The image of the distance runner has long been one of furious concentration and painful grimacing -- dedicated and focused, sure, but not exactly having a great time.
A comedian recently tweeted that when he sees a smiling runner, he automatically assumes they have some sort of mental illness, because how could any person find joy and pleasure in running? But a growing number of athletes are doing just that, looking beyond running as a means to fitness and weight loss and seeing it as a path to salvation and transcendence...
Mindfulness has often been associated with yoga and tai chi, but a long run can lead to clear thinking just as easily. Runners often spend time on their feet mulling over problems, coming up with solutions, or simply not thinking about anything -- especially on more technical trails or crowded city streets, all you can do is focus on what’s right in front of you and not worry about anything external.
To be able to run mindfully, you first need to be able to run well. While most humans can physically run, far fewer can run with good form and get to a place where they don’t have to think about running. As soon as a body is trained to run with minimum impact and effort, most runners find they can go for long distances and not have to think about how they’re moving in space -- at that point, running has become second nature.
From there, runners can take several paths to mindfulness. Many yoga instructors ask students to set an intention, and runners are now starting to do the same thing. Some runners focus on a specific question, whether it is related to work, personal life, or simply something they want to consider more deeply, and spend the course of their run focused on that topic. Others set a goal to notice a certain number of new things, especially if they are following a course they’ve done several times, and they almost always see something they’ve never seen before. Many find it easier to be mindful when running in nature, but even crowded city streets can provide a path to transcendence -- if you’re only focused on dodging pedestrians and cars, the mind can be clear of any other static.
Eventually, meditation and mindful running can rewire the human brain -- research has shown that running is beneficial in treating depression and addiction, and there are sober running communities popping up all over as a testament to this. Some distance runners have adopted the principle that is less important to be strong as it is to feel strong and test yourself, and that race times and distances matter far less than whether you achieved a state of flow on the road or trail. The truly mindful runner isn’t the one out there grinding on the marathon course, though you can race mindfully; they’re the one who gets up and gets in miles no matter what, just for the sheer joy of it.
It is often during the worst runs that we become most mindful, because we realize the slight absurdity of what we’re doing. To the outside observer, running a 100 mile ultramarathon, or twenty-two miles in the pouring rain can seem crazy -- but to the mindful runner, it’s a way of testing strength and resolve. There’s something amazing about being able to cruise down a mountain towards the end of a fifty mile race, singing out loud and laughing, because you’ve finally reached a state of nirvana and your mind is more powerful than your legs.
There’s no one path to mindful running, but simply trying to clear your mind the next time you lace up your sneakers is a good start. Take a few minutes to sit quietly and meditate, set an intention, then go out and try to get in the groove, and you’ll be flying down the road with a smile on your face soon.
Cortney Harding is a Brooklyn runner and the author of “How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations About Music and Technology.” She consults and writes about music and tech in order to feed her ultra running addiction. She also runs with North Brooklyn Runners - NYC's best running group.