An Expert Tells Us How Running Can Be Meditation, Too

At the 30km mark during the Melbourne Marathon, I could taste the salt drying on my lips and became aware of the lactic acid increasingly building in my legs. I was waiting to hit the infamous ‘wall’ that begs participants to question their sanity and wonder why they applied to run 42km in the first place. As my knees started to buckle and my feet became heavier, I waited for the wall but it never came.

Although I was physically becoming tired, I wasn’t enjoying the moment any less. In fact, I was completely aware that my legs were in a state of exhaustion yet it didn’t bother me at all. I cruised throughout the entire marathon and finished it in less than 3 hours and 50 minutes and can completely credit that to learning how to meditate while running.

Learning how to adapt the art of meditating into running not only improves your performance on the pavement. It is a practice that teaches you to deal with demanding environments, overcome hurdles and maintain composure during some of the most stressful moments of life. By focusing on your breath and simply being aware of your surroundings you can significantly improve your performance whilst entering a state of harmony and be present.

But what actually happens to your brain when you’re in a meditative state and you’re running? Not only are you increasing your levels of serotonin, you’re causing an increase in GABA which melts away anxiety, boosting endorphins, melatonin and even elevating the growth hormone ‘delta’ that can effectively turn back the clock.

The Cusp chatted to an expert on meditation in sport, Michael Inglis from The Mindroom, about what exactly what is happening to the mind during meditation and the impact the meditation has on our performance.

Can you tell us how mindfulness and meditation impacts our state during exercise?

The mind and body have this connection where they send messages to each other. Most of the time we think that the mind drives the body, which is true, but what is also true is that the body can also send messages to the mind to then change how the mind drives the body. When you have any kind of sensation like a sore knee or lactic legs, it sends messages to the mind and it can go two ways—for a lot of people they might think, ‘I can’t go on’ or ‘I need to slow down.’ They start losing focus on what they need to do. When you meditate or build an awareness through meditation, you’re more resilient and you don’t buy in when any pain kicks in. That’s what meditation or mindfulness does—it teaches us to be non-judgemental and non-critical. The non-judgemental component is very important.

So how can we learn to do meditation through exercise?

A body scan is really important. There’s a formal practice, which we learn when you’re in the bedroom, the lounge room and in a quiet place where you can do meditation but the informal meditation is the act of trying to meditate as you’re performing. For example, for runners, they can do the usual body scan as they could in their lounge room or at home and practice noticing the sensations without judgement. When you’re out running, it’s a matter of placing your attention on the act of placing your heel to toe on the ground or it could also be simply engaging your breathing and listening to the rate of your heart or engaging with your senses as you’re running.

So what does being sensory do to our body?

When we’re sensory, which is what you’re doing when you’re engaging with your breath, within our brain we don’t think as much. When you’re sensory, it stops the flow of thoughts and allows you to have a sense of being. So when you bring your awareness to the breath, the mind doesn’t engage with those critical thoughts. Because you’re focused and have an awareness on the breath, you’re not noticing or judging the lactic acid as much. The lactic acid is still present as it was before but you’re paying less attention.

And what about being mindful of our environment?

 Having an awareness of our environment helps takes the attention to our external stimuli. That’s why trail runners and marathon runners can perform in endurance events, because they’re being less critical and not engaging with those critical thoughts.

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Methods to meditate during running

#1 Focus on your breath

Breathe in as deep as you can for five or more counts through your nose. Exhale for five or more counts through your mouth. Imagine that with each intake of oxygen you are breathing it into the blood flowing down through to the tips of your fingers and the tips of your toes.

#2 Become aware of your body by doing a body scan

Try and settle into a rhythm by matching your strides with your breath. How does your body feel? Are you shoulders loose and relaxed? Do you have a comfortable long stride? Is there any tension in your body? Simply be aware that the feeling is there and the body will naturally try to release any tension that you may have.

#3 Observe your environment

What does the ground look like? What colour is the pavement? What do the trees look like around you? Or what can you see in the distance? What are people doing as you pass by? By simply observing and noticing the external stimuli you will notice your body relax.

Sam is a freelance writer passionate about sub-cultures, oddballs of the world and music. She runs a Melbourne music website and writers banter for VICE, The LAD Bible, and other websites. You can find her on Twitter at @hamsoward.