The Simple Art of Meditating While You Run

iStock 000010060150XSmallI mentioned last week that I had been dealing with a little bit of runner’s block.  And when you’re fighting runner’s block, you try new things to make running fun.

That’s what led me to the idea of meditating while you run.

While I’m not a Buddhist (or any religion, for that matter), I’ve been intrigued by the teachings of Buddhism and even its Western bastardizations for several years now. The ability to detach from your emotions, the silencing of the chatter in your mind and access to your creative subconscious, and the compassion for living beings — these are all things I find appealing, even with no overt religious meaning attached.

The connection with veganism is pretty clear.  But it took a conversation with a reader of this site for me to realize how just well meditation jives with running.  And since I’ve started, I’ve really enjoyed it — not just for the new fulfillment I get from running, but also for the sense of presence and calm I feel during the rest of the day.

Meditation without the weirdness

For the longest time, I thought meditation was a New Age or religious thing. But it doesn’t have to be that. I find it helpful just to think of it as a way to relax and play around in your head for a while.

You don’t need special flute music. You don’t need candles. You don’t need to sit with your legs folded and palms up, and you certainly don’t need to make circles with your thumbs and forefingers.

The only thing you need is something to focus on.

That focus might be:

  • The up-and-down movement of your abdomen as the air you breathe enters and exits your body
  • The feeling of air moving through your nose as you breathe in and out through it
  • The present moment and your environment, and all that you can sense and experience in it
  • The way your body feels as you run, with everything working together to move you forward
  • Your footsteps
  • Any mental image, symbol, or koan (if you’re into that) you can fix in your mind

(I’ve found that the first few of these work best when you can sit still without distractions, while those at the end are better suited to running.)

How to meditate while your run

Once you’ve decided on that focal point here’s what to do.

  1. Start running slowly (ideally on a trail or somewhere where there isn’t a lot of traffic).
  2. Give yourself 15 or 20 minutes to relax and get in the zone.  Sometimes I brainstorm ideas about different projects when I run, and I find that it takes about this long before ideas start flowing.
  3. Once you’re ready, direct your mind to whatever you’re going to focus on.  (If you weren’t running, I’d say shut your eyes, but keep them open for obvious reasons.)
  4. Now, do your best to stay focused on that one thing.  You do not want an inner dialogue to be constantly describing your focus or anything else; the point here is to go for as long as possible without any “thoughts.”  You want to “feel” what you’re focusing on, without using words in your head.
  5. When your attention strays from your focus (it will; probably every few seconds at first), gently guide it back to the focus.  Don’t attach any feeling of negativity or frustration to your mind’s wandering; it just “is.”
  6. Do this for as long as it’s enjoyable. (Right now, I can usually stay interested in this for only 5-10 minutes at a time; after that I’m mostly unable to focus for any amount of time.  But that’s enough.)

Remember, don’t be dumb. You’re still moving, and so are other people. You’re doing this correctly if you become more aware of your surroundings, not more oblivious.

If you’re having trouble silencing the dialogue in your mind: Ask yourself, “I wonder what my next thought will be,” and then pay very close attention to see what it is.  You’ll very likely find that this results in several seconds of no thoughts before one finally enters your head.  When it does, quickly forget it, and ask yourself that same question again.  (Credit to The Power of Now for this trick.)

What’s the goal?

The answer is one I struggle with, because I tend to be goal-oriented:

There is no goal.

(For a true Buddhist, I suppose the goal is enlightenment or something to do with Kurt Cobain, but I don’t know about all that.)

You do it because it feels good and allows you to explore yourself. If you find it relaxes you, that’s a benefit.  If you find that you become creative during or after meditating, that’s a benefit.  But as far as I can tell, there’s no end to strive for, and that in itself is a welcome change from the rest of everyday life.

For me, when I’m doing well and am focusing for several seconds with no conscious thoughts, what happens is that joyful memories I even didn’t know I had start pop into my head.  More than that, for an instant the entire feeling of that previous point in my life returns. 

At the beach, walking on the boardwalk with a friend from middle school and looking for an arcade.  Riding a ski lift with a friend, back when we were in third grade.  Sitting in a diner with my mom and a cousin on the day after Christmas, 15 years ago.

