The Mindful Competitive Runner

Mindfulness is about observing all of the thought bubbles, much like watching clouds in the sky.
Mindfulness is about noticing all of the thought bubbles, much like watching clouds in the sky.

The mindfulness movement has been around for ages, but it’s only recently that it’s made its way into the mainstream. Mindfulness is defined as intentional awareness, or intentionally paying attention to the environment around you. It involves observing your environment through the five senses and more importantly, not judging the thoughts and feelings as good or bad as they occur.

Instead of reacting to a thought or feeling, we learn through mindfulness to become an observer. As a result, we develop a new relationship with thoughts and feelings. Of particular value to competitive runners like us, is learning to make nice with discomfort.

That’s right, no matter what your preconceived notions are, mindfulness is not just about being a happier runner. Learning how to be mindful can help even the most competitive runner race better!

But stop right there. The goal of being mindful is not to become faster. I know, mixed message! It is hard to understand this at first, but for mindfulness to make you a better racer, you cannot practice mindfulness with that purpose.

Instead, you must be mindful for the purpose of … being mindful. If you go into it looking for a certain outcome, you’ll only create more stress for yourself.  You can’t will yourself to relax, just as you can’t will yourself to be mindful.  This example is probably something you can relate to: ever try to relax by telling yourself to relax? How’d that work out for you?

To practice mindfulness as a runner, you need to have no purpose, other than being mindful on the run. One of the things that makes the practice of mindfulness so relaxing is letting go of expectations, a concept called nonstriving. Doing so creates a space for your mind to let loose. I know it sounds like it won’t help you – nonstriving?! – but I promise you, by nonstriving you can achieve far more than through striving.

How mindfulness can help you race better

What is the feeling that most interferes with the achievement of our race goals? Discomfort. Fighting discomfort is often how we end up underperforming or experiencing a bad race. When we are feeling discomfort during a race or run, we tend to tense up and react to try to stop the discomfort. Instead of reacting to the discomfort, a mindful runner observes it.

Ugh, this hurts, I just want to stop!” says the reacting runner.

Hmmm, this is quite painful. My breath is getting quicker and louder. My legs are moving smoothly. The air is cold,” says the mindful runner.

This sort of mindfulness distracts you from the discomfort; the discomfort still exists but you are able to coexist with it. You realize that you can be uncomfortable and still run. In fact, to run your best you need the discomfort! By being mindful and accepting discomfort’s presence, you naturally become more relaxed. And it’s been said before that relaxed running is fast running.

How even the most type-A runner can learn mindfulness

Mindfulness, and the nonstriving attitude that it needs, doesn’t come naturally for most of us. In fact, we goal-oriented runners tend to be the exact opposite, constantly striving! Here are some tips to help even the most type-A among us to learn mindfulness.

The Breath

When the going gets tough turn to the breath and you might just be pleasantly surprised.
When the going gets tough turn to the breath and you might just be pleasantly surprised.

The breath is the essence of all life and the simplest form of mindfulness one can engage. In fact, in meditation breath is the primary focus. When the mind begins to wonder, meditators are reminded to gently return to the breath to center the mind.

In running, we use our breath to monitor our effort. We can also use it to focus, particularly when experiencing discomfort or boredom. There are numerous ways to focus on the breath, some more elaborate than others.

If you are new to mindfulness, a helpful technique involves counting your breaths. Modeled from the Headspace app, you begin by counting 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale, 4 on the exhale, and repeat until you get to 10. When you get to 10 (on the exhale) you, like Brian McKnight, start back at 1 and continue the pattern as long as you need.

It is helpful to practice this method prior to trying it on a run by sitting in the upright position with your eyes closed and counting your breaths (hey, I just tricked you into trying meditation!). It will become effortless once you get the hang of it!

Run by feel

When we run by feel, we let go of expectations. Expectations usually cause us stress. Let’s be real, if you’re type-A and training for an “A” race, it can be a real challenge to run by feel rather than forcing yourself to hit a split on your watch. However, too much focus on the pace often leads to disappointment in not meeting those expectations and, ultimately, mental burn out.

To work towards becoming a mindful runner, challenge yourself to do at least one run a week by feel:

  • That means leaving the watch at home.
  • Pay attention to the sights and sounds around you as you run.
  • Use your senses. (e.g. How does the warm air feel on your skin? Why are the birds so loud? How beautiful are the trees?)

Running this way every once in a while gives your mind a much needed mental reprieve and boosts your overall training. And more importantly, it will help you get to a point where you can be mindful in a normally high stress race environment!

Fall is the perfect season for mindful running.
Fall is the perfect season for mindful running.

The greatest thing about running mindful is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. By letting go of any judgement, we learn new ways to experience the thoughts and feelings that enter our minds. This then leads to a better relationship with our both our body and our fitness.

Do you have experience running mindfully? How has mindful running helped you race better?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. I try to look around when I run. I love running through old neighborhoods and noticing the different style of houses. I love running on country roads and listening to the birds and smelling the woods, swamp or fields.
    In the summer I love to notice the warm air and warm breeze on my skin. Running in 80F on a road in a New England forest is one of my favorite types of runs.
    I have learned to run faster by noticing how hard my body is working, knowing I’ve done this and felt this before and that I can do this again. Everything is all right.

  2. 1. These pictures are awesome! 2. I love this idea of learning to coexist with discomfort. I am the poster-child for fighting it and struggling in races because of it. Learning to accept it could be a huge game-changer for a lot of runners!

  3. I was in running group where coach told us to occasionally “run naked,” which is your running by feel. No watch, the air on our skin, the legs relaxed, the “Joy” of running without stress. VERY GOOD article.

  4. This morning was my first post-marathon 800 session. I definitely felt much better when I reminded myself in the middle of each repeat to focus on the discomfort and enjoy the effort. Odd, but it does work way better than worrying about the finish.

    1. Great job, Kathy! It’s something we have to remind ourselves of a lot in the beginning of incorporation but once we get the hang of it, it becomes kind of fun to see how we work through the pain.

  5. Great article, as a competitive runner it is very easy to get lost in your splits and time goals. Mental burnout is real and I never experienced it till this last training cycle and wow it is miserable. Time off and leaving the watch at home after an ok half marathon was the much needed recipe to get me back on track. Thanks for the reminder and tips on how to get through those tough times!

    1. Thanks, Justin! Glad to hear you are coming back from a rough patch. It is so easy to get caught up in paces and splits- especially when you are on the up swing!

  6. Ginger, I love this! Before Columbus, I was telling a friend that my mantra was going to be, “this is really LIVING” — meaning embracing the emotions and sensations that I experienced along the way. It really did make the whole thing so much more enjoyable. The time result was also pretty good, but what I think about when I look back on the experience is how good it felt, not the numbers.

  7. what a great article. You put into words so many things that have been going around in my head, but I have been unable to say. Sometimes to do my best, I need to put down the watch and just get back to basics and enjoy! thank you!

  8. Great post! I found that really ‘nonstriving’ on my easy runs really helped me back off, just relax and enjoy the miles (and not worry about pace). It helped me slow down on the days I needed to, which in turn made workouts and races better and stronger efforts.