Mindful Running

Stay the CourseMost of my patients like me (I think). And most of them do what I ask (likely because they’re paying for my advice). Yet, there is no other aspect of running-patient care on which I get more pushback than when I ask a runner to focus on his or her running stride. Below is a typical dialogue between a rehabbing runner and me:

“You mean I have to think about how I run?” they ask, non-facetiously.

“Yes, unfortunately, you do,” I reply, with at least a partial dose of empathy.

“But I like to just be able to zone out and talk with friends/think about my day/look at nature.”

“I’m sorry, I really am,” I tell them. But then I put on my yogi hat and continue, “In a yoga class, the intention is to go inward, turn off our ego brain, put away the external thoughts, and think about how our body feels.”

This resonates strongly for my yogi patients. Indeed, the soothing aspect of yoga comes from turning off the external and going internal. We feel how our body moves, compare our right and left sides, and assess both strength and ease. The combination of this mindfulness and our breath is the foundation of a meditative practice. Running should be similar. It’s not just to have a meditative experience, but mindful running also promotes injury prevention and your fastest possible running.

If there was a banner above my clinic door, this is what it would read: How we move plays the number-one role in how we feel. Effective treatment of any injury requires addressing mechanical capacity (mobility), neuromuscular strength, and motor control (efficiency). Yet it’s the efficiency that most strongly impacts mobility and strength. Efficient running makes us naturally more flexible and strong, and inefficient running makes us stiff and weak. It’s also efficiency that’s most often overlooked, if not ignored, by runners and clinicians alike.

Why all the pushback on form focus? Why is ours the only sport where it’s not okay to think about how we’re doing it? My initial answer to that question is stress management. People start running for various reasons, but most keep running because of what it gives them: joy, peace, fun, and community. So it is understandable that introducing an inward focus to what is often an outward-focused activity–on processing the day’s stresses, being with friends, and experiencing nature–may ruin the very thing runners seek. Yet yogis gain tremendous stress relief from a focused yoga practice, where external thoughts are discouraged. And runners can, too. How and why should runners be mindful?

The Case for Mindful Running

The first argument I heard for mindful running came from my initial readings of Tim Noakes’s Lore of Running. Where we place our thoughts in the course of a run or race is what we call our attentional states. Associative attention directs all thoughts toward the task at hand. This can be either internal–what is perceived or experienced within the body–or external–the competitive environment. Dissociative attention directs thoughts outside the running experience, with either internal–what may be going on with one’s life outside running–or external–other thoughts or topics such as a conversation with a friend.

Noakes cites classic sport-psychology literature demonstrating that while recreational runners tend to primarily dissociate, elite performers almost exclusively associate with the run experience. This is across the board, not only for racing but also for training. And this is particularly the case when efforts are most challenging such as during long and fast runs.

What do they think about? Elite runners may not necessarily think about the specific nuts and bolts of the stride, but most have a compelling idea of what fast looks like and how it feels. So they endeavor to ‘look fast, feel fast.’ In effect, they chase that feeling in every run.

To this explanation, my patients retort, “But I don’t care if I run fast!” It’s much more than fast running, though. More than any other sport, running efficiently has a two-fold implication of being both fast and healthy. This is because of the ‘Efficiency Rule’ wherein any strategy that decreases strain increases speed.

A Running Mindfulness How-To

If you’re convinced that mindful, associative running is important–or you’ve at least been sentenced to focused running by your skilled physiotherapist or coach–how do you start? Here’s my list:

Let Go of [Self-]Judgment

By the time we’re adults, we tend to block this natural mirroring, often due to self-consciousness. The key to a mindful running practice is a combination of observation–self-assessment (internal and external association) and a lack of judgement. The quality of movement isn’t good or bad. Instead, how we move should be measured in its ease and full expression. Can we get there, and how easily? But in order to move fully and with ease, we must let it happen and then assess our movement without judgement.

Breathe

All efficient movement begins with strong but relaxed breathing.

Look Fast, Feel Fast

We all need to start with an idea of what fast looks like. Emulation is the most powerful motor-learning tool. How we move, therefore, can be learned from others. For runners, this means identifying and emulating the very best in the sport. Very simply, we move how they move. Little kids and even most grown adults do this with all postures and movements, unconsciously and without effort. This is a concept called mirroring. In a yoga class, this involves mirroring the instructor, who usually has excellent if not superior technique, as they model efficient movement. This becomes our standard of movement. As runners, we should all have such a model, even if that’s a purely internal image.

Connect Movement with Feel

Once we adopt a new movement pattern, we assess its expression–our ability to get there–and ease–how it feels. For the running stride, just like with various yoga poses, we start to break down the segmental parts:

While we may zoom in on these component parts, we should never stray far from the whole of what the complete stride looks and feels like.

Connect the Outcome with the Process

The end goal of efficient movement is to move with more ease and power. While those concepts might seem diametrically opposed, the goal of an efficient, mindful movement practice is the ability to move with increasing power and decreasing effort.

Consider each run a practice. What happens when you execute a part or the whole with greater efficiency? For most, it will mean less aches and pains–less foot, shin, knee, thigh, or back pain and stiffness. Over time, across the board, a mindful, efficient running practice will result in more ease, or faster running with less effort.

Likewise, when you lose a component part, so, too, should you examine that outcome. More foot pain? Perhaps your posture or hip mobility is lacking. An inward mindfulness will help you connect the effect with the cause.

