I Ran a 5K In Total Darkness to Better Understand Mindful Running
It felt like I was running in circles forever—and yet when I was done, I felt I had run better and I enjoyed it more.
It's pitch-black, with fog machines making it even harder to see anything not in my immediate vicinity, and I'm running in circles. Not because I'm lost, but because I can't see much further than what's directly in front of my face and feet. All I can do is follow the small spotlight that's leading me along a makeshift track with white borders delineating the 150-meter oval track Asics created inside an empty warehouse for this 5K run.
'But, why', might you ask?
The first "running track to train the mind" was unveiled by Asics in May in London as an experiment in mindful running, or running with intention and, oftentimes, without stimulation such as technology, scenery, or music. For me, it was running out of my comfort zone. I like to run with a very strategic playlist (I'm into female power pop right now; what's up, Fifth Harmony?), a fully charged Apple Watch synced to Nike+ Run Club (do my miles even count if they aren't in the app?), and plenty of external visual stimuli (I live in New York City, where I opt for routes that have me dodging pedestrians on First Avenue instead of clear Central Park paths.)
But in the dark, stripped of all my typical distractions, there was nothing to focus on except my body, my breath, and my brain-which was interesting, because after I run a marathon, people always ask me which was the first thing to burn out. My answer is almost always my brain. I get bored; 26.2 miles is a lot of ground to cover! It was no different on this track, and I quickly found myself asking "how the hell am I going to entertain myself for the next 25 minutes?" (Read how one runner learned to love running without music.)
The answer was in my own body. Instead of pacing myself by my watch, I started pacing myself by my breath-when I started breathing too heavy, I slowed down; if I felt like I wasn't breathing hard enough, I sped up. It felt a little more natural like I was doing what my body needed at that moment versus forcing it to do pretty much anything I tell it to do. I also felt way more dialed into my form. Instead of lip-synching songs or tapping my fingers to an internal beat, I found myself checking in with my alignment (were my knees tracking in? Was I standing too tall?) and course-correcting way more often.
I had counted the laps from the beginning as a way to help me zone out and focus on the moment, and it worked, because when a loud beep announced my finish, I skidded to a halt, breathing heavy and slightly disoriented. Did I run faster than normal? Not really; I wasn't racing, so I didn't push myself to the limit. But I think I ran better than I normally do. (Related: How Ditching My Running Training Plan Helped Me Rein In My Type-A Personality)
But don't take my word for it-there's science behind mindful running and its impact on your physical performance. Researchers-led by professor Samuele Marcora, director of research at the University of Kent's School of Sport and Exercise Sciences-have also used the dark track to test the idea that psychological factors have a significant effect on endurance performance (to which, as someone who runs endurance races, I say, duh-but I don't have a Ph.D.).
To do this, they had 10 people run the track under two separate conditions: First, with the track fully illuminated and with motivational music and verbal encouragement, and second, with the lights off and white noise masking any ambient sounds. What they found was that the runners finished an average of 60 seconds faster with the lights on versus in the blackout condition. They also started faster and sped up when they could see, versus a progressive reduction in speed with the lights out.
That all makes sense; I run faster when I can see where I'm going, too. But it does prove the researchers' hypothesis: that perceptual, cognitive, and motivational factors all have a significant effect on running-notice physiological wasn't mentioned there. The more important mental takeaway, to me, though, was that running the blackout track taught me to enjoy the run rather than simply race to the finish line. (Related: Why Running Is Always About Speed)
It also showed me that you can train your brain to perform better under different conditions, specifically by forcing yourself to perform under different conditions. After my run, Charles Oxley and Chevy Rough, two mindfulness and performance coaches on the ASICS Sound Mind Sound Body crew, recommended that I start incorporating at least one run per week sans headphones and running watch to actually train my brain to stand up better to the mental fatigue it might encounter at, say, mile 20 during a marathon.
Oxley also stressed the importance of the pre-run warm-up. "We come to a run from these high-stress states-from work, from dealing with kids, whatever-and then we add on the stress of exercise without ever grounding ourselves," he said. Taking a few moments to sit with your back or lay flat to practice, deep, nostril-only breathing will bring you down from a stress state and help you connect to your recovery system, resetting you before exercise, another high-stress state. (Related: Why You Should Never Skip Your Post-Workout Cooldown)
Part of what I love about running is how mindless it can be, how you can go on autopilot as you put one foot in front of the other and repeat for as long as you want or can. But, clearly, being mindful and dialing into your breath and body on the run has its benefits, too-not least of all that it can take you even further.