Exactly How Running Can Help You Get Zen After a Crazy-Stressful Day
Updated: Mar 27, 2019
I’m running down Kelly Drive in Philadelphia on an unseasonably warm fall day, my purple sneakers softly thudding against the ground. As I run, I notice a young boy skateboarding on the street, and the way his red hat flops to the side. I pass dry-looking trees and plump geese gathered in the grass next to the trail, and a couple kissing on a rock overlook. I notice the way the water ripples as a racing shell cuts cleanly through the center of the Schuylkill River and glides away from me.
Would you guess that I’ve been meditating this whole time?
Meditation is a practice of focusing attention in order to clear the mind and reduce anxiety (see: that constant to-do list running through your head). Learning to focus can help you tune out distractions.
Meditation is not only calming—it also has some seriously positive health results. It’s been shown in certain cases to reduce stress, ease depression and anxiety, to help people cope with pain (something distance runners deal with constantly), and even to strengthen parts of the brain. There are many ways to develop a meditation and mindfulness practice—as little as five minutes a day can still have noticeable effects.
“It’s a myth that meditation happens only when you light candles or incense and sit cross- legged,” says Chandresh Bhardwaj, founder of the Break The Norms meditation program. Instead, he explains, “When you are deeply involved in any activity, you become meditative.”
“A lot of easy running days turn into meditations on rhythm and nature for me,” says Sarah Attar, one of the first women to compete as a runner in the Olympics for Saudi Arabia. “I allow my run to become a space for reflection, exploration, and mindfulness, to connect with the world around me.”
Runners often talk about running as a salve—a way to work through problems, escape negative thinking, or overcome personal demons. The thing is, it’s backed by science: A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise indicated that even 30 minutes of time on a treadmill could instantly lift someone’s mood. And in literature, memoirs of using running as a barometer for self-growth abound, from Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running to Jen A. Miller’s Running: A Love Story to Caleb Daniloff’s Running Ransom Road.
It turns out that running combined with meditation can potentially make both your running, and your mind, stronger. A 2016 study published in Translational Psychiatry found that combining directed meditation with running or walking reduced symptoms of depression by 40 percent for depressed participants, and more research is ongoing.
The key to all of this is that a meditation and mindfulness practice helps build your ability to focus, and running inherently narrows that focus: to the path ahead, to how many miles are left, to whether you need water, to the chill of the wind over a river.
But there really is no right or wrong way to practice running meditation, says yoga teacher and Ayurvedic practitioner Sarajean Rudman. Instead, as Rudman says, “several different paths lead to the same outcome: be here now.”
As any endurance runner will tell you, whether you can keep going in a marathon has as much to do with mental toughness as physical training. Often it’s the mind that gives up or crashes first—not the body. “When we can create a sense of calm in the mind,” says Rudman, “the body can go further. We get to see what we really can accomplish.”
If you’re ready to ditch the headphones, and try focus over distraction, here are nine tips on getting started:
1. Before Running, Sit Still for Three to Five Minutes
“Before you start running, inhale deeply. Hold your breath for a few moments, and exhale. Do this for five minutes or so, and you will experience a deep relaxation before your run,” says Bhardwaj. If you find the waiting too difficult, try to start with one minute of stillness—or as much as you can stand—and work up.
2. Choose a Mantra
When you are just starting out, “mantra meditation can be very easy to acclimate to,” says Rudman, “and a very powerful tool to use, especially when racing. Choose some words that mean something to you, whether they are in Sanskrit like the classic ‘Sa Ta Na Ma’ (loosely translated to ‘I am truth’), or something simple in English, like ‘I am strong.’ They serve the same purpose: to anchor your attention to and keep you in the present moment. Tether the mantra to your footfalls, so you are using one word per footfall.”
3. Count Your Footfalls
“A great place to begin is simply by counting footfalls. Head out with a number in mind,” advises Rudman. “For example, count every step up to eight, then count back down. As thoughts start to creep in, notice them and return to your counting. Use the numbers as a way to anchor your attention so it doesn’t wander off into what you’re going to eat when you return home, or what you said to your spouse or children before you left, or the things you need to do for work or school. Keep coming back to right now.”
4. Make a List of Everything You See (Yes, Everything)
“Become acutely aware of your surroundings,” says Rudman. “You can choose to use sight or sound for this exercise, or take turns with each sense. As you run, begin listing either everything you see or everything you hear as a way to calm what yogis call your ‘monkey mind’ and enter into the moment you are actually experiencing. For example: tree, stop sign, leaf, sidewalk, gum wrapper—or car noise, the wind, a baby yelling, a horn, my footfalls, my breath. You can even combine the two senses along with the other three, taste, touch, and smell. This would look like: “I am aware of a dog barking, I am aware that my skin is cold, I am aware of the smell of the bakery, I am aware of music far away, I am aware of my heart rate speeding up...”
5. Focus on Your Breath and Posture
“Bring more awareness to your breath, as well as your posture while you run,” advises Chesapeake Yoga teacher Julie Phillips-Turner. “Start running at a comfortable pace, then start to ‘shape’ the breath to count inhales and exhales, such as ‘inhale one, two, three; exhale one, two, three...’ If [your] mind gets distracted from counting, notice that and bring [your] awareness back to the breath count. Be aware of slumping shoulders. Try to keep the shoulders back and the chest lifted to allow maximum oxygen to enter the body.”
6. Ban the Thought “I’m Doing This Wrong”
“The number one mistake people make when trying to meditate while running, or in general, is to get upset because they aren’t able to clear their minds,” says Rudman. “The goal is not to clear the mind, but instead to recognize the mind by being present with it and observing it. Notice your thoughts as they pop up, remember them, and dog-ear them for another time. When we choose to not follow our thoughts down whatever rabbit hole they are leading us, and let them keep on their merry way without us, we are meditating.”
Here's how to improve your running form:
7. Think About Your Other Body Parts—Not Just Your Legs
Think about your arms, your forehead, your eyeballs—and forget about your legs. “When you are running, feel the breeze embracing your every body part. Don’t just focus on legs. Use your every sense and every muscle to interact with Mother Nature. Such consistent interaction will develop a stronger connection with nature and thus adds onto your healing, and running, ability,” says Bhardwaj.
8. Celebrate and Express Gratitude for Your Run
Think about how lucky you are to be physically able to be running, and how many people cannot. Think about how you would feel if you couldn’t run. “Meditation means you should be immersed in the process and the feelings and sensations of running,” says Rudman. “You should cultivate a sense of ‘I get to run!’ instead of distracting yourself with an ‘I have to run’ state of mind.”
9. Take in Your Surroundings
To further cultivate gratitude, Attar recommends focusing on the beauty your surroundings. “Once a routine of gratitude becomes part of your natural inclination,” Attar says, “you can find a calm and positive spirit in how you go about everything, especially running. When you are grateful for even just the opportunity and ability to be running, it opens up the space within you to become more connected to everything.”