How to Practice Mindfulness While Running

A woman trail running in the mountains.
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Mindfulness is the art of paying attention to the present moment, a useful skill when engaged in any form of physical exercise. Practicing mindfulness while running can help make your runs more enjoyable and effective, allowing you to savor the moment rather than anticipate the finish line.

While the feeling of finishing a run is definitely something to look forward to, practicing mindfulness while you're running can make you more aware of your body, breath, and surroundings, and potentially help you to achieve a state of flow or total immersion. By freeing yourself from the distractions of your mind, you can experience less stress during your runs, enhance your performance, and even prevent injury.

How Can Mindfulness Benefit Runners?

For runners, being mindful means paying attention to how their physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions are responding to running, and how they’re all connected. Runners like to advise each other, “Run the mile you’re in.” Mindfulness is about doing just that—staying focused on your run, your movements, your body, and your thoughts.

A 2009 study on the effects of mindfulness training on long-distance runners determined that mindfulness training may help runners "develop better acceptance of any experience of anxiety around running and to not let their worries distract and bother them as much."

Rather than focusing on what’s difficult or how many miles you have left, you can concentrate on the sensations of your body and state of your mind instead. To run mindfully, focus on taking deep breaths, maintaining good running form, and improving your stride turnover.

Being mindful of your breath in addition to your form can help keep your mind focused and reduce physical tension. Many athletes, including runners, can benefit from mindfulness. According to research, practicing mindfulness can help athletes:

  • Reduce stress. A study published in 2019 shows that mindfulness training can help alleviate competition-related stress and anxiety in elite athletes.
  • Enhance performance. Emerging evidence shows that mindfulness-based interventions can enhance sports performance and executive functions in athletes. One report from 2018 showed that mindful running in blackout conditions improved runners' performance. By running in total darkness with a spotlight, researchers found that runners were better able to focus.
  • Aid in recovery. A 2018 study found that mindfulness-based interventions for injured athletes can complement sports rehabilitation programs by increasing awareness for physical pain and improving mental health.
  • Reduce the risk for injury. Having more focus during any physical activity is associated with injury prevention. One study showed that mindfulness-based interventions reduced the risk for injury among high school and college students, particularly if the student was experiencing stress.
  • Improve well-being. The mental health benefits of mindfulness are well documented, and research shows an association between mindfulness and mental well-being among athletes. A 2019 study found that mindfulness training improved mental well-being and enhanced flow states in baseball players and a 2016 study showed that a combination of meditation and physical exercise significantly improved symptoms in subjects with depression.

Mindfulness can help runners concentrate on sensations that they can control, such as running form and breathing. While you can't exactly control your thoughts, mindfulness teaches you how to become aware of them by simply observing them.

The Flow State

The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," who famously coined the term, "flow state," describes this state of total immersion as "a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it."

Running is notoriously difficult—and even the most experienced runners still have an off day every now and then. But mindful running can help a runner to fully immerse themselves in the experience of running, regardless of their mood, energy level, or current physicality, and actually find enjoyment in the activity.

Mindful Movement

Being mindful during movement, such as with a yoga practice, can help any athlete or exerciser get "in the zone." A mindfulness practice begins by focusing on the breath to bring the mind into the present moment and is typically followed by paying attention to sensations that arise in the body.

When you're running, you might pay attention to your inhales and exhales for a few minutes until you establish a rhythm. Once you get going, noticing sensations in your body and muscles and paying attention to your gait as your stride can bring you one step closer to the power of now.

You'll know you're in the flow once your mind is cleared of its usual noise and chatter and you're not focusing on how far you've gone and how far you still have left to go. Any time your mind starts to wander away from the present moment, you can simply bring your attention back to your breath and body.

Focusing on your breath and physical sensations and paying attention to your surroundings can help you achieve a flow state while you're running, which will only make your runs more enjoyable and effective.

Boost Recovery

There is plenty of evidence to show that practicing mindfulness can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the body's rest-and-digest function, to alleviate stress and anxiety and improve sleep quality. Research shows that improved sleep hygiene aids in recovery for athletes.

For runners and athletes, engaging the "relaxation response" through mindfulness can boost recovery time, since you'll likely experience more rest and less stress when your nervous system is down-regulated. On rest days, practicing mindfulness can promote relaxation to boost muscle recovery while also improving mental well-being.

How to Practice Mindfulness While Running

Being more mindful while you’re running may seem difficult at first, especially if you’re the type of runner who's accustomed to using disassociation (thinking outside the body) to distract yourself during runs. But, if you keep at it, you can reap the benefits of mindfulness both in your running and in other aspects of your life. Here are some ways you can stay present during your runs.

Warm Up With Belly Breathing

In order to reap the full benefits of mindful running, it’s important to destress before beginning a workout to avoid going from one state of stress (i.e., from work) to a more heightened state of stress (i.e., during the run).

