Running with Mindfulness

I have done triathlons and 70.3 Ironman races, but running has always been a challenge for me. I had no problems with swimming and biking, but the joint
pains, muscle aches and lack of improvement in running all got to me – to the point that I eventually left the running fraternity. The break is
now over and 2015 has started well with more runs clocked so far this year than I had in all of 2014. More importantly, my running experience thus
far has been anything but miserable.

One of the key changes to my running approach this year has been a mindful one. With “The Mindfulness Revolution” feature gracing the cover of TIME magazine
in February 2014, mindfulness has become a buzzword in the health, wellness and performance domain. Contemporary mindfulness began with Jon Kabat-Zinn,
who started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979 in Massachusetts, USA. To date, most mindfulness-based programs are based
on MBSR.

Kabat-Zinn operationally defines mindfulness as the practice of deliberately paying attention to the present, moment to moment, non-judgmentally. In the
current context, mindfulness is about paying attention to our run as we are running; it is about striding one stride at a time; and it is about running
free of self-judgment.

Starting with a clear mind

Let’s break it down further. A key principle to practicing mindfulness is adopting a beginner’s mind – peeling away what we think we know and our perceived
sense of conventional wisdom, and resetting ourselves to square one. With a beginner’s mind, imagine our “bowl” being empty as we welcome new insights
and possibilities, in contrast to a “bowl” that is already filled and causes us to get stuck in a never-ending rut of our self-expertise and know-how.
With an empty “bowl”, we breed grit and resilience because we develop a deeper and broader capacity to soak in the full spectrum of human experience.

Take pain, for example. Conventional wisdom holds that we strive to avoid the pain and reduce the unpleasantness of running. Yet mindfulness is not about
attaining an ideal performance condition that is painless and free of discomfort (i.e. “if everything falls into place, only then can I run well…”).
If we anchor our efforts to fulfill this condition, we become more prone and vulnerable to surprises as they disrupt the ideal checklist we strive
to check off mentally. But let’s face it, you never really know what’s behind the next bend, nor can you ever be fully prepared for a race. As we resist
the lactic overload, pre-race jitters and the stress of keeping pace, it also adds to the cognitive overload and ultimately draws down our mental reserves.
And energy conservation is the name of the game in endurance sports.

Mindfulness starts with a beginner’s mind, which allows you to run free of the constraints imposed by “dos” and “don’ts”. It is about being comfortable
with the uncomfortable, especially with the twists and turns that are part and parcel of a run. The process of emptying our “bowl” inevitably illuminates
new resources, and inner reserves that we can access and dig into. For your next run, put aside all that you know about running and imagine you
are completely new to this whole exercise. See what happens as you let the experience unfold one stride at a time.

Staying focused in the moment

The second principle of mindfulness is about living and running in the present moment. Our thoughts can time-travel. We can think about the mistakes
from last weekend’s run and we can think about winning the upcoming race this weekend. But it is only in the present moment that we are truly alive.
We cannot change the past, nor can we realize the future unless we get it done in the present moment. There is preparation and there is execution.

In the preparation phase, for example, you learn from the past by looking up your historical stats in a MapMyFitness (MMF) app or evaluate your resting
heart rate to determine your recovery status. You look to the future to define your goals or plan out your racing and training schedule to motivate
yourself. Sure. But come race-time execution, it is about activating your focus agility to attune your attention to the present and allowing your
inner autopilot to take over, trusting that you’ve done your “homework” and are now putting it into practice. If you have not clocked sufficient
mileage, you are still better off letting all the mental analysis, calculations and evaluations dissipate at the start line. Otherwise, they will
only slow you down and waste precious mental energy.

A sound and quiet mind is key to entering the zone in sports. Letting go of the past and future and attending fully to the present serve as the gateway
to entering this zone. How? By letting the run unfold one stride at a time, instead of striving for a perfect or less painful race. Ready or not,
you are already here at the start line. Take in the moment, and tell yourself: “Ready, get set, go!” I remember my first 70.3 race. At the start
line, I was so preoccupied with my calculations and mental reminders that I did not see the incoming blow from a fellow competitor that knocked
out my swimming goggles. Albeit with salty eyes, I managed to finish the race simply because I threw out all my calculations and just competed.

A fresh approach to running

When we embrace each moment as a new moment, more possibilities emerge with a beginner’s mind. We find more ways to relate to the pain and discomfort
associated with running. Now I just run, one stride at a time. No pretenses, no hiding from the pain and the discomfort. If my body wants to go
faster, I go faster; if I am running out of breath, I slow down. Less striving, more welcoming. With this approach, my running practice has become
more fulfilling and purposeful.

Header photo by Tikkho Maciel on Unsplash

Body photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

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