Meditation on Foot

Leave your FitBit and pump-up music at home, and try out mindful running. This fresh approach to fitness tunes you in to your mind as well as your body. The result is a whole new experience of fitness.

Photography by Plain Picture/Lancaster

The vernal equinox is still more than five weeks away, but on this mid-February morning there’s nevertheless a benign, early-spring-like coolness enveloping the woods where my run begins. I’ve pounded out thousands of miles on this lakeside footpath, and over those many years my haphazard approach has been as likely to leave me dreading my training as earn me age-group awards. But today I’m relying on some experts in running mindfully in hopes of making this routine more beneficial to both my mind and body. Unfortunately, there are some stumbles right out of the blocks.

I have been encouraged, for example, to ditch my GPS watch and heart-rate monitor as a first step toward focusing on the process of running rather than on the outcome—a strategy to help me stay both relaxed throughout and grounded in the present moment. Impossible, I decide: Every New Year’s Day I reset my goal of logging a thousand miles, and because a knee injury already has me behind schedule, I’m loath to forgo the spoils of today’s effort. So I compromise by hiding my devices beneath a sleeve and vow to keep them covered—a pointless scheme, it turns out, since my watch announces both mile splits and heart-rate spikes with vibrations that sabotage my intentions.

I have also been instructed to try inhaling and exhaling exclusively through my nose, since deep, controlled breathing into the lower lungs activates the parasympathetic nervous system and, in so doing, fosters relaxation. But I foolishly ignore the advice to ease into this advanced practice with a walking pace and then, if possible, an easy jog, so by the half-mile mark I feel as if I’m struggling to inhale through a couple of pinched cocktail straws. At one point, in fact, I feel so oxygen-deprived I imagine my face has turned the color of my electric-blue Sauconys.

I do have some success, however. I maintain at least sporadic awareness of my adjusted form (back straight, core engaged), and I keep a purposefully slow and steady pace from start to finish, effectively squelching my usual temptation to just let it rip. I stop briefly to chat with a friend not seen for months, whom I might have otherwise blown by with a shouted excuse about having to beat the clock. I abstain from my absurd habit of speeding up when runners approach from the opposite direction so I don’t appear to be slow-footing it. I make repeated mental notes to check in on how my body and brain are feeling. And as I pass the halfway point of the 6.5-mile run, I finally manage to breathe nasally for a stretch and, perhaps as a result, relax into the flow.

But following my cool-down I bump into my training partner, who blindsides me with a suggestion that we run an early-spring half-marathon, six weeks before our usual first long race. I fear I won’t be prepared, given my knee problems, but the idea of not being able to keep up with him is so unsettling I all but agree. And because he’ll see my just-completed workout when I post it online, I sheepishly make excuses for my absurdly slow time. Later that day, I begin to feel foolish for having offered apologies for my performance. But I have been instructed, just as in meditation classes, to be kind to myself and to not judge my results. So I let those feelings go and remind myself that a thousand miles begins with a single step, or even with a misstep.

The Experts Say: “Mindful running is the practice of fully immersing yourself in the present-moment experience of running and its immediate effects on your mind and body, free from judgment, selfconsciousness, or self-doubt.” Elinor Fish

In addition to keeping the body relaxed and tall (imagine your head being pulled gently aloft by a sky-high rope), and letting deep, controlled nasal breaths dictate the pace, the mechanics of mindful running are largely indistinguishable from running as we know it. What’s different is that this approach to navigating the trails and the tracks is done in a way that both approximates and complements seated meditation.

Mindful running educator Elinor Fish, whose Colorado-based company, Run Wild Retreats + Wellness, leads women’s trail-running expeditions around the globe, puts it this way: “Mindful running is the practice of fully immersing yourself in the present-moment experience of running and its immediate effects on your mind and body, free from judgment, self-consciousness, or self-doubt.”