But it takes focus! Just like yogis get maximal benefits from a present, inward-focused practice, so too will runners achieve a more effortless, joyful, healthy, and fast running experience with a bit of mindfulness. Try not to fight it. Look fast, feel fast, and endeavor to move with your best possible self during each run! In doing so, you might surprise yourself with how your running grows!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you challenged by the idea of internalizing the experience of running in order to make your stride more efficient?
  • What part of your stride do you think needs work?
  • Whose running stride would you be keen to emulate?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 4 comments

  1. Andi Ripley

    Back in high school, my coach would say some of this phraseology. It propelled me to be the runner I was in college and the runner I am today! As someone who struggles with anxiety, this meditative and intentional running process has truly changed my life. The physical piece of the form focus has also helped me to achieve competitive times! Well written post on this important mindset!

  2. Doug K

    I’m going to argue ;-)
    This conflates two very different concepts, one helpful, the other not so much.

    Associative running as noted by Noakes means paying attention to the physiological signals (aka ‘pain’) produced by the body, and adjusting pace accordingly. It does not mean paying attention to ” specific nuts and bolts of the stride”. I think there are no elite distance runners that do nuts and bolts.
    See
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279578126_Associative_and_Dissociative_Cognitive_Strategies_in_Exercise_and_Running_20_Years_Later_What_Do_We_Know

    I’m with Camille, on the Jim Walmsley thread:
    “With practice, for each of us our body finds the most efficient form. We shouldn’t strive to run like someone else.”
    No-one else runs like Jim because no-one else has his specific physiology. His form and stride rate are massive outliers in elite ultrarunning – this suggests an anomaly, not a role model.

    Dr Jack Daniels:
    “You can’t just look at somebody and say this person is more economical than that person,” Daniels says. “We did a study on that one time. We measured a bunch of runners’ economy and filmed them front, side and back. We asked coaches and biomechanists to rank them as to who was the most economical. They couldn’t come close.”
    http://www.runnersworld.com/elite-runners/why-paula-radcliffes-marathon-record-has-lasted-10-years

    More generally, focusing on run form and stride mechanics considered harmful:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26816209
    “Interventions concerned with instructing runners to retrain their running biomechanics towards a specific global running technique, such as Pose, Chi and midstance to midstance running, has generally resulted in either no improvement in RE [62, 85] or a worsening of RE [157].”

    So: mindful running (associative), good: mindful running thinking about run form leg extension hip mobility arm swing forward lean, probably not helpful.

    The latter produces the Centipede’s Dilemma:

    A centipede was happy – quite!
    Until a toad in fun
    Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
    This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
    She fell exhausted in the ditch
    Not knowing how to run.
    – Katherine Craster

  3. Jamie

    Thank you for the article, Joe.

    Here’s my experiment of one for you. I’m a guy, in my early forties, a runner since high school, had returned to training more seriously over the last couple of years and had been pretty healthy before a cascade of injuries starting last fall: right PF, right calf, right achilles, left hip, left ITB, left groin, right calf again, right PF again. All of these were serious enough to significantly impede my running, and several were significant enough to prevent me from running altogether (in fact, a couple of them left me unable to walk normally without pain).

    Now some of this was just bad luck. For example, the hip problems were set off when I caught my foot in a croquet-hoop-like loop of wire sticking out of the road and took a fairly good tumble. And some of it responded to spot fixes. For example, I can usually control my ITB issues pretty well with some simple stretches, and my PF issues with some simple taping.

    Nevertheless, it seemed clear to me that there was some underlying dysfunction going on, and that I would need to address it if I wanted to return to consistently healthy running. Inspired in part by your articles (and I really do have to thank you for that!), I decided that I needed to work on rebuilding my stride.

    After spending about a month just walking, I started working on a run/walk routine, initially alternating 90 steps running and 90 steps running, and gradually increasing to 180 steps running, then 270, and currently 360. At this point, I’m also starting to incorporate a little modulation of intensity in the running, so that every other day part of the run will involve alternating efforts of 360 steps “easy steady” and 90 steps “easy quick”, with 90 steps walking after each effort. But with all of the running, the primary point of emphasis has been on running “well”, with a strong, smooth, healthy stride. And all the way along, I have tried to hold off on progressing my training until I felt confident that I had mastered the level I was currently working on.

    This is still very much an experiment, but I like the way things are going so far! Going with the run/walk approach required a solid slice of humble pie, but I feel like it’s had very real benefits, partly in terms of helping me safely increase my overall volume of training, but much more importantly at this stage in terms of helping me run better when I am running. And I do feel like I’m making progress both in terms of being able to run with a stronger, more efficient stride and in terms of being able to sustain that stride over progressively longer efforts. Not to mention getting off the injury carousel!

    A big part of this progress has definitely had to do with making a conscious, concerted effort to run “well.” For me, this involves a spectrum from specific form cues to more global concepts (running easy, running smooth, running strong, just running well). And for me, at this stage, and in spite of my general mathematical shortcomings, running by step count has been a useful tool for increasing mindfulness, partly as a kind of mantra, partly by creating a heightened awareness of rhythm, and partly by prompting a greater consciousness of each individual step. We’ll see where it takes me from here.

    Thanks again, Joe, your articles have really been very helpful as I work on getting myself running again.

  4. Paul

    I agree with Doug. I’m reminded of Timothy Gallwey and his “The inner game of …” series. His central premise is that we become awkward when we focus on too many things. For tennis he recommends a simple “bounce-hit” means of focusing on the game rather the consciously trying to have your elbow or feet in the correct positions. He argues these mechanics are not controllable by the conscious mind.

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