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A man doing a mindful running workout

What Is Mindful Running — And Why You Should Give It A Try

Is mindful running all about taking it easy and slow or can it actually help you run faster? Here’s what mindful running is along with a few reasons why you should give it a try.

With more technology than ever to track metrics, like heart rate, running power, lactate threshold, and VO2 max, it can be easy to slip into constantly eyeballing data during your runs.

Even if you do wait until after your runs to go over your data, a lot of runners choose other distractions like music, audio books, or even podcasts to get them through their workouts. While these things aren’t necessarily bad, one commonly neglected aspect of running is training the mind.

The problem with using distractions to get through your run is that you may neglect training your mind.

By taking a more mindful approach to running a few times per week (or even as part of a warm-up or cool-down), runners can improve mental conditioning that will in turn boost performance, recovery, and bring some of the joy back to the sport you love. 

Let’s go with the flow and explore what mindful running is and why it’s beneficial for runners of all levels.

What Is Mindful Running? 

The most basic definition of mindful running is to become mentally connected with your body during your runs. 

While there are many different ways runners can practice this technique, the principal idea is to get rid of distractions while you run, concentrating on how you feel. Whether it’s looking at your metrics every minute, being overly concerned with how fast or far you have to go, or even thinking about that argument you had with a co-worker during a run, these things tend to take away from the mind-body connection and being in the moment. 

You can use many of the principles of meditation in mindful running.

Even though meditation and mindful running do have their differences, the two practices are often used together:

  • Meditation concentrates on removing the things in our life that cause stress or distraction in order to create calmness in the mind.
  • When you practice mindful running, you can use many of these same principles to not be distracted by things outside of your activity, focusing instead on embracing how you feel and being in tune with your body.

Being connected with your running often moves the focus towards things like your breathing, how your arms and legs are moving, or parts of the body that may be feeling tight or weak. 

While some runners learn to ignore the pain or difficulty that running often inflicts, mindful running embraces everything going on within the body, from nutrition to how much sleep you’ve gotten the previous night, to create an awareness that puts you more in tune with your body.

Can mindful running help you run faster?

In the past, runners have typically focused on physiology and physical conditioning as a way to improve performance. Going further, adding intervals for speed, and doing strength training have become the common approaches, while mental conditioning is often an afterthought. 

The problem is, always focusing on physical abilities without also training the mind can create a disconnect, causing negative thoughts and a higher perceived exertion when things aren’t going your way during an event. 

While there have been limited studies on the subject in the past, Asics recently conducted an experiment with runners of varying ability levels to determine just how much running performance can be affected by psychological factors. 

Mindful running experiment part 1

  • Participants were placed in a controlled environment (150-meter track, indoors) and asked to each run two separate 5Ks at different times. 
  • During the first 5K, runners ran around a dark track with only a spotlight that allowed them to see a few feet ahead. There was no clear finish line, no music, and no metrics to monitor. 

Mindful running experiment part 2

  • For the second 5K, participants were placed in a more race-like environment. There were lights, cheering fans, clocks, and gadgets to monitor metrics.
  • In the more psychologically difficult environment where runners were forced to focus only on their body, times were slower among experienced runners in the group by as much as 60 seconds, while less experienced runners slowed up to two minutes. 

Why practice mindful running? 

What the proponents of the blackout experiment actually show is that runners rely too much on outside factors during training and racing, and by training the mind regularly you can in fact improve performance.

When you think about it, it does make sense. 

There will always be moments during a run when things get tough. It could be those times when you just can’t seem to maintain your pace, or that heavy feeling in your legs that suddenly becomes too difficult to ignore. 

When the psychological battle becomes bigger than the physical one, it can be difficult to overcome if you haven’t trained your mind. 

Maybe it’s that lonely spot on the course where there are no spectators, when none of the other participants are next to you, and the beeping on your watch isn’t enough to push you forward. This is the point when the psychological battle becomes bigger than the physical one, and if you haven’t spent enough time training the mind, it can be difficult to overcome. 

One of the primary researchers of the Asics study, Professor Samuele Marcora of the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, had this to say about the experiment and overall importance of training the mind.

“We wanted to show the critical role the mind plays in athletic performance. The difference we saw between the experiment conditions in just one day is similar to the difference you would see after a four-week high intensity training program, so the mind shouldn’t be underestimated.”

For whom is mindful running useful?

While practising the mind can certainly benefit those elite runners looking for an extra edge, mindful running can be useful for just about anyone. 

Whether you’re completing a recovery run or are simply someone who uses running to relax and destress, practicing mindful running in order to better connect with the body can be a good way to achieve a balanced state of mind and find joy in your running.

Dr. Jo Corbett, another of the collaborators in the Asics blackout study, spoke about this connection. 

“Despite the challenging conditions on the track, almost every runner said they felt a kind of euphoria at some point, which they referred to as ‘pure running.’ It shows the power of getting more in-tune with ourselves by occasionally shutting out the distractions.”

Whether it’s to be a happy runner or a faster one, mindful running is a technique worth practicing and including in your workout regimen. Just like strength training, yoga, or interval training, spending some time doing nothing but concentrating on the connection of body and mind will only make you a better runner.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share so that others can find it, too.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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