Memories I forgot I had.  I’m amazed that somehow this process gets me back to those moments; that they’re sitting somewhere in my brain but beyond access, obscured by the chatter of the conscious mind. 

I’ve also had moments where for just a few seconds, I become completely aware of my body, almost as if I’m looking at it from somewhere else.  The way it feels for one arm to swing forward while that leg swings back, and how perfectly this works.  The springiness in my ankles as I leave the ground for just a fraction of a second and land again, and the way the gravel on the trail feels under my shoes (if you’ve got minimalist shoes, they’ll probably enhance this).

Are you somehow better after having moments like these? Maybe, maybe not. I find them fascinating, and for now, that’s the reason I do this.

Two good sources if you want to explore this further:

I’d love to hear what you all think of meditation, especially while running, and any general meditation advice you have.  I’m still very much a beginner at this, and looking to learn more about it.

P.S., Blendtec winner!

Alrighty, time for one lucky SOB to win a Blendtec blender!  Out of 721 entrants, that SOB is…

“Sals,” who wrote this:

“This looks like a super nice blender. I currently use my food processor to try to make smoothies – this would work much better! Homemade pasta sauce would also be convenient.”

Congratulations to Sals, and thanks to the 720 others who entered, and especially to the folks at Blendtec for hosting such an incredible giveaway.

 

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Comments

  1. Yeah, like that. That’s what I do, too. But I don’t get memories. That seems like a nice thing to have happen.

    I used to run with dogs but when I got serious about distance I could outrun a dog so now I often run alone. And then I accidently began meditating while running ten miles on a track. (It was the first 10 mile run in the NMA marathon roadmap!) My brain was really bothering me, it had nothing to do, no dogs to talk to, nothing new to look at, and while my body was going fine my brain was trying very hard to get me to quit because it was bored. So I shut it down. It was the opposite of drugless childbirth where I let my brain keep alert while it ignored my body as best it could; on the track I let my body stay totally alert and my brain nearly went to sleep. I felt very rested after the run. Clarity happened. It was cool.

    Now I do it regularly on runs over ten miles and yesterday I tried meditating for the first time during Yasso 800s. (It didn’t work, I kept looking at my watch) I love the feeling of my feet (in VFFs) like springs, I can feel every coil and release of muscle in my legs, lungs pumping, the one two three one two three of my pace, I get visions of the tendons and bones and all assorted inner-workings of my feet and have a feeling of awe at how beautiful and perfect, brave and fierce they are. I don’t need iPod or changing scenery to amuse my brain when I get like this.

    It doesn’t always get to happen, though. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about food, or my speed, or whatever pain is currently pestering, or working out how to save the world by getting more people to become vegan runners, etc, etc, etc. I will try what you said here, instead of hoping it just happens, I will focus on something. Thank you.

  2. These are some great tips, I can usually focus on just being in the moment while running for a few minutes but then my mind starts to wander, I really need to focus on being able to maintain that state longer!

  3. Great post, Matt!

    I think that many of us who love running do it because we don’t like to sit still, so the standard method of sitting meditation is not very attractive to us. When I meditate while I run, I don’t find myself getting fidgety or distracted like I do when I try to sit quietly.

    The only thing I aim to do when I run is to become present. I find that the easiest way for me to get centered is through focusing on my breathing- this always seems to bring me back to the now.

    Another thing that pops up for me when I successfully become present in my runs is the sense of gratitude that washes over me. No matter if you’re having a bad day, month, year, there’s always that silver lining. There’s always SOMETHING to be thankful for. Running just seems to clear the haze away. :)

    Thanks again for the great post!

  4. So the other night I overheard a young lady say “guy vegetarians are just weird!” So to do her proud I will defn. admit to using mind relaxation techniques during my long slow distance runs, which I am a big fan of still.

    On these long less intense runs I mostly focus on nasal breathing, the ujayii pranayama style type of breath. I know it’s odd yogi stuff but all of the air turbulence created by sucking volumes of air through your nose creates a calming sound and mental state. Yoga people here could elaborate better than I. So I personally focus less on calming my thoughts, impossible for me, and more on relaxing my brain cavity, imagining my optic nerves drooping down onto my tongue, which is blocking air from coming in but not going out–can’t have a build up of carbon dioxide in the blood.

