You wouldn't race without a plan for your body—so why hit the pavement without considering your most important organ: your brain?
Photo: Getty Images / Geber86
Miki Gorman—an elite runner and the last American woman to win the New York Marathon until just last year—was known for running as if she had a built-in metronome. She had a vibration with each step, a beat she followed: one step at a time, one breath at a time. No distractions.
In fact, she described running as a meditative state of movement, a feeling many runners can relate to.
Yet, there's a disconnect: Have you ever really connected your feet to your mind? While we often follow physical training plans to complete races, mental training plans can seem like something for the elites. But all runners know that often, in the most difficult parts of a race, it's mental strength—not the physical kind—that you need to conjure up to keep going. (Related: How Mindful Running Can Help You Get Past Mental Roadblocks)
Today, Danielle Mika Nagel, Gorman's daughter, is Lululemon's director of mindful performance—and one of the driving forces behind the company's new "Let Your Mind Run Free" campaign, an in-store and online initiative that aims to help all runners (no matter your skill) be more mindful.
Programming includes curated Spotify playlists, Lululemon ambassador-approved running routes on Strava, meditation podcasts for runners, yoga videos directed at runners, and training programs for 10Ks and half marathons.
It's an important piece of the training puzzle for runners. "Running is as mental of a sport as there is," says Brian Cain, a Texas-based sports psychologist consultant. After all: It's often just you out there. "Often, the race or the training is won or lost before you start—based on your focus or how you talk to yourself."
Research also suggests that mindfulness can reduce our perception of pain and discomfort. "It can help a runner gain a better sense of body awareness, so you can better discern when you should back off to avoid injury or push to take fitness to the next level, too," says Mackenzie Havey, author of Mindful Running.
The benefits continue: Connecting with the present moment can ease feelings of stress and anxiety—an important skill in competitive race environments—and boost optimism and self-confidence (a tool for dealing with negative thinking on a run), she notes.
"There's even research that demonstrates that people tend to enjoy working out more when they remain in the moment and immersed in the activity."
But finding some peace in the moment can also boost enjoyment. "Mindfulness is something I truly believe in as a gateway to happiness," says Mika Nagel. "The happiest people are the people who are living peaceful lives—they're in the now." And as she puts it: "How beautiful to actually enjoy a run—every step, every breath, the training plan—and that cold beer at the end?"
Here's the best news: Runners usually respond well to mindfulness training. They are disciplined in both their schedules and their habits—committed to the practices that make them stronger, notes Mika Nagel.
And while at its core, mindfulness sounds simple—teach your brain to stay present and notice when it wanders—a training plan comes in handy. Here, how to get started.
Find Your "Why"
"As opposed to mindlessly lacing up your sneakers and pounding the pavement lost in thought, a mindful approach to training urges you to bring some intentionality to your thinking," says Havey.
That's why the most important aspect of any plan is to make sure it's intended for you. We're all different. And zeroing in on your strengths, weaknesses, and goals helps you tailor a plan that'll work with you—not against you. (A run coach can also help you do this if you don't know where to start.)
Start with your intention of running. Do you want more energy in your life? Do you want to win a marathon? That'll give you a baseline.
Change Your Start
As you start moving, dial into your environment via your five senses (what do you see, smell, hear, taste, feel?), do a head-to-toe body scan (are you clenching your jaw?), and take stock of your thoughts (are you focused on an upcoming deadline? loving the spring air?), Havey suggests. These actions can root you in the moment, relaxing both body and mind.
From there, choose an anchor—your breath or your foot strike. When you feel yourself drifting, come back to your anchor. "As you begin to train your mind to calm down and stay more present, you can lengthen the time that you designate to mindfulness."
Consider New Noise
"Mindfulness for running has to include self-talk," says Cain. That's because the voice you hear the loudest is always your own. He makes custom audio tracks for his clients—confidence-conditioning statements that play over music. "After a few runs with the music, the voice in your head becomes the voice that you have trained."
But you don't need personalized soundtracks to change your inner voice. Repeating a mantra to yourself when things get tough (I'm thankful my body can do this) can help keep negativity out and help you stay in the now. (Related: 7 Health and Fitness Podcasts to Tune Into on Your Long Run)
Runners are a notoriously overcritical bunch. But remember: "It's human nature for our minds to wander," says Havey. "With mindfulness, the key is not to dwell on the fact that your attention often mimics a news ticker of worries, plans, and to-do lists."
Instead, recognize yourself drifting and move on. "With time and training, mindfulness trains the brain not to get constantly sidelined by unproductive distractions and allows you to keep your attention on the present moment," she says.
Meditate and Breathe Post-Run
After you bring your heart rate back to baseline post-run, sit with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing. "Meditation can be a beautiful way to close a run," says Mika Nagel. "If you can attach that to your run every time, you will create that healthy habit."
Aim for 20 minutes and be patient. Just as the first few miles of a run can feel crappy, so, too can the first few minutes of meditation.
Another option: Work a breathing technique into your recovery. Focus on the inhalation for six seconds, hold the breath for two seconds, then exhale for eight seconds. "Doing this 6-2-8 breathing practice while using NormaTec Recovery boots or while sitting in an ice bath, hot tub, or sauna can be a great use of your time. You double up on the recovery," says Cain.
Pick Up Yoga
Mika Nagel notes that in looking back at her running career, her mother wished she had incorporated more yoga into her routine. Not only does the practice support recovery, it also connects movements to breath by nature.
When was the last time you just did one thing at a time? "Monotasking helps us be fully present," says Mika Nagel. Practice it in your day-to-day by driving when you drive, writing when you write, and having an in-person conversation without looking at your phone. Soon, just running will come more naturally—giving way to the present moment (and those coveted moments of joy).