Mindfulness has many positive effects on health (decreased stress, anxiety and depression, improved heart health, immune and brain function). It can also improve our ability to focus, and tolerate pain, or discomfort. Recently, research has also highlighted potential for improved endurance running performance.
So, can mindful running make you a faster runner?
In this article, I’ll look to answer that by taking a look at mindfulness and how to use it to improve your running.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be described as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2006).
It sounds complex, but essentially it’s about being consciously aware of the present moment.
From a sporting perspective, we can relate mindfulness to an awareness and acceptance of the present situation, and specifically not being distracted by (but being aware of) negative thoughts, emotions and sensations (pain, discomfort etc) during exercise or competition.
So, rather than being distracted by negative thoughts, emotions and feelings, a mindful athlete has a greater level of awareness and acceptance of them.
What is Mindful Running?
Put simply, it’s a greater awareness of what’s happening when you’re running. At the most basic level it relates to an awareness and connection between your mind and your body. It’s about having a conscious awareness of different aspects of your running form, physical sensations (discomfort etc), perceived effort, running pace etc.
It’s about being aware of when you get caught up in thinking, and when you’re being distracted by negative thoughts or emotions.
One point to note here: mindfulness isn’t about controlling or trying to stop negative thoughts – that’s a battle you will never win. Instead, it’s about being aware of when that happens, and then bringing your attention back to the present moment…and in this case, specifically back to running.
So, the next question…is mindful running beneficial? And will it make you a better runner? Let’s take a look…
Research Looking at Mindfulness and Running
Clearly mindfulness has many health benefits, but is it beneficial for runners?…(well), recent research suggests that… yes, it can help to improve endurance running performance.
A recent study published in the journal of Neural Plasticity (Nien et al., 2020), found that five weeks of mindfulness training improved treadmill running performance.
During the research, the participants were divided into two groups. One group completed 5 weeks of mindfulness training, whereas the control group continued with their normal training.
Both groups completed a graded exercise treadmill test to measure VO2 max and time to exhaustion, before and after the 5-week intervention.
The Mindfulness Training
The training involved 2 x 30minute sessions per week, for 5 weeks. In addition, the athletes were also encouraged to practice for 15-30 minutes per day, between the mindful training days.
What did the training involve? Initially, the athletes were introduced to the different concepts and components of mindfulness. They were also introduced to the fundamental skills: mindful breathing, meditation, body scanning, yoga and mindful walking.
As well as the mindfulness training program, the athletes were also introduced to applying mindfulness during sports competition situations.
What The Researchers Found
Firstly, neither group showed any improvement in VO2 max. But here’s the interesting part: while VO2 max showed no improvement, the mindfulness group significantly improved their time to exhaustion, suggesting a benefit to endurance exercise performance.
So, why did time to exhaustion improve in the mindfulness group? The researchers suggested that this could be related to “mindfulness-related, breathing and posture”, and an improved ability to “have awareness of their pain without judging it”.
So, in effect, a runner with greater mindfulness may be better able to accept their level of discomfort. In turn this may reduce the limiting effects of any negative thought patterns.
Previously, research has also highlighted significant improvements in one mile running times (Thompson et al, 2011). With the researchers suggesting mindful sport performance enhancement (MSPE) is a promising intervention associated with “long-term changes”.
Ok, so how can you use this to improve your running…
Different Mindful Running Training Approaches
When it comes to reaping the benefits of mindfulness, we have two approaches:
- Practice mindfulness meditation
- Practice mindful awareness when running
Let’s take a look at each…
Practicing mindfulness meditation
While, we don’t all have access to an experienced mindfulness teacher, one effective alternative is to make use of some of the widely available apps.
One app that I’ve found useful is the Headspace App.
Accessing the full features of the App, requires either a monthly or yearly subscription. Headspace, do offer a 2-week free trial, which you can then either cancel, or sign up at a discounted rate for the first year. They also provide some free meditations.
Currently, that’s discounted to £49.99/year (UK). And US prices are typically around $70/year. They also offer a fairly significant student discount and a family membership, that allows 6 family members to use the app for not much more than the individual subscription.
So, what’s good about the headspace App? Firstly, the simplicity of the app: it’s easy to use, beginner friendly, and I’ve found it effective for improving endurance running and cycling performance.
The Headspace App has a number of sports mindfulness courses including:
Of these, I’ve mainly used the sports competition course. This is a 10-day course, with each session lasting from 10-20mins – depending on your preference.
This works well when used in the build-up to a competition. The course takes you through the basics of mindfulness and helps to brings awareness to focus and achieving a state of flow.
Personally, I found this useful, both for improving focus during tougher training sessions and also for competitions. It certainly seemed to help improve exercise performance, especially during mentally challenging sessions such as cycling FTP tests.
While I found the app useful, there were some downsides.
- The lack of progression – after you’ve completed the courses a few times they become slightly repetitive. Here, it would be nice to be able to progress beyond these.
- The other downside is the cost of the App.
Overall, it’s a good starting point especially if you’re new to the benefits of mindfulness.
An Alternative option:
At this point, it’s worth noting that you don’t actually need to pay for a sport’s focussed course, such as those on the Headspace App, to gain the benefits of mindfulness. By consistently practising mindfulness you should gain the same benefits.
So, what’s the alternative?… (well), the good news is that there are some free Apps that provide a range of different mindfulness programs and courses. One of the best I’ve found is Insight Timer. Here, you can find thousands of free meditations.
