In recent weeks, my own personal research and study has overlapped with my professional work, in a way that has been both fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable.
Whilst engaging in a course of study in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy with mindfulness, I have been able to apply the skills gained within it, add them to my own existing understanding and material that I teach and really apply the skills to my own running experience – with some magnificent effect I hasten to add.
Today then, I thought I would share with you the culmination of my ongoing work. It is actually great to be able to offer something different to the usual cognitive strategies and self-hypnosis preparatory skills that I usually share, especially as this is a mental skill that you use when you are running.
This type of process is based upon the classic body scan method popularised in recent times by Jon Kabat-Zinn (whose marvellous and numerous books I have been thoroughly absorbed in during recent weeks). I would like to add here though that those exploring the field in depth will encounter other very similar processes within the work of Fritz Perls (1951) within the field of Gestalt Therapy and Cooke and van Vogt (1956) wrote too about the same sort of body awareness routine that was used by hypnotherapists back in the 1950s.
The main difference that we are going to encounter though is that most versions of this process are written and done seated or lying down and you tune into yourself whilst absolutely still. We are going to engage in the mindfulness process when very active and are running, so it is very different in that respect.
The main goal of this process though is absolutely the same regardless of where or how you are doing it. You just aim to increase self-awareness. We do this by systematically developing a heightened awareness of our bodily sensations while we are running.
Often, I have found when teaching clients or students mindfulness practices, especially when in the early stages of learning it, they might nod off or drift to sleep as they relax. The beauty of doing this kind of process when running is that you are kept engaged by the natural impetus of your running activity. It is a wonderful level of absorption that you get.
I have written before on this blog about the fact that evidence has shown that elite runners often engage in an associative cognitive strategy that keeps them tuned in to how they are during their running (Morgan & Pollock, 1977). It enables them to tune in and check how capable they are of pushing themselves further whilst running or easing off based upon their awareness of their body, strength and resources.
Therefore, a process of mindfulness is beneficial for that reason. However, the benefits are much more than those simply gained for the purpose of running performance enhancement. There is a large body of evidence that supports the benefits of mindfulness for our physical and mental health in and of itself.
A simple search online will show you how impossible it would be for me to fully exhaust that body of evidence from throughout the years, but is has benefits for specific conditions as well as general health implications.
The runner benefits from good mental and physical health that are advanced by mindfulness and such a practice also enriches and enhances the enjoyment of running in my own opinion and experience.
A couple of quick notes before you begin with this. Throughout your mindful running, be accepting of the noises, sights and places that you encounter, do your best to allow everything to simply become part of the process for you. Likewise, accept your thoughts and feelings as you run too.
Many times I have spoken and written about what Emile Coué used to refer to as ‘the effort error’ – that is, don’t try to force yourself to do this process perfectly. Accept what happens throughout. Don’t try to let go of certain thoughts or feelings, all the time, simply observe it, be interested in your ongoing experience without interfering in it. This is key.
As much as you can, be patient throughout. Enjoy the luxury of the time to yourself, and just be as aware as you can, watch it happening without trying to change anything. If you find that your awareness is distracted or wanders off somewhere else, then accept that too, then bring your awareness back to the process of being mindful.
Simply follow these steps for enjoying mindfulness when running, Mindful Meditation When Running:
Step One: Begin your run and get underway. Imagine that you are smiling to yourself throughout this process. If that brings a gentle smile to your face, then that is ideal, otherwise, continue to imagine it is there.
Once you are running, start to tell yourself what you immediately notice all around yourself. Just offer up a personal commentary of what you are seeing, what you are hearing and noticing about the place you are running in. Accept your surroundings, enjoy them as you tell yourself what it is that you are noticing. Develop and feel a sense of contentment with it all.
Do this for a few minutes and then move on to the next stage of the process.
Step Two: Now start to move your awareness to your own self, and offer up a commentary on your own body, thoughts and feelings. Tell yourself how your arms and legs are moving, how you are breathing, what sounds you are making, and notice your own thoughts and deeper feelings.
Sense your muscles working, notice your breathing as you run and engage with the experience of running in this moment.
Accept all of your ongoing experiences and as you commentate to yourself on your own condition, develop a sense of self-acceptance, and warmth toward yourself. Remember as you notice your ongoing experience, don’t try to change anything and don’t try to stop anything from changing, just keep on track with the aim of your run, doing what you set out to do with your run, and observe yourself.
Forget about the past, forget about the future, forget about everything else and rest your mind on the flow of your awareness while you run.
Do this for a few minutes, then move on to the next step.
Step Three: Now spend some time just zoning in on the breathing as you run.
Notice the sensations of your breathing. Be aware of your stomach and chest rising and expanding as you inhale and notice how they change when you exhale. Become aware of the pace that you are breathing, notice the sensation of the air upon your nostrils and in your lungs, notice if it changes when the terrain of your run changes too.