Spend a few moments getting in touch with your breath before you get started to help you stay focused while you're running. Here's how to warm up with belly breathing:

  • Breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, to ensure that your diaphragm (not your chest) inflates with air.
  • Do five to six deep breaths before starting your run. You can do them right after doing some pre-run warm-up exercises such as light stretching.

Practice Nasal Breathing

Although deep belly breathing is effective while you're sitting, breathing out through your mouth can be problematic while you're running. Some research shows that mouth breathing during exercise can actually up-regulate the nervous system, causing stress and in some cases, hyperventilation. Experts recommend nasal breathing during rigorous exercises like running. Here's how you do it:

  • While you're running, focus on steady inhales and exhales through your nose.
  • If you find it difficult to breathe deeply through your nose, you can let out the occasional exhale through your mouth. But if you maintain a consistent running pace, you should eventually be able to practice nasal breathing for the duration.
  • To help get you in the zone, simply stay focused on each breath in and each breath out. Notice how your breathing rate is starting to change as you go. 

Feel Sensation In Your Body

Noticing sensation in your body means you should also notice if you're experiencing any pain, and acknowledge the difference between physical pain and discomfort. If you feel pain, it likely means you need to slow down or stop running, perhaps walking it off. Knowing when to back off versus when to push yourself a little harder is a key component of mindful running. Here are a few tips to guide you:

  • Feel your body start to warm up as you get moving. Notice how the muscles in your legs, glutes, core, and arms feel.
  • Take note of any tension or tightness in your shoulders or legs. Just observe it and be aware of it—you don’t need to make an effort to get rid of it.
  • You may discover that the act of simply making yourself aware of tension will help to naturally release it.
  • Notice if you’re tensing up any parts of your body unnecessarily.

Experienced runners learn to run with some discomfort. If you’re newer to running, you may want to stop when you’re uncomfortable and gradually build up your endurance, especially if you're experiencing any pain.

Observe Your Surroundings

It’s easier to practice mindfulness when you’re running outdoors, as you'll experience more opportunities to engage your senses. Enjoy the wind blowing against your face as you observe the beauty of the natural world around you.

Trails are an ideal place to practice mindful running, as it's essential to be aware of what you're doing to stay focused on the terrain and avoid stumbling or falling. There’s also a lot of nature to absorb when you run on trails.

  • Don’t try to take in absolutely everything around you, but just focus on some specific things such as the vibrant color of leaves or flowers, or a building’s architectural detail.
  • If you aren't able to make it outside for a run, observe what's around you in your home or gym if you're running on a treadmill.
  • Look for things that grab your attention or something you may not have noticed before, no matter how familiar your surroundings may be.

Listen to the Sounds Around You

Notice the sights and sounds around you. While listening to music can be beneficial for some runs, if you want to practice mindful running, you’ll probably want to avoid the distraction of music to get the full benefits.

You’ll find it much easier to focus and stay connected to your breath, body, and surroundings when you can give those elements your full attention.

Notice Your Thoughts

Turn your focus to your feelings and thoughts. Are you feeling pleasure for getting a break and some time to yourself? Do you feel grateful for being healthy enough to run? Notice what you're thinking—whether you're ruminating on a lengthy to-do list or replaying a recent conversation with a friend or colleague in your head.

When it comes to mindfulness, remember that having thoughts and noticing them is part of the process. Each time a thought enters your mind, acknowledge it and then allow it to pass. It is unlikely that you will complete an entire run without thinking a single thought since the nature of the mind is to think.

Focus On Your Stride

How’s your running form? Notice how your feet are hitting the ground, whether you are toe striking or rolling off your heel. Feeling and even hearing the rhythm of how your feet strike the ground can be very relaxing.

Try to run lightly with quick steps. Focus on gliding over the ground versus heavily plodding. Make sure your feet are landing under your hips, not in front of you, so you’re not overstriding.

Find Your Flow State

Now it's time to put it all together so you can reach total immersion. Once your breath and body become synchronized in movement and you're taking in your surroundings and staying consistent with your stride, notice how much attention you have on the present moment and how it makes you feel. There's no need to analyze it in the moment, but simply notice.

Any time you have thoughts about the past or future or experience a distraction, use your breath, sensations, sound, and mental focus to bring yourself back to the present.

Reflect On Your Experience

When you finish your run, take a few moments to consider how your feelings and thoughts have changed. Scan your body and notice any differences.

Does it feel good to have broken a sweat? Are your legs tired? Do you need to hydrate? Are you hungry? Do you feel more relaxed? Does it feel like some of the tension you felt before your run has melted away? Use these tips to reflect on your experience.

  • Do some post-run stretching and observe sensation in your muscles.
  • Check-in with yourself throughout the day and observe if you're still feeling the positive effects of your mindful run.
  • If the demands of the day start to take you out of that feeling, you can always pause what you're doing for a brief moment of mindful breathing.

Some runners find that post-run is an ideal time to meditate to help bring their relaxed and calm state of mind into the rest of their day.

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11 Sources
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