Fish, an accomplished distance runner who now instructs everyone from back-of-the-pack novices to ultra-distance warhorses, says that intense competition was what motivated her early in life, but the stress that came with the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, and a painful autoimmune disease took such profound physical and psychological tolls that mindful running became a necessity. “I can only run if I listen to my body,” she says, “and running mindfully is the method by which I tune in to my body’s signals and run my best given how I feel any given day.”

Although Fish also practiced meditation, it took a back seat to running until she suffered a bout of extreme exhaustion. Even then, however, she found sitting on the cushion to be challenging.

“But then I discovered how running actually creates the ideal circumstances in which to practice meditation,” she says. “Synching movement with breath, focusing the mind on a single point (such as the trail ahead), and aligning the spine to allow flow of energy are just some of the ways running creates the coherence in the body that supports present-moment awareness.

“Making this my practice dramatically reduced my stress and made running sustainable given my health challenges, so I’m extremely thankful. I do now have a seated meditation practice, too, but this was easier to adopt after only doing mindful running for a while first.”

Other runners, she adds, have told her that running mindfully has also been their “gateway drug” to seated meditation. Conversely, veteran meditators are particularly open to mindful running, as they find it easier to focus on the experience of running than on the quest for faster times, awards, recognition, and the like.

But like meditation, learning to run mindfully can prove frustrating for some. Michael Sandler, who coaches people in both, suggests that beginners start with mindful walking, taking gentle, easy breaths as they go. “If it does turn into a jog,” he says, “there should be no judgment or competition. Just move and have fun.”

“I have a saying with my runners: ‘Kind, gentle, easy, good,’” he adds. “I advise them to be more present, to listen to their breath, to be kind to themselves, and not beat themselves up. I tell them to forget about pace and just start running.”

Learning to run mindfully, particularly for less-experienced runners, is probably better done individually than as part of a group. That’s because one key to success is finding a rhythm that harmonizes your breath—deep, controlled belly breathing, as in yoga or meditation—with the cadence of your feet, and in a group there’s always the temptation to keep pace with the leaders. Moreover, some group members may want to chatter as they go, potentially distracting others from tuning in to bodily sensations, taking stock of emotions, checking in on form, and otherwise cultivating the focus and sense of presence that this routine can produce.

On the other hand, many find that group runs can instill a sense of community, camaraderie, and motivation to keep at it, even when no words are exchanged. In that way, these sessions can be very much like group meditation.

Given such potential upside, some runners have hatched efforts to expand Mindful Mondays to include group efforts. Among them is Diana Gorham, who’s general manager of Two Rivers Treads, a popular running store in the panhandle of West Virginia. Gorham ran her first marathon in the fall of 2006 and earned an impressive age-group 5th place. After that, she says, running became more about the racing than the training, as she doggedly pushed herself to the limit in hopes of recording better times. In 2011 she graduated to “ultras” (i.e., races greater than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon), her longest a 100-mile trail race in August of 2014 that had her on the rain-soaked course for more than 27 hours.

But something changed, she says, on the heels of that effort: She realized that there’s more to running than logging endless miles in pursuit of racing acclaim, and as a result her punishing training schedule gave way to a yoga practice, guided meditation, and exploration of her spiritual side. Her new routine includes about three short runs a week, all done with a greater appreciation of her environment and the rest of the running experience.

Last February, Gorham launched her Mindful Mondays running (and walking) group in hopes of fostering a like-minded community. She says she may someday race again, as she once relished all the trappings of joining friends in preparing for competition. But more important to her is a co-embrace of running and spirituality. “Now I want to do what will feed my soul,” she says.

Sara Hunter, a marriage and family therapist in Washington, DC, had an entirely different motivation for starting her Monday Morning Mindfulness Running Group (RunDCTherapy. com). In her local-government work with highrisk adolescents ensnared by the juvenile justice system, she found that many who were unwilling to say much in a traditional therapy setting opened up when she took them outside for a walk or to shoot hoops (Hunter played college basketball and is a dedicated runner with one marathon to her credit).