    So that young lady mentioned above is probably not too far off the mark, but I don’t think she’s ever had to run a few hours without an mp3 player.

    Once I am relaxed I just constantly scan my body and look for potential posture or stride changes. I don’t try to block thoughts at all. I rather encourage them.

    Finally, this post on nasal breathing during running just came through today. Very entertaining.

    http://naturallyengineered.com/blog/nose-or-mouth-breathing-while-running-exercising/

  5. Great post. I used to “meditate” in a way by focusing on my breathing at various points in a run. For instance, to start out I would make to breathe for 4 steps in and 4 steps out (does that make sense?) then 3 and 3, then 3 and 2, etc.

    Another way I’ve found myself meditating is by counting my steps. A few years ago I took a good form running class that emphasized the importance of quick cadence (of around 180 steps per minute) and so I am always counting my steps to see if I fall within that range. Sometimes I’ll start counting and all of a sudden I will realize that I’ve counted 500 steps!

  6. Interesting, I guess I meditate often when I run but never knew it! Getting in the zone, letting your mind wander while still being very focused on your run – these are all things that can help your creativity AND your performance. It’s a fascinating subject, thanks Matt!

  7. I love it Matt. Wonderful insights on this. Inspiring.

  8. Wonderful suggestions, Matt.

    I have spent the last several years working on the idea of meditating while jogging and I’ve captured many tips I’ve found there. It’s called Meditation on the run and you can find it at http://meditationontherun.blogspot.com/.

    Keep up the practice and let me know how you’re doing.

    Jim

  9. I love this post. I am going to try this technique next time I am on the mountain running (training for the pikes peak ascent).. i need focus and a complete lack of negativity (those thoughts creep in too much up there). thanks for your insight!

  10. You might also want to check out the book Zen and the Art of Running by Larry Shapiro!

  11. This is a really good idea. A lot of times when I’m running, I do think that I “zone out”. I only think this because I’ll look up and not remember running the past 5 blocks or some monument/landmark.

    I just wrote a blog post about stress release and mentioned both running and meditation as two potential options but never thought to combine them. I’m going to try this on my next run.

  12. Jeff James says:

    “(For a true Buddhist, I suppose the goal is enlightenment or something to do with Kurt Cobain, but I don’t know about all that.)”

    Wow — talk about ignorant and dismissive! You sure “don’t know all about that.” You should take the time to find out what Buddhists actually believe before you mock them. You might want to ask yourself why you felt it necessary to dismiss what others do in order to promote what you do.

  13. I love doing the Power of Now trick. “What thought comes next?”

    or something to do with Kurt Cobain, but I don’t know about all that.)
    LOL. Love that.

    If you’re interested in meditation, have you read Wherever You Go There You Are? Reminds me of the fact that the best meditation is not to “get” anywhere.

    Love this post, by the way. I’ll definitely try being present in my body when running next time. (To be honest, I haven’t ran since the Carlsbad 5000 in April… but it’s awesome just in general to meditate or be present when moving your body in any circumstance, especially exercise.)

  14. While I haven’t actually tried meditating while running, I find running calms my mind and helps me feel at peace

  15. great article! That’s exactly the way I use running as a form of meditation!

    Especially when I feel fatigue and my mind will start telling stories about it I try to ask my self questions like:
    What’s my next thought?
    Can I be the space for this? (and yes I can, and I already am. That’s very freeing. You can be the space for your pain and struggles.)

    My definition of meditation is quite easy: Training or cultivating your mind (and heart) in a way that promotes the widsom of the heart. Concentration, mindfulness, letting go, being compassionate all play a role in that process.

  16. Love the article but have an issue perhaps that is only related to me. When running a 5K typically the time is under 34 minutes. It’s been recognized and recorded that I do not do very well until after the 30 minute mark. You mentioned, “Give yourself 15 or 20 minutes to relax and get in the zone”. I am new at running and the zone naturally comes after the 20 minute mark. Do you or your readers have a method to get in the zone before then for short distances?

