Being in the flow of a long-distance run is to be entirely enveloped by an unmistakable sensation of pure calm.
I crave the serene sounds of the soft patter of my feet, the rhythmic cadence of my breath, and the steady beating of my heart in my fleeting escape from the world.
My daily routine becomes a necessary getaway from my agendas, to-do lists, and plans for the week. When my shoes hit the pavement, my mind runs free.
Running runs in my family, and it has been present in my life for as far as I can remember. I vividly recall sunny summer mornings of my childhood when my feet were barely sufficiently coordinated to walk, but my hands could clap in full force for my mother at community charity races.
My relationship with running has evolved over the years.
My childhood enthusiasm as a spectator morphed to an adolescent emotional battle of perfection. Winning races was my magic bullet for achieving social acceptance and for appeasing my inner critic of my body image.
As a young adult, after three years of competing as a NCAA Division I collegiate athlete, I ran into a wall in my running performance. As my pace slowed, I was hit hard with an epiphany that my fruitless chase to shave milliseconds off my race times was causing me to push my body beyond its edge.
Somewhere along my path to perfection, running had become my greatest enemy, my cyclic form of self-destruction, and my secret source of self-doubt.
Nonetheless, in depths of my mind, a brighter memory of the practice lived on. When I let down my grip on the present, my mind would run backward freely to my childlike admiration of my family’s joy in chasing pavement for the thrill of it.
With time, I learned to set aside my unfitting expectation for perfection and make room for my beginner’s mind that could witness the practice with fresh eyes. This sun-filled recollection guided me to heal my relationship with running and to cherish the gifts that it could provide my body and my mind.
In the years that followed, running became my tried and true form of meditation. Shifting my attitude toward running led me to a first marathon at 10,000 feet in altitude, a Boston marathon in the books, and a third marathon in the making today. During the many miles of training for my latest long-distance adventure, I reflect on the profound evolution of my own mindset on running.
Here are my top tips for beginners and running junkies alike to adapt our perspectives by bringing meditative mindfulness to the practice:
1. Observe thoughts.
The modern world can present a plethora of excuses to not lace up our shoes. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I’m too hungry. I ate too much for lunch. I have no time. I have no desire. The first step to anchoring running as a go-to meditation is to recognize without judgement that these negative thoughts arise.
The next is to counter these feelings by acknowledging the physical health and mental uplift that can be felt after a daily endorphins fix. I make it a personal habit to run first thing in the morning when my mind is at is clearest to avoid life’s many inevitable excuses from becoming a roadblock to my run.
2. Become centered.
Arriving out the door is the first and most important step in turning running into a stable habit. Once we reach our pavement, our trail, our treadmill, or wherever our feet may take us, we should continue to observe our thoughts.
Often, I find my mind scattered in the early minutes of a long-distance run: conversations with colleagues, unfinished emails, and other fragments of reality may chase me for miles, but eventually my mind centers itself. Like a top that is spinning with the frenetic momentum of life, our brains follow a dizzying trajectory.
Yet within the quiet headspace of a solo run, that twirling toy tilts off to a point of undisturbed balance. Simply continue in a pattern, following one foot and the other to watch the mind slow to a spacious pause.
3. Find your edge.
Novice runners all too often make the rookie mistake of ramping up mileage too soon and at too quick of a pace. Rather than take off full throttle, realize that running is a lifelong habit. To make the sport sustainable, it is necessary to gradually adjust to the practice as our bodies build a relationship with the habitual movements.
We should design disciplined training plans that are supportive of our physical realities. However, it is also key to give ourselves permission to miss a target pace, a goal distance, or a run (or even a month of runs) altogether without throwing our aspirations out the window.
Be resilient in the face of training setbacks. Seek practice rather than perfection. And most importantly, find your edge. As the brain begins to still through the course of a run, ease into a pace that feels engaging and challenging to a degree that is satisfying, yet sufficiently sustainable to maintain a clear, fully present state of mind.
Once we’ve found our edge within our runs, we should breathe into it. Allow breath to be an indicator of level of effort. If the breath becomes shaky, arrhythmic, or strained, then we’ve pushed too far. Play with pace until hitting a sweet spot—a tempo at which the breath is deep, but steady and measured. It may even be interesting to meditate on the breath itself while running by concentrating on the length, depth, quality, and cadence of each inhalation and exhalation of our reliable respiration.
5. Rejoicefully repeat.
We may not instantly take in each breath of our runs with graceful gratitude. Even the most experienced of distance runners have days when we instead feel clunky, clumsy, cranky, and maybe even (dare I say it?)—bored.
Like many forms of meditation, running delivers tough love rather than instant gratification. Fair-weathered runners may only experience a fraction of the potential physical benefits and mental wellbeing associated with the practice.
To reap the full rewards, we must faithfully repeat our runs until a lifelong habit is formed. It is essential that we run every day that our bodies and our lives allow. The physical ability to feel our legs freely leap, to sense our hearts unfetteredly beat, to touch the crisp ambiance of air that swiftly streams over skin, and to hear our breath magnificently move is a victory to be repeatedly rejoiced.
Thus, at its core, running is a daily meditation in awareness of embodied life.
Author: Lacey Gibson
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Yoli Ramazzina