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.