How to Practice Mindfulness While Running

Improve Your Running With Mindfulness

Woman running on trail
Scott Markewitz / Getty

Mindfulness is the art of keeping your mind in the present. You’re not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but rather focusing on what you’re doing, whether it’s playing catch with your kid, eating a meal, running on a trail, or writing an email. Being mindful is reminding yourself that you’re in control of your thoughts and your body.

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” and mindfulness is doing just that – staying focusing on your run, your movements, your body, your thoughts.

Mindfulness can help runners concentrate on your body’s sensations that you can control, such as your running form and breathing. Rather than focusing on what’s hurting or how many miles you have left to run, you concentrate on where the body is. You can focus on taking deep breaths, maintaining good running form, or improving your stride turnover.

Like meditation or rhythmic breathing that’s usually practiced while in a seated position, being mindful while running can help focus your mind and reduce physical tension. And at least one study has shown that the combination of meditation and physical exercise significantly improved symptoms in depressive patients. Even study participants without a diagnosis of depression also reported a decrease in ruminative thoughts, anxiety, and an overall improvement in motivation.

How to Add Mindfulness to Your Runs

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

1. Run outside. It’s easier to practice mindfulness when you’re running outdoors. You’ll give your senses many more opportunities to connect. Trails are an ideal place to practice mindful running, as it's essential to be aware of what you're doing, focus on the terrain, and avoid falling. There’s also a lot of natural beauty to observe when running on trails.

2. Leave your headphones at home. While listening to music can be beneficial for some runs, if you want to practice mindfulness, you’ll want to avoid the distraction of music. You’ll find it much easier to focus and connect with your surroundings and thoughts.

3. Do some pre-run deep breathing.  Practice deep belly breathing before you head out for your run. It will help you relax and focus on getting ready to run. Breathe in deeply through the nose and out through the 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.

4. Start out slowly and pay attention to your body. Notice how your breathing rate is changing.  Feel your heart beating and the rhythm of your feet bouncing on the ground. If you feel your mind wandering away from being present in the moment, focus on your breathing. Feel your body start to warm up as you keep moving. How do your muscles feel? How do your arms feel? Your legs? How’s your running form?  Notice if you’re tensing up any parts of your body unnecessarily. Pay attention to any tightness you may be feeling. Just observe it and be aware of it. You don’t need to make an effort to get rid it. You may discover that just the act of making yourself aware of tension will help naturally release it.

5. Notice how your mind responds. 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? What about your thoughts? Are you thinking about your lengthy to-do list?  Are you re-playing a recent conversation in your head? Is the physical activity comforting to you?

6. Turn your attention to everything going on around you. Enjoy feeling the wind blow against your face. Notice the sights and sounds around you. Don’t try to take in everything around you, but focus on some specific things, like the vibrant color of leaves or flowers, or a building’s architectural detail. Look for things that grab your attention or something you may not have noticed before on your familiar route.

7. Focus on your foot strike. Concentrate on the sensation of your foot hitting the ground. Hearing the rhythm of your foot strikes can be very relaxing. Try to run lightly with quick steps. Think to yourself, "Light on my feet, light on my feet." Focus on gliding over the ground, not plodding. Make sure your feet are landing under your hips, not in front of you, so you’re not overstriding. 

8. Pay attention to pain or discomfort. It’s OK to make yourself aware of pain. Think about whether or not it means you need to stop or slow down, or whether you should just keep doing what you’re doing. 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.

9. Focus on how you feel after you finish. When you end your run, think about how your feelings and thoughts have changed. Scan through your body, pay attention to sensations, and notice any physical differences. Are you sweating? Thirsty? Warm? Do you feel more relaxed? Do you get rid of any tightness you felt before your run? Do some post-run stretching and focus on how your muscles are feeling. Continue to pay attention to the effects of your run over the next few hours. Some runners find that post-run is a good time to do a guided meditation, to continue their relaxed and calm state.

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Article Sources
  • Alderman, B. L., et al. MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity Translational Psychiatry (2016) 6, e726.