Mindful Running: Is All the Hoopla Justified?

Gary Dudney has a huge resume behind him as both an accomplished runner as well as a renowned author and writer. He has published articles in all the major running magazines including Runner’s World, Running Times, Trailrunner, Marathon & Beyond and not to mention he is considered the “voice of the sport” as a regular columnist of Ultrarunning. We at the Brisbane Trail Ultra Festival are so fortunate to be able to share some words of wisdom from Gary Dudney. Thank you Gary for your Guest blog from Team BTUF.

By Gary Dudney
Brisbane Trail Ultra Festival Guest Blog

Running magazines and commentary on the web are full of references these days to the close connection between running and mindfulness. The benefits from practicing mindfulness include reduction in stress and anxiety as well as an increase in your sense of well-being and self-esteem. Doesn’t that sound familiar to you as a runner? Those are exactly the outcomes that many runners report when their training is firing on all cylinders.

Is it a coincidence that the benefits from practicing mindfulness and running overlap so much?

The word “mindfulness” has a new-agey, pop psychology, touchy-feely vibe to it. Actually, mindfulness can be seen as fairly down to earth and straightforward. It relies primarily on a common sense understanding of how your mind works. From that understanding, a few mental techniques flow, which are easy to learn and turn out to be very relatable to runners and running.

Simply put, mindfulness can be defined as “focused attention on the present with acceptance.” Proponents of mindfulness describe ordinary thinking as careening from one thought to another, typically thoughts that involve problems from the past or worries about what might go wrong in the future. As your mind flits from thought to thought, you attach negative emotions like fear and regret to them, get swept up into pursuing those negative thoughts, and in the end generate lots of stress for yourself.

Mindfulness advocates claim you can break this negative cycle by focusing attention on just what you are experiencing in the present moment.

When thoughts of past or future problems bubble up in your mind, you are supposed to acknowledge the thought but not dwell on it or let yourself attach emotions to it. You accept it—this is the “acceptance” part of mindfulness—and then move back to focusing on the present.

That all seems pretty simple but it has two very useful outcomes. For one, by focusing on what you’re doing at the moment, you tend to really “live through” or deeply experience whatever it is you’re involved in. The classic example is eating an apple. Normally you hardly even notice an apple as you eat it because you’re too busy working at the computer or thinking about a myriad of other things. But what if you really paid attention to the apple? How does it look and smell? How does it feel in your hand? How does it feel to bite into it, to taste it, to have the juices explode from it? How about the chewing, the swallowing, the way the apple is gone little by little, even the feel of the water on your hands as you clean up? Eat an apple mindfully with your full attention and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Wow, it’s like I’ve never really eaten an apple before!”

Acknowledge the stray thought, but don’t attach yourself to it

Now imagine running with your full attention focused on all the sights, sounds and smells out on a trail. Pay attention to the wind on your skin, the contact of your feet on the ground, the rhythm of your stride, the swing of your arms, your breathing, and the changes that come from ascending and descending. While you’re concentrating on all those things, monitor your thinking for thoughts that stray away from the here and now. Concerns about some past incident or some future obligation will pop up in your mind. Acknowledge the stray thought, but don’t attach yourself to it or allow it to evoke any emotional response. Then let it slip away. Get back to experiencing your run and being fully aware of the richness of the experience as it unfolds around you.

The second useful outcome of running mindfully is that as long as you’re focused on the present, you’re getting a break from all the usual stress and anxiety you normally generate for yourself in dwelling uselessly on past and future problems.

The time when you’re out running becomes a stress free zone because you are not engaged in all the worry and speculation that normally dominates your thinking. Also in order to run, you literally have to remove yourself from your work place, or wherever you are. You are physically leaving behind all the stress inducing stimuli you experience at your desk, and so you pave the way to leave behind all those things mentally as well.

Mindfulness is also a great way to deal with the pain and fatigue that you experience in hard workouts or races when you’re really pushing yourself way out of your comfort zone. How many times have you heard the advice to “stay in the moment,” to take it one mile or one aid station at a time, and not think about the full complement of what is left to be done? This is exactly the strategy you adopt when you’re being mindful. Keep your focus on just the present. Acknowledge worries about what happened before or how you might feel later in the race, but don’t let them lead you into fear and self-doubt. Just let them fade as you return to your focus on the here and now.

The pain is not signaling a problem, it is just a sign that you are achieving whatever goal you are out to achieve.

When you really get into the pain and fatigue, acknowledge those sensations as well. In fact, allow yourself to sink down into the pain and really experience it as objectively as you can. Just facing up to it will take some of the sting out of it. Then work at accepting it as just one of the many sensations that you’re feeling in the race. After all, the way you feel is quite normal when you’re pushing hard and running at your limit. The pain is not signaling a problem, it is just a sign that you are achieving whatever goal you are out to achieve.

Try and let the pain recede. Then refocus your attention back on the other sensations and sights and sounds of the race. Of course dealing with the pain in this mindful way takes practice. Next time you’re in a hard workout and feel like quitting or easing up, practice the steps outlined above.

You never get the pain to go away completely, but you get better and better at accepting it as not that big a deal and certainly not a showstopper.

So is all the excitement about applying mindfulness to running justified? I certainly think so as someone who’s spent countless hours practicing it while trail running and using it to get to the end of almost seventy 100 mile races. It definitely deepens your running experience, reduces stress in your life, and gives you a powerful tool for dealing with the painful parts of running.

Have a look at my newly released book, The Mindful Runner: Finding Your Inner Focus, published by Meyer & Meyer Sports, Europe’s largest sports publisher, for a lot more about the mental side of running. I build on ideas I introduced in The Tao of Running: our Journey to Mindful and Passionate Running (2016). Both books are fun to read, full of great stories, and available as paperbacks, eBooks, or Audibles.

Gary Dudney

Amazon Author Page

My Website for Runners

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