How to Use Running as Meditation

Running as Meditation in Motion

I hate running.

I’m not a “runner.”

Running is boring.

I’m not built to run.

Do any of these thoughts cross your mind when you think about running?

I promise I had all the above thoughts (and more) before I started to see running as a form of meditation and a tool for empowerment.

And these thoughts still creep in at times.

Yesterday, I was running from Venice Beach to Santa Monica and had a moment where I suddenly felt the old urge to stop. Instead of giving into the impulse to halt, I took the opportunity to get curious: Why do I want to stop? Where is this feeling coming from?

By turning inward and examining the situation, I was able to pinpoint the source of my discomfort: my calf muscle was feeling reeeeeally tight.

I also realized I had been running without it being a mindful experience. Rather, I had just been muscling through the run, and I wasn’t really present in my body or in my environment. So when this niggling pain in my calf popped up, my first thought was: “UGH, this doesn’t feel good at all, can I please stop?”

I could have stopped.

If my body needed to stop, I would have.

But I didn’t. Instead, I engaged in a meditation for the remainder of the run. And what could have been the negative experience of a run cut short (focused on the limitations of my body) became a positive exercise in training my mind and body.

Running + Meditation

At first blush, running and meditation may seem at odds with each other. What does pounding the pavement have to do with mindfulness and being fully present?  

The concept of meditation may conjure up the image of sitting completely still on a cushion enveloped in robes. But, meditation can take many forms. And, in the modern world, it is important that we make room for mindfulness in various aspects of our lives.

Today, the mind and the body are too often treated as disconnected entities. We establish systems and methods (such as diets and exercise regimens) focused entirely on one element of being (our physicality) while ignoring the remainder (how we are impacted on a deeper level).

To live a full and balanced life, it is important to devote attention to body, mind, and spirit. We are whole, integrated beings. For this reason, physical activity and mindfulness are perfectly complementary. Studies have demonstrated this synergy. For example, one recent study found the combined effects of meditation and aerobic activity could significantly reduce symptoms of depression (by about 40%).

Meditative running allows us to simultaneously push physical boundaries, reaping the many benefits of moving our bodies, while also staying present in the here and now.

Here’s how to set yourself up for a meditative experience happen during your next run:

1. Connect to your breath.

One cannot deny the vital importance of the breath: Breath is essential for life. The breath is also symbolically significant: Breathing happens involuntarily, so we are assured that no matter what happens, our breath will be there for us. The mind can wander off while the breath remains constant.

By focusing on the breath during running, we focus on an essential element of being alive. More pragmatically, we also ensure that we are breathing deeply and taking in enough oxygen to sustain the continued effort.

Before setting out on your next run, take a moment to intentionally connect to your breath. Take a few deep, expansive breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Set an intention to be mindful and present during your run. And, if the mind wanders off as you run, continue to bring your attention back to the breath.

2. Tune into your body.

As you run, try to establish a mind-body connection by taking note of the changing sensations of the body. Does your body feel tight? Are you becoming warmer? Is your breath quickening?

The hard part is to do this without jumping to any conclusions. It’s easy to think discomfort equals “time to give up” or “I hate doing this.” When we first notice pain or discomfort, the natural response is to resist it: to cease the activity inducing the discomfort. But by leaning into the discomfort (assuming it is not injury-indicative), and embracing it as a temporary and passing state of being, we strengthen both body and mind.

For example, when my calf was being a bugger, I shifted my perspective from a judge-y “this sucks, I want to stop” thoughts to a state of noticing the discomfort and realizing it was a passing sensation. I knew I would feel better if I completed the run.

3. Observe where the mind goes.

Meditative running can be a time to learn about ourselves and our inner worlds.

How does your mind respond to running?

  • Do you relish the opportunity to be active? Or do you have a sense of dread about the miles ahead?

  • Is your mind busy, churning out ideas, thoughts, or fears? Or do you have a tendency to check out?  

  • Are you kind to yourself while running, or is this a time when your inner critic starts to nag?

  • Do you feel confident or self-conscious while you’re out there?

The answers to these questions don't require you to DO anything. Simply be a student of your thoughts and emotions.

4. Engage with the environment.

By the power of our own two feet, we can encounter places we’ve never been before. Even places we’ve seen can bring fresh experiences and perspective during a run.

Take a moment to notice: What is beautiful around you? What is unique or interesting? Observe your surroundings: people, trees, cars, buildings, signs, etc. There is always something to see and absorb. I can run the same route multiple times and learn something new about it every time.

5. Relax into the rhythm.

"Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving.”

- Christopher McDougall, Born to Run (one of my favorite books

No matter how fast you are going, the steady rhythm of your feet touching the earth can ground you in the present moment. Find a cadence that feels natural and sustainable and try to lose yourself in the rhythm.

You might experiment with adopting a mantra or affirmation and repeating it along with the rhythm (try one of my favorite body positive affirmations here).

And, whenever you feel lost, bring your focus back to the breath.

Looking to develop a new running habit or take your running routine to the next level?

As both a wellness and running coach, I can help you implement these mindfulness strategies (and many others) to transform your relationship with running and create an enjoyable and sustainable running practice. Click here to schedule a complimentary consultation today!