As runners, we know there’s something special about our state of mind when we run, and the effect on our mood and our daily lives. In fact, I believe there are two mental states. I call them Mindless and Mindful.
Mindless running is like daydreaming. The mind is chattering but it’s a stream-of-consciousness free-flow – wandering back to past events, forward to future possibilities, chopping and changing so much it’s hard to even remember what you thought about at all during the run. Happily, our body is familiar with the act of running so we don’t fall down while we’re immersed.
In this mode our attention is away from the present moment, which can boost creativity and reduce stress. Like listening to music when we run, it helps time pass and can make our harder or longer runs to feel a little less painful. Sports psychologists call it dissociation. A distraction draws our attention away from fatigue or pain or worry.
But sometimes being in the moment, the now, is itself a release. It’s what Eckhart Tolle calls “that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking, free of the burden of the personality”. A special kind of awareness called Mindful.
Clinical psychologists define this as a state of “curiosity, openness and acceptance”. It includes being aware of the mind itself: an “awareness of being aware”. In the work of scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, he refers to this as an awareness that surfaces “by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to the unfolding of experience, moment by moment.”
These are common concepts in modern and ancient philosophies and religions. Praying or meditating require a state of mind outside of the everyday way of being. Sport psychologists would say that mindfulness in running is closer to the principle of “association” – focusing on bodily sensations and monitoring the changes. The cues we take from our breathing and physical sensations help pace ourselves and adjust our effort.
So what’s so special about running and its potential to promote mindfulness? There’s overwhelming evidence that mastery of mindfulness is incredibly good for your well-being and general enjoyment of life. Studies have demonstrated that being mindful improves healing, immune response, stress reactivity and well-being. The work of clinical psychologists has shown that mindfulness can directly shape the activity and growth of the parts of our brain that are responsible for our relationships and our emotional life. Mindfulness can also improve our mental health through the alleviation of depression.
Mindfulness and Running Performance: Acceptance and Action
As well as being good for your general well-being, mindfulness can potentially improve your ability to deal with “setbacks” in races, particularly in longer races where the mental component becomes dominant. Consider this:
“Mindfulness is not a practice in thought suppression; all thoughts or events are considered an object of observation, not a distraction. However, once acknowledged, attention is directed back to breath, thereby preventing further elaboration. This is thought to inhibit secondary elaborative processing of the thoughts, feelings, and the sensations that arise in the stream of consciousness.”
This “secondary elaborative processing” that psychologists refer to is the negative self-talk and classic downward spiral that I often see in ultramarathon events when pain and/or fatigue and nausea start to take a strong hold, or a runner is falling behind the goals they’d set. We’ve had a lot of social conditioning to “tough it out” and to “steel” ourselves in these settings. The mindfulness approach, however, is counter-intuitive to this conditioning – it encourages acceptance and surrender.
A true acceptance of your immediate situation – surrender – can alleviate the internal battle that can come up when your rigid expectations of “how life should be” don’t match up with “how life is”. Author Eckhart Tolle notes:
“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is the Now, so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation.”
This doesn’t mean that we give up on our race and throw in the towel. The act of surrender is a purely inner phenomenon. On the outer level, we can take action and change the situation. Indeed, when you’ve accepted the situation and focused quietly on your breath, you’ll inhibit unhelpful mind chatter and instead have the focus and poise to instinctively take the right action – and thus avoid the escalation of negative thoughts.
Mindless running is not clearing the mind of thoughts but a stream-of-consciousness, a great escape from the limits of a time-constrained, orderly, analytical world. Lots of great ideas can surface and if you try to hang on to them, there’s a chance you’ll remember at least some by the end of the run!
As for mindfulness, it can be gained many ways – running is just our favoured path – and we should strive towards it. The profoundly deep bonds that I see form between runners, and the development that I see in their general happiness suggests that the mindfulness promoted by running enhances our capacity for caring relationships with others. It helps us develop the discipline to stay calm, focussed and at peace during the tough moments of training and racing. In a broader sense however, the idea of mindfulness is an opportunity to create a better world, by embracing a life of curiosity, openness, acceptance and love:
“We can nurture in each other an access to a core deeper self than personal identity, that core of being that we all share beneath the adaptations of everyday life and the constrictions of habits of our personalities … At that mindful place there may be a path toward healing our global community one mind, one relationship, one moment at a time, since kindness is to our relationships, on this precious and precarious planet, what breath is to life”.