July 22, 2016
Calm Mind, Calm Body
By Yitka Winn
Photo at right: Elinor Fish incorporates a mindful meditation practice mid-way through a long distance run. Photo by Erik Wardell, courtesy of Run Wild Retreats
Many runners and coaches are embracing the ancient art of meditation as a way to complement their running practice and hone their mental edge.
Conventional training advice for runners focuses almost exclusively on the physical aspects such as how to build up mileage, incorporate speed-work and strengthen leg and core muscles. However, runners increasingly are discovering that the sport is more mental than physical, so focusing on a more mindful conditioning practice during training and racing may benefit performance.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is any technique for resting the mind using the awareness of breath. As Tibetan Buddhist lama and avid runner Sakyong Mipham wrote in his book, Running with the Mind of Meditation, “The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness.”
The breathing patterns of a runner can be compared to someone meditating. In fact, studies show that both activities produce endorphins, known as “feel-good” chemicals.
Physiological studies done on runners show that the practice of running and of meditation have similar experiences such as being in “the zone” — the experience of a calm mind, relaxed body, and a connection with being fully present.
“Movements like running synchronize your breath with the limbs in a rhythmic pattern, which is very calming and focusing to the mind,” says Elinor Fish, a British Columbia native who offers mindfulness-based retreats, workshops and coaching programs to runners all over the world.
If you’ve ever experienced the “runner’s high,” you’ve already gotten a glimpse of what meditation can accomplish — a kind of flow state, in which you feel immersed in the present moment.
The more you practice meditating, the less subjected you can feel to the mind’s restless whims, distractions and fretting. This, in turn, can help you stay positive and confident during races and focused on the present.
A calmer mind also helps the body relax.
“The less tension there is in your limbs, the more powerfully and efficiently they can move,” says Fish.
Finally, meditation can restore joy or motivation if you’ve been finding it hard to get out and run. A 2015 study published in Translational Psychiatry found that combining a meditation practice with running can help people“acquire new cognitive skills” to face challenging life situations and even combat depression.
Tips for Getting Started
Practice belly breathing. Fish suggests focusing on deep inhalations and exhalations through the belly. This exercise can be done while sitting still, walking or — with enough practice — running.
Start small. At first, try meditating for just 3–5 minutes at a time. Eventually work up to longer sessions.
Be patient. “Your aim is not to get rid of thoughts,” says Timothy Olson, an elite ultrarunner for The North Face who also leads trail-running and meditation retreats. “It’s learning to be at ease with whatever arises in each moment. It’s not a contest. Just let your practice evolve; continue to learn and observe without judgment.”
Use an app or recorded guided meditation. Apps like Headspace, Shambhala or Buddhify2 can help you get started.
Attend a retreat or workshop. There are many ways to learn about meditating, running and a combination of both from a variety of one-to-multiple-day workshops and training retreats around North America.
Yitka Winn is a freelance writer, avid mountain runner and OutdoorsNW’s On the Run columnist. Follow her adventures at yitkawinn.com or on Instagram @yitkawinn