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How Mindful Running Can Help You Get Past Mental Roadblocks

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Photo: Getty Images / FS Productions

I was at an event recently for the release of Let Your Mind Run, a new book from Olympic marathon medalist Deena Kastor, when she mentioned that her favorite part of running 26.2 comes the moment she starts to struggle. "When I get there, my first thought is, 'Oh no,'" she says. "But then I remember, this is where I get to do my best work. This is where I get to shine and to be better than the person I am in this moment. I get to push my physical boundaries and my mental limits, so I really have fun in those moments."

That's certainly not everyone's running mindset. I'd go so far as to say not many people actually enjoy the part of a long run when you realize just how hard it is and begin to question why you're even doing it. But considering Kastor's roster of marathon wins and insanely speedy splits (she averages a sub 6-minute pace), there has to be something to this whole concept of bringing mindfulness and positive thinking with you when you're on the move, right?

Personally, I've always been a head case while running. I've completed one marathon, and my biggest fear throughout training and during the race was that I'd hit a mental roadblock and dread every mile that followed. (Thankfully, that didn't happen on race day.) I did get stronger during those months leading up to it though—I learned to stop counting the miles and just enjoy my time on the road.

But ever since that 2016 race, I've gone back to slogging through each step in an effort to just get the mileage done. Then I heard about people trying meditation while running—or mindful running, if you will. Could that actually work? Is it even possible? There's no way of knowing without trying it myself, so I took on the challenge. *Cue panic.*

The thing is, I don't always love being mentally present on a run. In fact, the idea of being totally in-the-moment kind of terrified me. I figured that would mean many thoughts about how much my legs hurt or how difficult it was to breathe or how I need to work on my form. Previously, it seemed my best runs were on days I had a lot going on outside of my sneakers: a long mental list of to-dos to tackle, stories to write, friends to call, bills to pay. Those were the thoughts that got me through double-digit distances—not what was actually happening to my body or my surroundings. But now that was precisely my new goal: to focus in on exactly what was happening ~in the moment~. 

How Mindful Running Works

Kastor preaches the power of switching negative thinking on the run (and in life, really) to positive thoughts. It's a way to keep pushing forward and find new meaning in each step. Andy Puddicombe, cofounder of Headspace, which recently teamed up with Nike+ Running to release guided mindful runs, also endorses mindfulness as a means of letting unconstructive thoughts float into your head, and then float right out—without bringing you down. (Learn more about how Deena Kastor trains her mental game.)

"This idea of being able to observe thoughts, pay attention to them, but not get involved in their story line is invaluable," Puddicombe says. For instance, "a thought might arise that you should slow down. You can buy into that thought or you can recognize it as just a thought and keep running fast. Or when a thought comes up like, 'I don't feel like running today,' you recognize it as a thought and go out anyway."

Puddicombe also mentions the importance of starting a run slowly and just letting your body ease into it, instead of pushing your pace right from the start and trying to get it done. Doing so requires a focus on how the body feels through a run (again, the part I feared). "People are always trying to get away from the present, but if you can be more present with each step, then you begin to forget about how much farther there is to run," he says. "For most runners, that's a liberating feeling because you find that flow."

With the help of meditation app Buddhify and the Headspace/Nike guided runs, that's exactly what I set out to do—find my flow. And, I hoped, a speedier one.

What Mindful Running for the First Time Is ~Really~ Like

The first time I tried a guided meditation while on the run was on an especially windy, too-cold-for-April day in NYC. (That was also the day I learned just how much I dislike running in the wind.) Because I was so miserable, but really needed to get in a 10-mile training run before a half marathon, I decided to press play on an eight-minute walking meditation and a 12-minute stillness meditation from Buddhify.

The guides seemed to help at first. I enjoyed thinking about my feet hitting the ground and how I could make that movement better for my body and more efficient for my pace. I then started observing sights (the Freedom Tower; the Hudson River) and smells (salt water; garbage) around me. But eventually, I was too unhappy to focus on the happiness talk, so I had to turn it off. You know when you're trying to fall asleep, but you're super antsy and you think a meditation will get you to REM, but really it just makes you angry because it's telling you to relax and you physically cannot? That sums up my experience that day.

Still, I didn't give up on my mindful running dreams. A few days later, I tuned in to a Nike/Headspace recovery run, where Puddicombe and Nike run coach Chris Bennett (along with an appearance by Olympian Colleen Quigley) talk you through the miles, telling you what you should tune in to in your body and encouraging you to keep your mind in each mile. They also discuss their experiences with running and how in-the-moment thinking has helped them succeed on the run. (Related: 6 Boston Marathon Runners Share Their Tips for Making Long Runs More Enjoyable)

Of course, some thoughts of assignments and unchecked tasks still entered my brain. But this experiment was reminding me that running doesn't always require a set goal. It can just provide a moment for myself, a way to work on my fitness (mental and physical) without worrying about all the things I need to accomplish. I can start out slow and forget about my pace, just reveling in the idea of putting one foot in front of the other.

What helped even more was speaking with Puddicombe about the power of paying attention to your body and what each step brings. From him, I learned just how helpful it is to recognize the discomfort of a long, hard run, but not let that destroy the entire workout. That includes letting the thought of tired legs or tight shoulders pass through my mind—and right out the other side, so I can keep a bird's-eye view on all the good things about the run.

How Mindful Running Taught Me That I'm Stronger Than I Think

I really put this negative-turned-positive mentality to the test when I set out to reach a 5K PR just last week. (A 2018 goal of mine is to break a few of my own records in races.) I went to the start line with a pace of under 9-minute miles in mind. I ended up averaging 7:59 and finishing in 24:46. What's so great, though, is that I actually remember a particular moment during mile three, where I brushed off a "you can't do this" thought. "I feel like I'm going to die, and I think I need to slow down," I said to myself, but I immediately responded with, "but I'm not, because I'm running comfortably hard and strong." This really made me smile mid-race because, previously, I would have let that one negative thought spiral into "why did you decide to do this?" or "maybe you should take a break from running after this is over."

This new positive thought process made me want to get back out on the road for not only more races (and faster times) but also for more casual miles where I can just focus on me and my body. I wouldn't say I'm looking forward to the type of mid-run struggle Kastor speaks of, but I am excited to see how I can continue to strengthen my mind right alongside my legs.

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