How Mindful Running Can Help You Get Past Mental Roadblocks

It's all about leaning into the discomfort and turning negative thoughts into positive vibes.

Recently, I attended a book launch event of 'Let Your Mind Run', penned by Olympic Marathon medalist Deena Kastor. Interestingly, she shared that the section of the 26.2 run where she starts to feel challenged is indeed her most cherished part. Kastor explained, "Upon confronting this stage, my initial reaction is fear. But then, I remind myself - this is my opportunity to excel, to surpass myself, to push my physical and mental thresholds, hence, these moments are truly enjoyable for me."

Such a mindset during running is unique, with not many people relishing the tough parts of a long run; those parts where you realize the difficulty level and start questioning the reason behind it all. However, considering Kastor's impressive track record of marathon wins and strikingly fast splits (her average pace is below 6 minutes), there seems to be some merit to the idea of mindfulness and optimistic thinking during a run.

Personally, I have always found running to be mentally challenging. Having completed one marathon, my biggest concern throughout the training and during the race was encountering a mental block and fearing every subsequent mile. Fortunately, this did not happen on the race day. The months leading up to the marathon strengthened me - I learned to stop obsessing over miles and instead enjoy my journey on the road.

However, post that 2016 run, I reverted to mechanically completing each step just to cover the distance. Then, I learned about the concept of mindful running, which is essentially meditating while running. Intrigued yet skeptical, I decided to give it a try. The very thought of being completely present in the moment during a run was daunting. I presumed it would lead to thoughts about leg pain, breathing difficulty, or form correction. Earlier, my best runs were on days when I had ample distractions outside of running: a long list of pending tasks, writing assignments, phone calls to friends, bills to clear. Those were the thoughts that helped me complete long distances, not the real-time happenings around me or within my body. However, now my aim was to concentrate on exactly what was happening at the moment.

How Mindful Running Works

Kastor strongly advocates for the transformation of pessimistic thoughts during a run (and generally in life) into uplifting ones. This mental shift is vital in propelling you forward and deriving newfound significance from each stride. Andy Puddicombe, who co-founded Headspace, which recently collaborated with Nike+ Running to introduce guided mindful runs, also supports mindfulness as a way to allow harmful thoughts to momentarily enter your mind, and then promptly exit - without causing any emotional distress. (Discover more about Deena Kastor's mental training regimen.) "Being capable of observing thoughts, giving them attention, but not getting entangled in their narrative is priceless," says Puddicombe. For example, "You might have a thought urging you to slow down. You could succumb to that thought or merely acknowledge it as a transient thought and continue running unimpeded. Or when you entertain the idea of 'I don't feel like running today,' it's just a fleeting thought, and you carry on regardless." Puddicombe also emphasizes the value of starting a run at a gentle pace and allowing your body to gradually adjust, instead of instantly pushing your speed and trying to finish quickly. This approach necessitates concentrating on how your body responds throughout a run (the aspect I was apprehensive about). "People perpetually attempt to escape from the present moment, but if you can remain in the here and now with each step, you begin to lose sight of how far there is left to run," he states. "For the majority of runners, this is an emancipating feeling because you discover your rhythm." With the assistance of the Buddhify meditation app and the Headspace/Nike guided runs, that was precisely my objective - to find my rhythm, and ideally, a faster one.

What Mindful Running for the First Time Is ~Really~ Like

During a particularly windy and chilly day in New York City, I ventured out for a vital 10-mile training run ahead of an upcoming half marathon. It was on this day that I discovered my intense dislike for running in the wind. Despite the unpleasant weather conditions, I tried to improve my experience by listening to an eight-minute walking meditation and a 12-minute stillness meditation from Buddhify.

Initially, these guided meditations seemed beneficial. I found a sort of pleasure in focusing on my footfalls, contemplating how I could optimize my body movements for maximum efficiency and pace. I began to take note of the sights - the towering Freedom Tower, the expansive Hudson River - and even the smells - a mix of salty water and garbage - around me. However, as the discomfort grew, I found myself unable to maintain focus on the positivity being narrated through my earphones. It felt akin to attempting to fall asleep when you're restless; a meditation seems like the ideal solution but instead it agitates you further because your body simply refuses to relax. This was the unfortunate outcome of my endeavor that day.

Despite this initial setback, I remained undeterred in my quest to incorporate mindfulness into my running routine. A few days later, I experimented with a recovery run guided by Headspace's Andy Puddicombe and Nike's run coach Chris Bennett, which also featured insights from Olympian Colleen Quigley. During the run, they offered advice on tuning into your body, encouraged staying mentally present during each mile, and shared their personal experiences on how mindful thinking benefited their running journeys.

At times, thoughts about pending work and incomplete tasks did manage to invade my concentration. However, this exercise served as a reminder that running is not always about achieving a specific goal. It can also be a moment of self-care, a time to enhance both my physical and mental fitness, without the added pressure of a to-do list. It taught me the joy of starting slow and ignoring my pace, focusing instead on the simple act of placing one foot after the other.

My conversation with Puddicombe further reinforced the importance of mindfulness during running. He stressed on the significance of acknowledging the discomfort that accompanies a strenuous run, but not allowing it to overshadow the entire experience. This includes noticing thoughts about fatigue or muscle tension but letting them pass through your mind, making room for the positive aspects of the run.

How Mindful Running Taught Me That I'm Stronger Than I Think

Just a week ago, I set out with the plan to challenge myself and achieve a personal record in a 5K run - a part of my resolutions for 2018. With an initial aim of finishing the race at under 9 minutes per mile, I ended up pushing my limits and accomplished an average pace of 7:59, completing the run in 24:46. What struck me as remarkable was a moment during the last mile when I successfully pushed away a self-doubting thought. I found myself thinking, "It feels like I'm going to collapse, maybe I should slow down," but immediately countered it with, "I won't because I am running at a comfortably high pace and feeling strong." Mid-race, this triumphant mental shift replaced what would usually have been a negative spiral of thoughts like "Why did you decide to do this?" or "Perhaps, you should take a break from running after this." This transformation in my mindset has made me eager to hit the roads again - not just for more races (and potentially faster timings) but also for leisure runs where I can concentrate solely on my body and its capabilities. Although I can't say I'm looking forward to experiencing the kind of mid-run struggle Kastor describes, I'm thrilled at the prospect of further developing my mental strength in tandem with my physical fitness.

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