For millions of men, exercise is a reason to get away from the desk or off the sofa, to go outside and to engage our bodies in the activities they're designed for. But breaking a sweat is not just about the physical payoffs.
The mental health benefits of exercise are well-evidenced, and now a growing number of wellbeing specialists and health practitioners are championing a blend of running with mindfulness to boost those benefits and help exercisers to stay motivated.
"Attitudes towards mindfulness have been changing, especially since the pandemic," says Billy White, restauranter, runner and author of Eat Run Enjoy. "It's been thought of as a bit 'out there' until now. But it's very much about being in the present.
"Achieving a mindful state through running is something more and more men are investigating," adds White. "You have to be 'present' when you're running with mindfulness, in a way where you're focused on the basics and clearing your head of the rest of life's distractions."
For White and many thousands of runners like him, the rewards gleaned from adding mindfulness to a regular exercise routine are taking running to a whole new level.
So how does a runner adapt his routine to or start running from scratch with mindfulness? How can an elite runner employ mindful tactics without changing a winning style? Here's everything you need to know.
What Is Mindful Running?
The most basic definition of mindful running is meditation on the move.
"Mindful running means locating your mind as well as your body in the here and now," explains William Pullen, a London-based psychotherapist and the author of Run For Your Life: Mindful Running For A Happy Life.
"In other words, your mind and body should be focusing on what is around you right here - what can you see, smell, touch. It's about using your sensing to anchor yourself in your surroundings."
That's the 'here' bit. "As for the now, the goal is to be fully present - not reflecting on the past nor planning for the future. Right here, right now, is the goal," adds Pullen.
But there is no goal, really. Not in the sense we usually apply to fitness routines. "It's more about letting go to what truly is rather than getting lost in thoughts and feelings."
The Benefits Of Mindful Running
It Boosts Confidence
In the UK, the running app Strava reported an 82% increase in outdoor activity during 2020 (for reasons we probably don't need to explain). However, mindful running is not about hitting targets. "It's not about getting fit, it's about getting confident again," says Pullen. Research shows mindful running boosts self-confidence, increases optimism and people report actually enjoying exercise more when they remain in the moment.
You'll Run Better
Without mindfulness, the subconscious is in the driver's seat, which is rarely a good thing. "This subconscious tends to recycle anxiety and stress with side-effects that include shallow or rapid breathing and tense muscles," says USA track and field coach Mackenzie L Havey. Not ideal for running or your mood. Alternately, conscious (mindful) running allows the body to relax and function in its optimal state.
You'll Run Longer
When you're lost in thought on a tough hill run, it's easy for negativity to take over: 'My legs are killing me. I hate this. I'm going to walk,' etc. "But when you mindfully engage with the experience of running up a hill, you can accept discomfort and focus on the task at hand in the moment," says Havey. "Which is to put one foot in front of the other to get up the hill." By reducing the perception of pain, we gain better body awareness and cope better in stressful situations.
How To Start Running Mindfully
Start the process before you run. Mindfully tie your running shoes prior to a run. Pay attention as you slide your foot into the shoe, how the arch feels underfoot, how the upper feels wrapping around your foot and how the lace feels in your hand as you tie the shoe. Then put the other shoe on and do the same thing.
Once you are flowing and have found a comfortable pace, that's a good time to take it up a gear. "Do this by counting. You can use your breaths (count to 10 then start again) or footfalls (right or left foot, but not both, to 10) or anything that you see around you from trees to other runners," says Pullen. Remember that the purpose is to keep your attention focused on the here and now.
Use Your Senses
Notice everything that comes into your field of vision. Notice what sounds you're aware of. And then tune in with your sense of smell to be mindful of the pollen or grass. "If you find yourself drifting into thoughts about the past or future, bring yourself back to your chosen anchor, adds Pullen. "But do so in the most gentle way you can - this is an important part of the practice."
Focus On Form
Ask yourself, 'how's my running form?' Notice your foot strike; whether your toe strikes first or if you roll off your heel. Focus on where your feet land in relation to your hips, too – ideally directly beneath them to avoid overstriding. In quieter spots, listen to the rhythm of how your feet strike the ground.
Take time after your run to reflect on how you're feeling, your heart rate and your breathing. As you begin to feel more attuned to running mindfully, look to apply it in other areas of life, from eating to relaxing. Removing distraction and focusing on how these activities make you feel can help reduce stress and enhance their benefits.
If you're struggling to carve out time for your runs, try scheduling them with the Balance Planner.