    • ljc, I can’t think of any method to speed up getting in the zone, though perhaps if this really were you goal, you could spend 5-10 minutes warming up in some activity other than running. Still, I don’t know if that would work, because part of it seems like its the repetitiveness of your steps that lulls you into “the zone.”

      To be able to run for longer time, how about just slowing down, even if that means nearly walking at times? No shame in that.

      Finally, keep in mind that you may not be able to focus on meditation for more than 5 or 10 minutes, especially at first. So if you take 15 minutes to get there, that still leaves you a good amount of time before you hit your limit.

      Good luck!

  17. btw: Thich Nhat Hanh mentions in one of his books that he and his fellow monks sometimes did running meditation instead of walking meditation in winter (to keep warm).

    So you might use all of his advice on walking meditation for running :)

  18. Love this…I’m Methodist and my husband is Buddhist so I go with him quite a bit to basic meditation teachings…while I find sitting still difficult at times I have always told him I meditate best while running…it definitely clears the mind when you combine the basic breathing and physical awareness (not to be mistaken with physical dwelling that some of us do while running) of meditation with the pure natural rhythm of a quality run. Thank you for sharing this!!

  19. I’m interested in meditation as I know when I do it as part of my yoga practice it is super relaxing. Not sure about using it during running, but it’s worth a try – I do get into a zone, but it’s usually an “active” zone where my mind is busy.

    I think this would work great swimming laps in the pool though! I find that in the pool there are no outside distractions, and I can think clearly – I bet meditation would work really well.

  20. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Another groovy post Matt! I’ve focused on a couple different things while running; my breath, a metronome, and lately since taking a workshop with Sharon Salzberg and Krishna Das I will repeat a loving kindness/metta meditation or Kirtan chant either in my head or out loud (but softly so as not to dirsturb other nearby runners). It works great, especially if I’ve fallen out of it and am getting tired on a long run. I’m too fidgety to sit and meditate so trying to do it while running is ideal for me, although I still am mot consistently good at it. Listening to Kirtan even just be-bopping around the house works great. It’s all about improved focus and calmness of mind.
    Namaste

  21. I absolutely have meditated while running, and there is something beautiful in being able to let go of those many, many thoughts that run through my mind. Not to mention the fact that it makes me feel much more grateful for this simple act of running. It also makes running seem a little easier on those days when it’s difficult to push yourself out the door. Thanks for the article – it was a really nice change to see a more spiritual take on running. (Because that quiet place of meditation is quite divine, isn’t it?)

  22. This great discussion prompted me to complete a post I had been working on for more than a week.

    It documents the similarities between brain activity in meditation and in running (http://meditationontherun.blogspot.com/).

    In essence, gamma waves found in Tibetan Buddhist monks are also found in mice when they run.

    The good news is that gamma waves are associated with all the things you’ve mentioned above: awareness and compassion, learning and cognition, attention and concentration.

    So now we’re starting to see proof of what we’ve known all along.

    Thanks for raising this issue and keeping it going!

  23. Matt great post. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time. I started reading when i became a vegan 7 months ago. However I am just now getting into running again. Just this week i began to do a slow thirty minute run ever other day. Feeling great! I’ve missed running so much. I’ve been doing yoga and running cause i like the relaxation, but this post has inspired me to combine the two. I can get my meditative relaxed state while running. I know b squared talks about this himself. Anyways, I got a sign the other day also. Just as I am starting to run again my hometown is having it’s first ever marathon. It’s January 15th! It’s the first annual Louisiana marathon and its taking place in my area of town in Baton Rouge. And it comes as a sign to me because your book has a training plan that fits almost exactly into that length of time. Anyways, my wife and I are dead broke at the moment. Really need to get life back on track. But I will be purchasing your ebook soon! Thank you so much for all the great recipes and advice over the year! Looking forward to future posts and the ebook! P.S. I will have to rock a No meat t-shirt for the race. It’s a must.

  24. I usually just listen to some sort of music or such, honestly when i’m jogging or running, the days i don’t space out and i focus to much on actaulyl running i get un-motivated, thinking things like “it’s to hot, i’m to tired” and so on lol, but some das i space out and when i come to i’m like where am i?!!?

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