While, you won’t find the sport specific mindfulness courses that are available through Headspace, they do have a vast range of free courses by a number of different teachers. In my opinion, it’s definitely worth checking out.
So, we’ve looked at a couple of apps, what about using mindfulness in your own training?
Practicing Mindful Awareness when Running
One approach that can be really useful is to start to use a mindful approach to your running.
So, what does that actually mean?… As I mentioned earlier, this involves bringing your conscious awareness to what’s going on when you’re running – your technique, posture, thought’s, sensations, feelings, discomfort, surroundings etc.
Essentially, it’s about not being lost in thoughts, but rather paying attention to what is happening in that moment i.e. running.
So, how do we do that?…There’s two options here:
Use an app to guide you through a mindful running workout – again Headspace do provide some mindful running meditations and they’ve also teamed up with Nike to provide 15 guided running meditations through the Nike Run Club App.
However, if you really want to run mindfully then ideally you’ll want to be getting away from reliance on apps.
With that in mind, here’s one simple approach you can use…
Mindful Running Workout
During your next easier running session, add in some 3-5minute intervals where you place your attention and awareness onto a specific aspect of running. The important point here is to focus your awareness on just one aspect of your running technique, during each interval.
As with traditional interval training, we want to separate each interval with 2-3minutes of easy running – importantly this should involve normal running i.e. without any conscious, or deliberate focus. The difference here, is that rather than increasing intensity during the work intervals we’re increasing our attention, awareness and focus.
If you’re new to this, then start with 3-4 intervals and as you progress build up towards 5-6. Try to focus on a different aspect of running for each interval, although sometimes it can be useful to repeat one aspect more than once.
After a while you should find that you begin to develop a greater conscious awareness of different aspects of running technique. And over time, you will begin to notice that you naturally carry this across to your normal running training.
Here’s some examples of areas to focus on during these intervals, to help get you started…
Here, we’re going to focus on one of the most useful areas to begin with…breathing. Start by placing your awareness on the rhythm of breathing – Do you notice a rhythm between your footsteps and your breathing pattern? How many steps are there between each breath? Are you breathing more through your chest or diaphragm? Is there any tension when you’re breathing? Is your breathing slow and controlled or fast? Is it deep or shallow?
Focusing awareness on breathing can prove particularly useful for developing a relaxed rhythmic breathing pattern. After a while you should find this carries over to an increased conscious awareness of your breathing during all of your running sessions. For me, this has proved particularly useful. Importantly, it’s not just carried over to easy paced runs, but also to more efficient breathing during faster interval-based training and even during racing.
This time the awareness is focussed on your arm technique. Bring awareness to the rhythm connecting your arms and legs. Are your arms moving smoothly forwards and backwards in the direction you’re running? Or, are they moving across the midline of your torso? Is one arm crossing over more than the other? What muscles are driving your arms? Do your arms feel relaxed? What about your hands?
#3 Head, neck and shoulders
Here, the focus is on your head, neck and shoulders. Consider things like: are your shoulders relaxed? Is there tension in your head and neck? Does your head feel heavy? Are you staring at the ground just in front of your feet? Or, looking at the ground 10, 20, or even 30m in front of you?
#4 Core, hips and glutes
This time the awareness is on your core muscles, your hips and glutes. Consider whether you’re engaging your core muscles? Are your hips stable, or do they drop when your feet make contact with the ground? Are you leaning too far forwards at the hips? Can you become aware of how your glutes help to drive you forwards when running?
This is tied in with #3 and #4, so it works best when included alongside one or both of those. This time bring awareness to whether you’re maintaining a tall upright posture. Consider whether your head position is affecting this? What about you’re core muscles – are they engaged? Are you leaning too far forwards at the hips? And is your posture affecting your breathing?
Here, the focus of awareness moves to your feet and how they make contact with the ground. Bring awareness to where you feel the pressure when your feet make contact with the ground…is it your heels, midfoot, or forefoot? Is there a high level of impact (a loud foot strike)? Or do you feel light on your feet with a much quieter and quicker ground contact? Do your feet land under your hips, or in front of your body? Do your feet roll inwards, or land on the outside of your feet? What about your running cadence?
#7 External focus
This time shift your focus from an internal to an external factors – become aware of the firmness of the ground, undulations, external sounds (your foot strike and breathing, or those of others that you’re running with), obstacles (tree roots, rocks), your surroundings (trees, trails, sky etc) and weather conditions (cold, hot, windy etc).
Ok, so that’s hopefully given you a bit of an idea of the benefits of mindfulness for runners. If you’ve found this useful then please consider sharing this content, or, subscribing to our blog to receive updates when new articles are added.
Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 2006;10(2):144–156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016.
Nien JT, Wu CH, Yang KT, Cho YM, Chu CH, Chang YK, Zhou C (2020) Mindfulness Training Enhances Endurance Performance and Executive Functions in Athletes: An Event-Related Potential Study. Neural Plast. 2020 Aug 28;2020:8213710. doi: 10.1155/2020/8213710. PMID: 32908483; PMCID: PMC7474752.
Thompson R. W., Kaufman K. A., De Petrillo L. A., Glass C. R., Arnkoff D (2011). B. One year follow-up of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE) with archers, golfers, and runners. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 2011;5(2):99–116. doi: 10.1123/jcsp.5.2.99.