The benefits of a ‘mindful’ run
You don’t have to sit still to practise mindfulness – running alone will leave you feeling calmer, stronger and more confident
Mary Jennings: “Mindful running involves bringing our attention to one focus or thought in our run.”
When did you last spend some time truly alone? I don’t mean a lazy evening scrolling on your phone or on the couch watching TV. By alone, I mean time away from technology as well as people.
Most of us are pretty bad at carving out this time even when we do have an opportunity. It can feel a little uncomfortable to switch everything off and do nothing. There are too many temptations and even with the best of intentions we get distracted by social media, Netflix or our WhatsApp messages. Worse still, we feel guilty for sitting down when we know there is a long list of jobs to be done. Or is that just me?
I am not very patient at sitting still on a cushion, but I do enjoy my own company when on the move. In recent times, I have been enjoying some solo, leisurely, scenic runs. When I run alone, I don’t get distracted by the constant ping of my phone or the growing pile of laundry at home. I am not clock-watching or making conversation so instead I have no choice but to listen to my internal running monologue. I become aware of what is going on in my head and almost listen to the conversation as an outsider. I feel calmer, stronger and more confident when I return. Indeed, I have long praised the benefits of finding a running buddy or group for motivation and support, but sometimes a break from everyone else is not a bad thing.
Our minds need time away from the constant information overload but we struggle often to prioritise this time-out. Mindfulness is recommended widely today as a way of quietening the mind and the incredible benefits of mindfulness practice have been well-documented. Decreasing anxiety while helping us to improve sleep, mood, creativity, cognitive function, body awareness and general wellness should be enough incentive for anyone to give mindfulness a chance. Yet we are often too impatient and restless to patiently sit still and attempt to clear our busy minds. Thankfully, there are no rules to suggest we have to be sitting to be mindful.
Mindful movement can be just as valuable to the body as a sitting meditation. Walking or running solo can be your path to mindfulness too. Mindful running involves bringing our attention to one focus or thought in our run. We can choose to think about an element of our running technique, our breathing or even the sound of our feet hitting the ground. We can focus on the scenery, the sounds and smells or the feeling of the wind in our face. Each time we notice our mind wander, we bring our attention back to that original focus.
All solo runs don’t necessarily need to be consciously ‘mindful’. Sometimes, we just need to let our mind wander and escape from reality. I use these solo runs as an opportunity to run gadget-free. My watch stays at home so I am not under pressure to hit any distance or speed targets. I have intentionally not replaced my broken set of headphones so music won’t drown out my internal running monologue. If the thought of running without a watch or background music sparks fear in you, trust me, the miles still count. The only difference is that a few numbers on a screen won’t dictate the success of your run. I am enjoying running based on how I am feeling without being told I’m too slow or too fast by a gadget.
In the first few minutes, without the distraction of conversation or music, I notice every imaginary niggle, tightness, laboured breath and sound and could easily convince myself to return home. The voices in my head are mildly entertaining. They are a bit reluctant to get going at the start, but just like the body, once they have warmed up they tend to be more positive and optimistic. Those first few minutes pass slowly. But then something magical happens. I settle into the run and almost forget I am running. The voices now become the equivalent of spectators on the side of the marathon course. They rally behind me and encourage me to continue. You can’t stop now, you have come this far.
There comes a point in most solo runs where you find yourself enjoying the run. The freedom of being alone, with no one to answer to, in a body that is feeling strong is empowering. Behind the scenes, even better things are happening. As each mile passes, the mind quietens and worries and concerns seem to evaporate or reduce in importance. Everything seems to be a little more manageable and organised after it has been processed on a run. Indeed, we may not have solved any issues but we return feeling more able to deal with them. I have noticed that my best creative ideas hit me when out on these solo runs. Running has a strange power of settling the mind and pointing us in the right direction if we just listen to what our body is telling us.
The present moment
For those of you who enjoy a tough training session, nothing brings you more into the present moment than a series of solo lung-busting speed intervals. There is no one to cheer you on or pace you around the last bend. You only have yourself for company. Getting comfortable listening to, and responding to, the voices in our heads takes practice and solo runners are often more disciplined than us group runners on race day, as they have learnt to silence the background noise and push on through discomfort.
We can all benefit from the social side of running, but there is a wonderful sense of freedom and discipline to be gained from these solo adventures. These freedom runs are some of the few times in my week where I don’t have a person, computer or a phone to interact with. I am both my own cheerleader and coach for that 30 minutes as there is no one else to do that work for me. Being alone on a run allows me to get more comfortable with my own company and what is going on inside my head. Whether your solo run is a mindful run, a structured speed session or simply a leisurely escape from the madness, time spent alone is good for us all, even if it on the move.
Give it a try this week.
Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie