There are as many running preferences out there as there are runners in the world. Some like easy morning jogs, some respond to the track, while others stick strictly to marathons. There are runners that find motivation in group runs, and those who prefer to go solo. For those in the latter group, the connection between running and meditation is often a tangible reality.
MEDITATION COULD IMPROVE YOUR RUNNING AND VICE VERSA
It’s actually the same repetitive characteristics of running that lead to a lack of attention and awareness that can lead to more attention and awareness. We’ve all been there: Lost in a random thought at the end of a miles-long run, unable to recall anything we’ve seen or sped past along the way.
“The repetitive nature of running allows the mind to wander and lose attention to proper running technique and breathing, making it difficult to notice poor running form,” notes a 2009 study on mindfulness and running. It’s not just missing beautiful scenery that’s at stake — it’s the quality of your run and the awareness necessary to pinpoint and improve weak spots.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, an avid runner who also founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, refers to the meditative elements of running in the patterns of breath, foot strike and motion. Meditation, on the other hand, as described in a paper by David Shainberg is “an action of attention, an awareness and concern for what is actually occurring in body and mind.”
If runners combine the increased focus that comes from meditation with the repetitious nature of running, they can take advantage of the best of both worlds. A meditation practice brings concentrated attention to the present moment. Working to harness attention while running essentially becomes extra practice time in addition to when you’re meditating on your mat.
“Running as meditation … provides a special opportunity to understand the action of time, our relationship in space and movement,” Shainberg explains in his 1977 paper.
The more you practice paying attention to the present moment while running, the easier it will be on your meditation mat. Further, as Kabat-Zinn explains in his book “Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life,” “anybody can sit down and watch their breath or mind. And you don’t have to be sitting.” He goes on to note specifically that one can do it while running.
At the same time, the more you harness your attention with meditation, the more present you’ll be when you’re running and, thus, the better you’ll be able to pick up on the tiny, almost imperceptible movements that might be holding your running back. Once you’re aware of it, you can improve it, helping you tackle goals like a faster speed or more mileage.
MEDITATION AND RUNNING MAY HELP COMBAT THE BLUES
Whether it’s the winter season that’s got you down or you’re just sometimes prone to feeling less than sunny, running and meditation together can be a one-two punch that dampers depression. This combo is known as mental and physical training (or MAP training) and its effects were espoused in a 2016 study published in Translational Psychology. The study tracked 52 participants who, for eight weeks, participated in two sessions each week of aerobic exercise and meditation. Researchers found that both those with and without depressive disorders reported less depressive symptoms and ruminative thoughts at the end of the study.
While the exact cause isn’t known, the study showed that running and meditation together have powerfully positive effects. However, as the study notes in its discussion, there is a hypothesis brewing: “The MAP training intervention was translated from basic neuroscientific research demonstrating that aerobic exercise and mental training increase neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus.”
Because this study focused on the rumination aspect of depression — and the idea that depressive disorders are caused by the burning up of hippocampus brain cells from constantly rerunning thoughts — the team’s hunch is that creating new brain cells could help alleviate depression. In other words, if MAP practices like a combination of running and meditation can create new brain cells, depression and its symptoms could lessen.
Even though the team didn’t follow up with participants in the long term, considering that depression affects about one in five Americans at some point in their lifetime, these findings indicate that with a meditation and running combo, even if you aren’t feeling blue, you can end up slightly more positive than you already are. Sounds like a solid place to invest your time.