Your mind is a constant wanderer. You analyze (and overanalyze) everything! “Why couldn’t I keep the pace on that tempo run a few days ago?” “Why don’t we have any decent Presidential candidates?” “How am I going to perform on race day that’s coming up in a few short weeks (Eugene Marathon - May 1st - eek!)?” “How do we stop ISIS?” “Why did I spend so much money on that Kate Spade purse (yes, I still have shopper’s remorse)?” “Why am I running 2 marathons in one month?” “How am I going to get this project done before its deadline?” “What are the kids’ schedules this evening?” “Why won’t this muffin top go away?” I mean, it’s ridiculous!
We incessantly think about where we’re going, what we’ll be doing, and how we’ll do it or we beat ourselves up about something that’s already happened in the past. Our minds are in constant analytical chaos, a stubborn beast that’s hard to quell, delivering stressor upon stressor upon stressor. It’s enough to make your head want to explode. STOP!
Take a deep breath.
Isn’t is funny how that’s the first thing anyone ever says to you when you’re about to lose it (or if you’ve already lost it)? “Take a deep breath.” In the heat of the moment, sometimes you just imagine slapping the crap out of him/her, but you heed the advice and do just that - take a deep breath - inhaling deeply through the nose (using the diaphragm) and exhaling all the air out the mouth. Surprisingly, you find that this little exercise does indeed make you feel better. Why? Because in that moment, you’re practicing mindfulness. Your mind is no longer in a state of wanderlust. It’s focusing on the present - in the action of taking those deep breaths. It’s mindfulness meditation - letting go. This breathing exercise relaxes you. Each inhalation and exhalation is alerting your body that it’s in distress and taking those deep breaths provides a calming effect. It’s taming the beast that is your chaotic mind.
In relation to running, the art of practicing mindfulness meditation has really piqued my interest lately. Every time I turn around, I’m reading another article on mindfulness meditation from my latest running magazines and even to my recent Cooking Light issue. Currently, I have Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s “Running With the Mind of Meditation” in my Amazon cart. I’m inspired. There are even running meditation retreats. I wanna go!
Read this article where Rinpoche talks more about combining the efforts of running and meditation - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sakyong-mipham-rinpoche/running-with-the-mind-of-meditation_b_1418102.html
In practicing mindfulness meditation, you’re focused on the “here and now” through your breathing. Just recently, I downloaded this meditation app on my iPhone called Headspace (https://www.headspace.com/) and just completed my 10-day/10-minute introductory guided meditation. Every morning, I clear off 10 minutes out of my schedule to meditate and hone in on my breathing and focus on my “now”.
I wish it was that easy. It’s actually pretty challenging. I catch my mind wandering and have to gently bring it back to the present, focusing on my breath. You should totally try it (the 10-day Headspace introductory is free).
In Karen Asp’s article, “Meditate Your Way to Better Health” (featured in Cooking Light), she states:
Physiological changes takes place in your body when you meditate. Studies show that just 8 weeks of meditation can increase density in the area of your brain responsible for executive function, which helps regulate emotions, holds information, and allows you to perform at your highest level. And meanwhile, the amygdala, the part of your brain that acts like a stress button, shrinks. It’s like going to the gym for your brain.
If meditation is like going to the gym for your brain and running is like going to the gym for your body, why not incorporate the two? And do some of us already naturally do that? I just completed Day 10 so I’m going to continue on this meditation journey and see how it improves my wellbeing.
This takes me back to my standard answer to the question, “Why do you run?” I run because it makes me feel good. Yes, I run for my health and for my sanity, as well as for conversations with friends - which all make me feel good. But I run because it ultimately clears my mind. It allows me to be aware of what’s going on in the moment. It’s listening to my body. Running provides the right distraction. Instead of focusing on the past or what obstacles I may have ahead of me, I make a conscious effort to hone in on what’s happening right now - my breathing, my stride, putting one foot in front of the other, relaxing my shoulders, focusing on how I carry my arms. I listen to the sounds around me - birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind, or even just the stillness of the morning. It’s about awareness. As soon as I start wandering into doubts and/or negativity about my performance, I gently bring my mind back to my breathing. I am practicing mindfulness meditation.
In the Runner’s World article, “Four Ways to Build Mental Toughness”, Coach Jenny Hadfield (who I had to pleasure of meeting at this year’s inaugural Runner’s World Getaway) reached out to Mark Divine, a retired Navy Seal Commander and NY Times best-selling author of “Unbeatable Mind”, to share his thoughts on training practices that help make a better athlete. To help remain calm and focused, Divine suggests to “slow your breathing and sync it to your steps while you run - breathe in through your nose for 3-4 steps, then out your mouth for 3.” I’ve made a conscious effort to practice this exercise for the last couple of training runs, especially in times where I’m trying to push my pace to keep up with others or even trekking up the top of the Talmadge Bridge. When I start falling behind, I notice how easily negative thoughts start seeping in. In efforts to tame my mind through mindfulness meditation, I simply go back to focusing on my breath - inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling out the mouth - and focusing on my feet hitting the pavement. Having that heightened awareness and then focusing in through mindfulness meditation can help instantly calm and relax you. It can change the negative thoughts of “I can’t” into a positive mantra of “let’s do this”.
In fact, Gretchen Reynolds in her NY Times article, “Meditation Plus Running as a Treatment for Depression” recommends we practice mindfulness in all that we do and to focus on the “now”. It’s a tool that can be integrated into running to enhance your experience and even performance. She states, “You accept what has taken place in the past, without judging it and do not fret about the future, the next race, or workout, for example. Rather it is a focus on the ‘power of now’.” Doing this will help you maintain a positive mindset.
This, my friends, is why running makes me feel good. It’s therapeutic and good for the mind and sole/soul (I can’t help a good pun). It’s my “me time”. It’s where I can escape my mind’s wandering ways and really just focus on how I’m feeling right then and there - by gently shifting my mind’s focus back to the breath, to the body, and to the present, or as Reynolds calls it - “the power of now.”
Next time you go out for a run and find yourself sucked into negative thoughts like being worried about how your next race will turn out, how you can’t keep up with the person in front of you, how last week’s speed workout sucked, or how you don’t have enough hours in the day to get all your work done - STOP!
Take a deep breath.
...and go kick some ass!