Observe it, watch it, become fascinated and curious about your breathing. When running, your body knows how to take on board more oxygen as it needs it, so observe that without trying to change it, watch it happening, and accept it, enjoy it and even marvel at the simple pleasure of watching your own breathing, feeling it and tuning into it while you run. If you get distracted away from it, accept that too, and bring your awareness back.
Once you have done this for a few minutes, move on to the next step, unless you want to stay on this step for longer, in which case, move on whenever you are happiest to do so. I have spent many runs just watching the breath and how it changes during runs.
Step Four: Now start to move your awareness and spread it through your body in even more detail. With each body part that you move your awareness towards, sense the blood pumping through it, watch and observe how it is all feeling as you run and let it all happen, accept it happening as it is. Become aware of the skin surrounding each part as well as the muscles working deeper within, then here are some other considerations as you scan through the body, focusing for a few minutes on each area at least, tuning into each area and being mindful of each in depth:
Start with your feet – notice how they land upon the ground. Notice the weight and force of them as they impact the ground. Notice the weight of them when they are in the air. Sense the feelings as they move, notice the muscles and bones and sense all the fibres.
Then move up and through the legs – notice the lightness and heaviness that changes (or not) as you move. Notice the sensations within individual muscles, notice how some muscles seem to effect others. Move your awareness into the knee joints, feel them moving, and then all the way up the thighs and hamstrings. All the time move your awareness inside deeply, connect with the muscles, notice them as they move.
Get a sense of your arms as you run. Notice the angle of your elbows, notice the weight as they move, become aware of the muscles and the sensation deeper than that.
As you breathe, sense your chest and stomach – be aware of how it all moves as you breathe, sense the heart beating within, notice the lungs exhaling and inhaling. Notice the muscles throughout and within as they move.
Finally, move your awareness to the head, neck and face area. What sensations do you notice? Be aware of the scalp, the forehead, notice the expression on your face, how are you holding your jaw, where are your eyes pointing, where is the tongue in your mouth?
Notice all of these things, in detail, spend a few minutes on each area, go into detail with your awareness, be absorbed in area as you run and once you have completed the scan of the entire body with deep mindfulness, move on to the next step.
Step Five: With that awareness of your physical body, of the physiological experience of running, now turn your awareness and attention deeper inside toward your own consciousness. As you continue to notice your breathing, become aware of what your mind is doing now.
What thoughts are you thinking? Are you verbalising your thoughts in your head? Is their an emotional tone to your thoughts? Are there unspoken, non-verbal thoughts, sounds or imagery going through your mind? Just watch it all for a few minutes, as if you were watching a film. Be absorbed in your own ongoing experience.
Then notice the feelings within you. Not just physical feelings, but emotional feelings. Notice your general mood and notice how you react to that mood and how you react to your own thoughts.
As you run, notice how your observations influence your thoughts. Notice how your own running exertions effect your thoughts and mood. Engage in it all absolutely, tune in your own experience in great detail.
Do this for a few minutes, then move on to the next step.
Step Six: Bring your awareness altogether as much as possible. As you notice your breathing, your entire body, your thoughts and emotions, imagine that you step back and just watch it all. So even though you have been very tuned in to it all, imagine stepping back and observing yourself from a slight distance.
Watch your entire ongoing experience from a slightly dissociated stance, you can re-associate any time, but do your best to have an interlude within this exercise and watch your entire experience of you running, be happily absorbed and engaged to just be… Just be aware, nothing else.
As much as you can, keep a developed sense of calmness and peacefulness throughout your run as you carry on with it.
Do this for a while and then move on to the next step.
Step Seven: You can choose to rejoin any of the previous steps or interchange between them throughout the remainder of your run. See if you can retain your mindfulness throughout an entire run.
When your run comes to a natural conclusion, or you have got to the end of it, then connect with your surroundings and the environment, breathe deeply a couple of times and go about your day.
At some stage following your run, engage in some post-run reflection – Once you have stopped running, reflect upon the run. How was it? How was the experience of being mindful? How was it different to other runs? How was it similar? Accept it absolutely as it was and be aware of the entire running experience as a whole.
Enjoy that, it’ll bring some utter joy to your running when it is done with some regularity and your body and mind will thank you enormously for it, as well as your running performance.
Cook, C. E. and Van Vogt, A. E. (1956) The Hypnotism Handbook.
Morgan, W. P. and Pollock, M. L. (1977) Psychological characterization of the elite distance runner. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 301: 382-403.
Morgan, W. P., O’Connor, P. J., Ellickson, K. A. and Bradley, P. W. (1988) Personality structure, mood states and performance in elite male distance runners. International Journal of Sports Psychology, 19: 247-263
Morgan, W. P., O’Connor, P. J., Sprling, B. P. and Pate, R. R. (1987) Psychological characterization of the elite female distance runner. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 8: 124-131
Perls, F., Hefferline, R., & Goodman (1951) Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality.