt during a run) but the act of writing (whether on paper or on an electronic device) creates a powerful ancillary tool that further supports your journey.
Writing is thinking!
Interaction with Other Practices [top]
If I have ever had the good fortune to speak with you for any reasonable length of time, you will have noticed that I never get tired of saying “everything is connected”.
If you have seen your mindfulness improve over the years because of, say, your playing of a musical instrument or embroidery, then when you come to run it will not take you long to engage with this relatively intense physical method in a very mindful manner.
If you have been doing other sport for a while, especially individual sport and especially sports like swimming or powerlifting, you may have already seen how bringing mindfulness to your sessions takes what you get out of the sport to a higher level. The more you engage in different types of mindfulness practices and make them part of your basic way of life, the more you become inseparable from what is left after the brain fog clears – you!
Whether it is eating mindfully to nourish yourself or sleeping mindfully to repair yourself there is no separation of either from the act of running. Correspondingly, the incredible states of self-awareness when you fast for long periods or observe your performance decline when deprived of sleep, all these moments play a part in your journey.
The Planet [top]
It is almost impossible to not become more mindful of your impact on the planet along with its other creatures the more mindful you become. This is a causal relationship i.e., an increase in your level of mindfulness will automatically nudge you towards lifestyle features like:
– consuming less electricity
– burning less (external) fuel of any kind
– using less plastic
– choosing a greener mode of transport where it exists
You can also create momentum by reversing the causality i.e., if you become more mindful of your lifestyle’s impact on the planet, you can automatically become more mindful about your running!
Two Final Takeaways [top]
If you have the ability to remember only 2 things from what I have said then take away the following.
One: You do not have to use Running as a method for Mindfulness. But whatever methods you choose, look to invest just that little bit more of yourself in each of them to benefit from what is beyond the banal.
Two: When you find something that is known to benefit you, do not stop doing it after a few months. Stick with it and look for God (or Money) in the details.
There is a method to Mindfulness.
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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.