HOW MINDFUL RUNNING CAN MAKE YOU A FASTER RUNNER

Mindful Running

Mindfulness has many positive effects on health (lowers stress, anxiety and depression, improves heart health, immune and brain function). It can also increase our ability to focus, and endure 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 hope to answer that by looking at mindfulness, specific training approaches, and how to apply this to improve your running.

What is Mindfulness?

We can describe mindfulness 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 getting 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. 

And about being aware when you get caught up in thinking – like when we’re being distracted by negative thoughts or emotions.

One point to mention 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 returning your awareness 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 have a look…

Research Looking at Mindfulness and Running

Clearly mindfulness has many health benefits, but is it beneficial for runners?… (well), recent research indicates 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, they split the participants 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 mindful training involved 2 x 30minute sessions per week, for 5 weeks. In addition, they also encouraged the athletes to practice mindfulness for 15-30 minutes per day, between the mindful training days.

What did the training involve?… Initially, the athletes were introduced to the concepts and components of mindfulness. It also introduced them to the fundamental skills:

  • Mindful breathing
  • Meditation
  • Body scanning
  • Yoga
  • Mindful walking.  

As well as the mindfulness training program, they introduced the athletes to the application of mindfulness during sports competition.

What The Researchers Found

First, neither group showed any improvement in VO2 max.

But here’s the striking part: while VO2 max showed no improvement, the mindfulness group significantly improved their time to exhaustion, indicating 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 a runner with greater mindfulness may be better able to accept their level of discomfort. And 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). Here, the researchers suggested 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:

  1. Practice mindfulness meditation
  2. Practice mindful awareness when running

Let’s look at each…

Practicing mindfulness meditation

While we don’t all have access to an experienced mindfulness teacher, one useful alternative is to make use of some widely available apps. 

One app that I’ve found helpful is the Headspace App. 

Accessing the full features of the App, requires either a monthly, or yearly, subscription.

Headspace, 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? First, 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:

  • Competition
  • Communication
  • Concentration
  • Motivation
  • Recovery
  • Training

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 guides you through the essentials of mindfulness and helps to bring 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. This 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.

Downsides

  • The lack of progression – after you’ve completed the courses a few times, they become somewhat repetitive. Here, it would be nice to progress beyond these.
  • The other downside is the cost of the App.

Overall, it’s a great starting point, especially if you’re new to the benefits of mindfulness.

An Alternative option:

It’s worth noting that you don’t need to pay for a sport’s focussed course, such as those on the Headspace App, to obtain 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 same depth of sport specific mindfulness courses that are available through Headspace, they have a vast range of free courses by several teachers. 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 effective is to use a mindful approach to your running. 

So, what does that actually mean?… As 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 paying attention to what is happening in that moment, i.e. running. 

So, how do we achieve that?… There’s two options here:

Use an app to guide you through a mindful running workout—again Headspace 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. Insight timer also provides mindful running workouts.

However, if you really want to run mindfully, then 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. 

You can think of these as being similar intervals. The difference here is that we’re increasing our attention, awareness, and focus; rather than the intensity of exercise.

As with regular interval training, we want to separate each interval with 2-3minutes of easy running (with no conscious focus on technique)—this serves the same role as a recovery interval during traditional interval training.

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 technique for each interval, although sometimes it’s useful to repeat one aspect more than once.

After a while, you will develop a greater conscious awareness of different aspects of running technique. And over time, you will 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…

#1: Breathing

Here, we’re going to begin by focussing on one of the most effective areas… 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?
  • Are your breaths slow and controlled, or fast?
  • Is it deep, or shallow?

Focusing awareness on breathing can prove useful for developing a relaxed, rhythmic breathing pattern. And 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 really effective. 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.

#2 Arms

This time we focus the awareness on arm technique–bringing awareness to the rhythm connecting your arms and legs.

Things to consider…

  • Are your arms moving smoothly forwards and backwards? And 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 we focus the awareness on the core muscles, hips and glutes.

  • Consider whether you’re engaging your core muscles?
  • Are your hips stable, or do they drop when your feet contact the ground?
  • Are you leaning too far forwards at the hips?
  • Can you notice how your glutes help to drive you forwards when running?

#5 Posture

We link this 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 your core muscles—are they engaged?
  • Are you leaning too far forwards at the hips?
  • And is your posture affecting your breathing?

#6 Foot-strike

Here, the focus of awareness moves to your feet and how they contact the ground.

Bring awareness to where you feel the pressure when your feet contact the ground…

  • Is it your heels, mid-foot, 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 – notice the firmness of the ground, undulations, external sounds (your foot strike and breathing, or those of others you’re running with), obstacles (tree roots, rocks), your surroundings (trees, trails, sky etc) and weather (cold, hot, windy etc).

Ok, so that’s hopefully given you an understanding of the benefits of mindfulness for runners.

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References

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.

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