That was the inspiration for a less formal approach to therapy, which gives clients the opportunity to ease into their sessions with a walk or run. The positive feedback that novel arrangement generated—both from those clients and from colleagues—in turn propelled forward her long-simmering idea to launch the mindful running group, which she always envisioned as a community activity rather than a purely therapeutic experience.

“Our culture has differentiated our minds and bodies, when they’re so interconnected,” she says. “I want this to be a way to create community around a common interest. It’s another component of what I value: It’s a gateway to exploring wellness.”

Since my maiden attempt at running mindfully, my follow-up sessions—all done without a watch, headphones, or other electronic devices—posed their own challenges and offered their own rewards. Nasal breathing remained the heaviest sledding, so I began sessions with a quarter-mile walk, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Then I stepped it up to an easy jog, and when my body and brain finally adjusted to this routine, I tried redirecting exhales back through my nose. When/if that felt comfortable (it never did on hills or trails), I amped up the pace a bit in hopes of attuning my breath to something that felt like real running.

At the same time, I managed to stay in touch with my emotions and maintain good form. I dismissed the idea of matching the efforts of other runners, and instead tried measuring my success only in terms of having done something of value for my body and brain. I remained aware of tuning out negative thoughts and staying in the present moment. I took repeated note of my surroundings and maintained an easy pace.

But where I went wrong was to ignore advice about tuning in to my bodily sensations. As a result, my intermittent knee pain escalated along with my eagerness to keep testing this new approach to running, until I finally decided that I was teetering on serious injury. So for a few days I ran with a flotation belt in a tiny indoor pool, using these same mindful techniques as a way to throttle the usual boredom and monotony of this slug’s-pace running.

And to my surprise, it made a real difference. Whereas this seemingly endless back-and-forth exercise always had me eyeballing the clock, this time around I managed to appreciate the sensation of being suspended in the soothing water; I marveled at my ability to effortlessly whirl like a top an inch from the wall; I focused on my breath, just as I would have if running my familiar lakeside path; I gawked at the ducks and the geese and the final, slow fade of sunlight through the windows at the far side of the pool. And when my attention faded and boredom sneaked up, I reminded myself that this repetitive activity had a useful purpose: Because I was clearly pushing my heart rate to a moderate training zone, I was maintaining some of the aerobic excellence (the “base”) I’d been developing on the treadmill and, more recently, on my outdoor winter runs.

The Experts Say: “I have a saying with my runners: ‘Kind, gentle, easy, good.’ I advise them to be more present, to listen to their breath, to be kind to themselves and not beat themselves up. I tell them to forget about pace and just start running.” Michael Sandler

“Our culture has differentiated our minds and bodies, when they’re so interconnected,” she says. “I want this to be a way to create community around a common interest. It’s another component of what I value: It’s a gateway to exploring wellness.” Sara Hunter

In short, although this exercise hardly measured up to the experience of an outdoor run, I knew that paying attention to my body this way would likely insure that I wouldn’t be sidelined for long. What’s more, there’s no question that even this sort of running pays physical, cognitive, and emotional dividends, all of which are enhanced by my doing it mindfully.

In fact, Sakyong Mipham, a veteran marathoner and author of Running with the Mind of Meditation, says there’s such a natural, supportive relationship between running and meditation that it’s not a matter of choosing between them.

“The practice of running with the mind of meditation is about synchronizing the mind and body,” he told me. “While the practice of mindfulness can help anyone in any walk of life, it can also provide a gateway to the mind of meditation, which has the potential to go much deeper. Synchronizing the power of the mind with the physicality of running can unlock this depth in a holistic and grounded way. That is to say, we will begin to see benefit in every aspect of our life.”

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About the author

Alan Green

Alan Green is a veteran investigative reporter in Washington, D.C., whose books include Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species. His most recent piece for Mindful in August 2017 was a firsthand account of taking part in an MSBR course.

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