That heady state of awareness — of being in the moment — still has potency as a brand of self-help for our manic times.
A new book by a Minnesota author makes the case that mindfulness and the act of running are hand-in-glove, mixing a powerful elixir of brain training and fitness that can make life (and running) better.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a frequent contributor to the Star Tribune Outdoors Weekend section and an endurance athlete herself. In “Mindful Running” (Bloomsbury), she begins with the foundation that mindfulness is on the same frequency as running.
Running, one scientist tells her in the book, “offers him a platform to simply being in the moment, unchained from the others stresses of life.” Both draw from the same characteristics for success: focus, discipline, structure, repetition.
“Running gives another avenue for learning these mindfulness principles,” said Havey in a recent interview.
While the buzz about mindfulness seems to have reached critical mass for some, Havey said solid science about its benefits gives the practice an enduring credibility.
“It might take mindfulness just from a trend to something more long-lasting and substantial because there is empirical evidence showing it is good for us,” said Havey, who lives in Minneapolis.
So, while her work might be viewed as a sports book, its content fits in the broader landscape of mindfulness literature, she said.
“[The concept] applies to anyone who wants to achieve high performance without burning out. How can I make achievement and ambition sustainable?” she said. “Mindfulness can help you learn to better listen to your body and be in tune with where your head is at, to know when to push and when to back off.”
Havey distills interviews with recognizable athletes, neuroscientists and sports psychologists, and frames a guide to marrying mindful ways with lacing up the Asics, whatever the runner’s level or pursuits.
What follows is an abbreviated version of the book’s three-step process of mindful running, with excerpts from the book about its application:
The process: three steps of mindful running
Become an objective observer and tune into your environment, body and mind in the present moment.
Based on what you noticed in Step 1, determine if any action is necessary. For example, you might have noticed discomfort, fatigue, or negative thinking. Something like negative thinking only requires you to gently acknowledge the thoughts and then redirect to the present moment. If you’re experiencing fatigue or discomfort, that might require further examination to discern whether or not you should back off your run for the day to avoid injury or overtraining.
Once you’ve checked in with your environment, body and mind, choose an anchor to the present moment, such as your breath or foot strike. Every time you notice your mind has wandered to the past or future, bring it back to that anchor. This creates focus and concentration, which sets the stage for the flow state.
Run in the mile you are in
“Being fully present is always my goal. If I’m worried about how many miles ahead I have to go or I’m beating myself up for mistakes I made in the miles I’ve already run, it never goes well for me. Being present is a lost art in our culture today.” —Ryan Hall, Olympian, U.S. record holder in the half marathon
Research out of Harvard found that our minds tend to wander 47 percent of our waking hours, and that when we aren’t engaged in the present, we often harbor a negativity bias. When you worry about the future and ruminate about the past on a run, you waste precious energy. For running to be meditative, place your attention on the present moment. Every time you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back to your breath or foot strike.
“I’ve tried using positive mantras and other things, but with pain, you can’t fake yourself out. Really tuning into the pain and embracing the struggle is more effective because it dissipates its impact. Pain is in the neurons of the beholder.” — Dean Karnazes, professional ultrarunner, New York Times bestselling author
We have a tendency to check-out as soon as running gets uncomfortable. By bringing awareness to the inherent discomfort that often accompanies running, you’re less likely to fall into the trap of chasing down anxious thoughts and catastrophizing the unpleasant sensations associated with physical effort. This helps you to continue pushing forward with intention, rather than reacting emotionally and quitting. Conversely, this present-moment awareness also helps you discern impending injuries, cluing you into when it’s important to back off.
Go with the flow
“I found that as I let go of any expectations and just appreciated the moment, the more focused and aware I was.” — Timothy Olson, professional ultrarunner, two-time winner of Western States 100-Mile Race
When we are distracted, both enjoyment of an activity and performance take a dive. Mindful awareness has been shown to help create the right conditions for you to enter the flow state, also known as ‘getting in the zone.’ This is the state where running feels effortless and you perform at your best.
“Even in moments of extreme discomfort in races, I often feel gratitude. I think, ‘Wow, this is what it’s like to push my limits and I know I’ll be stronger and more courageous on the other side.’ ” — Deena Kastor, three-time Olympian (bronze medalist), American record-holder in the marathon and half marathon
When you exist in the moment on a run, you often discover there is much to be grateful for. Whether it’s a healthy body capable of movement, beautiful scenery, or a clear and focused mind, a run can be an excellent venue for cultivating gratitude.
Excerpts from “Mindful Running” by Mackenzie L. Havey appear courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright 2017 Mackenzie L. Havey. All rights reserved. www.mindfulrunningbook.com, www.bloomsbury.com