Fartleks. Heart rate monitors. Compression socks. Elastic therapeutic tape. Endurance runners will try almost anything to improve performance and reduce pain. Some methods and products are scientifically proven to make a positive impact. Some aren’t. I won’t get into my personal feelings on any of that. I’m for whatever works and I don’t judge runners for trying every legal option to increase stamina or avoid pain. For whatever reason, one practice tends to get overlooked in running circles. I am excited to share my results with meditation.
I first meditated about five years ago. I heard about apps like Calm and Headspace on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. So successful businesspeople, athletes, or media figures endorsed a daily meditation practice. One guest described it as “a warm bath for your brain.” I downloaded the Calm app and used free sessions from time to time. I even experienced a couple weeklong streaks of daily meditation over the years. I enjoyed running to the top of Portland’s Mount Tabor, meditating for ten minutes, and then running home. In time, during long runs, I began meditation while running. Eyes open, mind blank. I still employ this method during races and long, difficult training runs.
November of 2016 found me stressed out and in pain. My work life was chaotic. My living situation was in flux. I was nursing several nagging injuries that affected my race performance. I made the decision to subscribe to Calm for one year. The subscription provided access to the entire Calm meditation library. The original goal was to settle my mind to help slow my thoughts and make me less reactionary. I suspect that wisdom is nothing more than the ability to refrain from speaking until a thought is fully processed. My tendency is to say dumb things and speak out of turn. I can be stubborn and rash. The opportunity to improve my reactive mental state was enticing.
Months passed and I noticed some small changes in the way I reacted to outside influences in my life. I stopped rushing to judgement. I had more patience. I saw beauty in new places. And I was noticing these changes in my running life more than anywhere else. It’s easy to be confrontational with drivers rolling stop signs, cyclists on sidewalks, or humans letting dogs run off-leash on trails. While I still react to egregious offenses, I am far less inclined to let a negative encounter ruin the rest of my run. I am less likely to allow my day to spiral downhill from multiple negative encounters.
As time passed, I began a practice of nightly meditation, aimed at putting my mind at rest. I moved to a new city. My grandmother passed away. My wife and I received pink slips from longtime jobs. All in the first half of 2016. Each night as I closed my eyes, my mind would buzz with sad reflections and financial concerns. My sleep suffered and my health deteriorated. I credit my nightly meditation practice with allowing me to quiet my thoughts. I fell asleep quicker, slept deeper, and woke more refreshed. The benefits of quality sleep are no secret, so I won’t get into them here. If you’re struggling with falling asleep, consider a nightly meditation practice.
Meditation is about more than sitting in silence.
So what does all this talk about sleeping better and being less reactionary have to do with running? As an avid endurance runner, I know pain. I know suffering and dealing with discomfort for hours at a time. I’m no tough guy. I hurt like anybody else and I love to complain about my pain like anybody else. But when I’m in motion, heading for a finish line or a goal distance, I am persistent and tenacious. Through mindful running, I’ve learned to push the negative thoughts out of my head. When I’m exhausted or in pain during a run, I quiet my mind and focus on my breath. That might be the most important takeaway from my meditation practice: breathing technique. I focus on what I can control. Extended inhalations. Abbreviated exhalations. Breathing patterns. Minutes and miles melt away when I focus on my breath.
Struggling through long runs builds character and prepares one for difficult races. I’m not disputing that. It’s important to have tools for dealing with difficulty during endurance situations. The benefits of meditation are well-known. It can reduce stress and anxiety, lessen feelings of depression, and improve brainpower. Running has many of these same benefits. Running well and meditating work hand-in-hand to improve my life and make me a better human.
My goal for 2017 is to spend more time meditating during the day, along with my nightly practice. I’m discovering that meditating between important tasks helps me break up my day and reset my brain. I also enjoy meditating right before a midday run. It allows me to direct my focus toward the breath without distraction.
Meditation is about more than sitting in silence. It doesn’t have to be a religious experience or anything too heavy. You can meditate while walking. Take out your headphones and listen to the birds around you. Look at the clouds and watch them pass without judgement or thought. Feel a breeze wash over you without wondering what the weather will be for the weekend. We trouble ourselves with so many concerns, most of which we have no control over. Meditation can clear your mind and help you accept the world around you with grace. Don’t take my word for it. Download one of any number of free apps today to get started. Calm and Headspace are my favorites, but don’t feel limited to those. Who knows? You might unlock the tool that makes you a better runner.