By Emma Stessman
On a run, a great playlist (or even podcast) motivates you through the most grueling miles. It allows you to tune out the world and—well, mindlessly—follow the beat.
If that’s what works for you, don’t stop now. But if you feel yourself starting to get into a “running rut” or need some supercharged stress relief, you should consider ditching the headphones and applying a different approach: mindfulness.
“Typically we approach running as a way to…condition our physical body to build fitness––and that’s awesome right?” says Elinor Fish, the founder of Run Wild Retreats. “Well, mindful running gives us the opportunity to tune into the deeper processes that are happening while we’re running, [the ones] that are associated with stress reduction.”
Fish’s retreats take runners to places like Iceland and the Mediterranean to learn mindful running practices and how they can help you control stress levels, improve overall health, and even make you a better runner. We sat down with her to get the scoop on how you can give it a shot from the comfort of your own road or running trail.
What You Need to Know About Mindful Running
Mindful running can mean a bunch of different things to different people, but a simple way to think about it is really tuning into your body while running, “and doing so in a very non-judgmental way,” Fish says.
During a run, all kinds of thoughts pop up. Maybe you rehash a stressful day or replay a conversation you had with your boss, drawing your attention away from what your legs are doing. “When we’re running mindfully, we’re being very deliberate with where we place our attention,” Fish says. “It’s really an amazing time to practice refocusing our attention on what it is that is going to be the most beneficial for us in that moment.”
For example, by drawing attention to your breathing, you may realize that you’re not as tired as you thought, you’re just not breathing deeply enough. Focusing on being in the present moment also helps reduce stress.
In addition to stress reduction, the extra attention will help you run with better flow, fluidity, and form, she says. It’s also a great practice for anyone who is recovering from an injury, as it can help you tune in to when you may be pushing too hard and when you’re on track for healing properly.
The Basic Mindful Running Techniques to Try
Proper breathing techniques are at the heart of most mindfulness practices, so it’s not surprising that focusing on your breath is one of the key aspects of mindful running. In fact, almost all of the mindful running strategies Fish gave us focus on breathing in one way or another. For the most part though, you want to really tune into your breathing rate and focus on how your breath moves through your body, she says. If you’re breathing from your upper chest, try and take deeper, more controlled breaths so you are breathing from your diaphragm.
Perform a body scan
While you’re running, do a mental scan of your entire body, and recognize the areas where you may be carrying tension or stress. Mentally, try to find the areas where you feel yourself cramping or have some discomfort. Fish says most people tend to carry the most tension in their stomach and shoulders. If you do find tense spots during your run, try and send your breath into the area. “If you notice your shoulders are really tight and you carry them high, then think of shaking out your arms,” says Fish. “Literally, shake your arms out and ask yourself how you can find a more natural, loose arm swing, and then breathe into those tight muscles to release that tension.”
Adjust your form
Your posture can have a major effect on your breathing and how you’re running. If you find yourself running in a contracted position with your hands clenched and your back hunched, it’s a sign of stress, Fish says. You want to open up your body when you run; stand up tall, expand through your chest, and, once again, breathe into your lower ribs, so your ribcage expands. “All these things contribute a great deal to making us more efficient, stronger, powerful runners, but they also help us maximize the stress-reducing effects of running,” Fish says.
Allow yourself a recovery period
“Part of the mindful practice is doing what you know your body needs to kickstart the repair and recovery period,” Fish says. “We’re always in a rush, and it can be really hard to build in time for that little bit of self-care that is actually going to have a huge impact on how you feel tomorrow and the day after and the day after.” Factor in enough time for a proper cool-down, a good stretch, and a nutritious meal or snack after your run, and anything else you know your body needs after a hard workout (like a cold shower or a good foam roll?). That way, your body will be prepared for the next time you want to run a few mindful miles.