How Meditation Builds Mental Toughness in Runners

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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How Meditation Builds Mental Toughness in Runners

Meditation has exploded in popularity in recent years, but sitting still and letting your thoughts come and go isn’t exactly a runner’s strong suit. Maybe as a runner, you consider your time on the trail or road your moving meditation or mindfulness practice. But spending a few minutes each day sitting in a quiet meditation can actually help you improve your running, especially on race day as stress levels start to spike and you’re trying to lower your heart rate before the start gun goes off.

Sitting still is an action — even if it sounds boring or like it isn’t much of a training stimulus. “I think the reason why meditation can get cut from someone’s schedule is because it’s not ‘doing,’” says Laura Wilson, a meditation teacher. “You feel like you’re just sitting there and not doing anything and we’re such a ‘doing’ society. But I think allowing yourself to just be opens up a whole new world — and you are certainly doing something, you’re just ‘doing’ on a very cellular level.”


Science backs up the benefits of practicing meditation regularly, especially for athletes. It’s been linked to an improvement in brain function as well as a boost in energy, which we all need when our race starts at 7 a.m. “Meditation has been happening for thousands of years, but it’s now through science that we’re starting to realize the medicinal benefits. It’s great for calming yourself before a race. It really can help with deeper sleep, and sleeping better before a race is going to make a significant difference. It also lowers inflammation in your body, increases your immune system function, and it helps reduce cortisol levels. The list goes on and on and on,” explains Wilson.

Studies have shown meditation helps you get in touch with your emotions, making them easier to understand and shift for the better. Meditation, whether you choose a guided or unguided session, can make your mindset ultimately shift from negative to positive more naturally, which is key to having a great race. “We have a choice every moment of the day, how we want to think about something,” says Wilson. “And sometimes it’s really hard to think positive. And sometimes I think that someone telling you to ‘just think positive’ can actually make things worse. But meditation can help gently prod you into a better feeling without necessarily just having to read a motivational statement.”


Establishing a daily meditation practice is much more important than having a full hour of meditation once a month. Wilson has been there: Her first forays into meditation made her feel better and helped her deal with grief that even running couldn’t cure, but life eventually got busy. “I would let it slide and then the next day, and the next day, and somehow it’s just not my routine anymore,” she says. “But I would bring it back, and I would notice how much better my life would go. Now, it’s been four years where I’ve meditated every morning, and it’s an absolute priority for me because I realize just how much it gives to me. I can get into stressful situations but be able to find a bit of stillness before reacting.” (Sound like something you want for race morning? Definitely.)

  • Be open-minded: If you’re reading this and rolling your eyes, imagining yourself seated on a meditation cushion clutching crystals, think again: You can do it anytime, anywhere. “A lot of people think meditation is like, you’re sitting cross-legged, you know, with candles lit all around you,” says Wilson. “An easy way to start is just by making time to be mindful at points during the day. A lot of people probably heard of mindfulness, which is just being really conscious of what you’re doing at any moment. So if you’re in the shower, are you really paying attention to the temperature of the water on your skin? Are you feeling the water hit your skin? Are you feeling the shampoo bottle in your hand? And that’s actually a meditation on its own. So if people are finding that they want to incorporate meditation, but they don’t have a ton of time, just being really mindful during activities like that is a form of meditation.”
  • Try an app: There are hundreds of meditation apps on the market, and while you don’t have to test them all, you should try different styles until you find one that resonates with you. You may prefer a guided meditation, like Headspace or Insight Timer, or the unguided options available on Oak that just feature gentle sounds.
  • Find the time: How long you meditate can also be a personal preference: Maybe you find 10 minutes is ideal for letting you really sink into it, or maybe you need a bit longer to get focused. Or perhaps you’re constantly stressed about how little time you have, and 10 minutes is too much, while five minutes feels do-able. Experiment until you find the option that feels right.
  • Keep coming back: Skipped your morning meditation plan and think you’re off-track? Think again. “If you’re late in the day and you haven’t made time to meditate yet, you might think, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it tomorrow.’ But using the analogy of food, if you had a bowl of french fries, the next meal, you could just have a salad to get back on track and it’s fine,” says Wilson. “You know that it’s not going to be good for you if you say, ‘Well, I already had the fries so I might as well not start eating healthy until next week.’ So just do the meditation later in the day: You don’t need to wait until like next Monday to start doing it again.”
  • Let it be fluid: In fact, you might be better served by not having a special spot for meditating, especially if you’re hoping to make gains in your racing! “You can do it anywhere, whether you’re taking public transportation or maybe you have a house with loud kids in it or maybe you have roommates that are making noises or whatever it is,” says Wilson. “It’s just going to make that even stronger because you have to focus a little bit more. I think if the place is noisy, it’s just race prep. At your race, it could be a sunny day or it could be rainy and miserable. If you’re meditating and the surroundings aren’t perfect, you know it’s just going to give you the stronger ability to focus.”


If you understand all the benefits but simply cannot bring yourself to spend 5–10 minutes meditating each day, try this instead, says Wilson. When you wake up, instead of dragging yourself out of bed instantly, sit up, close your eyes and count five slow, deep breaths. Then, get on with your day as usual. When you head to bed at night, do the same process: Before laying down, sit on the edge of the bed, close your eyes, and take those five breaths, counting slowly as you inhale and exhale. Those few seconds of mindful breathing can go a long way toward calming your stress response, and regular practice doing that allows you to do the same thing at the start line.

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.


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