If you could eavesdrop on a runner’s internal monologue, it might sound like this: ‘Pretty bird up in that tree. Should’ve worn another layer. What’s for dinner? New shoes feel good. Must buy pasta. I’m overdressed. I’ll get a takeaway. Dog!’
Buddhists call this mental ping-pong game ‘monkey mind’, meaning that the random musings bouncing around your head are like a barrelful of primates. It’s a natural state for runners who are happy to let their minds wander. But when you become stressed, those monkeys can go bananas.
But there is a way to tame those animals: meditation. More and more runners are using this to clear out the commotion while on the run. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of a global network of shambhala centres (meditation meeting places) – and also a nine-time marathoner with a 3:05 PB, and author of Running with the Mind of Meditation. ‘Meditation reduces chaos and stress,’ Rinpoche says. ‘When we apply that to running, running becomes a tool that brings relaxation and vitality. By allowing our mind and body to harmonise, we feel stronger and more alive.’ Want in? Just as training for a race requires a gradual buildup, developing a meditative running practice takes time and, well, practice. But by employing some of the basic principles in your next run, you can feel – and run – better instantly.
1. Tune in
The first technique recommended by Rinpoche is developing body awareness: pay attention to how you are breathing, how your feet are landing, how your arms are swinging. If you feel any tense areas, relax them, and think about the cause: is it running-related (sore legs from intervals), or is there a lifestyle component as well (you haven’t been sleeping much)? ‘We’re trained to push through discomfort,’ says Marty Kibiloski, a 2:23 marathoner who teaches at Shambhala running retreats. ’But if there is something off that you can correct or find the source of, you can relax and run with better form.’ Which brings big rewards: efficient running, faster times and fewer injuries.
2. Think happy
Research has linked an optimistic outlook to enhanced athletic ability. In one study, athletes who rated themselves calm and happy before a competition performed better than those who were angry or tense. Quashing negative self-talk is a key principle of meditation. Buddhist teachers tell pupils to think of thoughts as weather patterns moving through the sky: a passing shower, for example, is just that – passing. ‘Every run has challenges,’ Rinpoche says. ‘The challenge is to be brave, not trying to escape boredom or discomfort, but relaxing with how things are.’ Runners already have stores of strength and endurance – meditation can help you recognise these qualities and put them to use, Kibiloski says.
3. Love the run
Many runners can get too bound up with the performance side of the sport, with their whole mood being affected by whether they hit PBs or ran a workout as far or as fast as previously. While it’s good to want to improve, you also need to value the runner you are today and think about the other brilliant things running gives you, Kibiloski says. While running, think about all the good you are doing in that moment: strengthening your muscles, producing endorphins and taking quality time for yourself away from the stresses of modern life. ‘Appreciation for running creates a healthy self-identity, no matter what chaos is in your life,’ the Sakyong says.
4. Follow your breath
Before a race, while everyone else around you fusses with their iPods and watches, find a spot to sit and focus on breathing for a few minutes. Doing so will calm any pre-race jitters and give you a chance to remind yourself of how well-trained you are, which will help you stay positive. As you run, breathe in for three strides, then out for two. This irregular pattern improves focus and can prevent stitch by ensuring you’re not inhaling with your weight on the same side of your body repeatedly. Try to do this – keeping your breathing deep and consistent – throughout your entire run. A junction or car may distract you – it’s OK to notice these, just return to your breath afterwards.