How meditation can help you fulfil your running potential

Photography by Tim Kemple for The North Face

Professional ultra runner Timothy Olson was nearing mile 70 of the 2012 Western States 100 when he lost his mojo. ‘The burning in my lungs and legs was at a 10, and each downhill stomp sent stabbing pain into my quads,’ says Olson, who watched as another competitor overtook his lead.

Olson might have reacted with panic and alarm. But he had recently taken up meditation, and the practice helped him focus on his breath, acknowledge his worries and feel a powerful sense of calm. By lowering the volume of the emotional racket, he was able to hear what his body needed: a little fuel and a few minutes of slow, recuperative running. Tuning into his body and tuning out negative thinking enabled him to react in a smart, strategic way.

A few miles later, rested and refuelled, Olson surged ahead, winning the race and setting the course record. ‘That’s when my meditation practice really clicked for me,’ says Olson, 32. ‘That proved it wasn’t just some fad, but that there were actual results.’

If you think meditation is only for those who like to spend hours chanting ‘Om’ on retreats, think again – there are clear parallels between running and meditation. And you don’t have to be an ultra runner slugging it out for a win to benefit from the practice, says Olson. He believes a daily dose can calm your mind, improve your health and help you find more joy in the sport – and in your life. 

How many times have you finished a run with a feeling of mental clarity, or found that it has helped to put wider worries into perspective? That’s similar to the mind state produced by meditation. Both running and meditation require discipline: just as you need a good base to run a marathon, you need regular meditation practice to begin to feel its benefits. Runners are also used to working with inner experiences – to run long distances, for example, we have to work through boredom and fatigue, and we’re used to dealing with adversity.

READ: Benefits of meditation for runners

Although meditation is an ancient practice, in 2012 Sakyong Mipham, a nine-time marathoner and director of Shambhala, a global network of meditation and retreat centres, popularised meditation and running with his book Running with the Mind of Meditation. He found that synchronising his mind and body improved his enjoyment of the sport. Olson became so convinced of meditation’s positive powers, he started offering three and four-day Run Mindful Retreats in Colorado and California last year. These involve guided meditation sessions and group runs that focus on helping athletes discover running as a peaceful and enjoyable activity, not something that generates angst or discomfort. 

That sounded like my kind of nirvana. Running has rarely felt effortless to me; I struggle with incessant internal commentary – which tends to be hypervigilant about underperforming legs and unseemly jiggles. I hoped that meditation would help me muzzle those critical voices.

So one Saturday morning last August, I found myself in Boulder, Colorado, sitting cross-legged with 20 other runners of varying ages and abilities, each of whom was hoping that Olson’s coaching would help them get greater enjoyment from their running. Over the course of the retreat, we would go on several group trail runs, each one preceded by a 10-minute meditation session. Olson recommends practising meditation when you aren’t running, to build a base of mental fitness that you can tap into during workouts when you may be too tired or distracted to try to quiet your mind. As I sat, I took stock of my mental state and worked on suspending judgment.

Meditation, I learned, is the practice of observing without reacting, and of training the mind to focus on the present, rather than dwelling on the past or an imagined future. Often using breathing exercises, awareness practices and visualisation techniques, it allows the mind and body to more directly communicate for improved exercise performance and body awareness.

Applying that mindset to running brings a host of benefits. When my calf tightened up during one run, I refused to worry and made a calmer assessment; and I was able to adapt my pace until it recovered. Staying positive felt like a huge victory. Instead of feeling defeated, I felt acceptance – and happiness.

READ: How to use mindfulness to overcome running struggles