How Runners Can Use Mindfulness to Gain an Edge
By Natalie Graves, AM, LCSW, CADC
What is mindfulness? The practice of mindfulness comes from Buddhist mediation. Research shows mindfulness therapy has numerous uses, including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” The literature on mindfulness has focused on the development of mindfulness practices that help a person focus his or her attention to gain control over his or her mind—promoting mental well being in the process.
Applying Mindfulness to Sports
How many times have you heard that sports are mental as well as physical? Athletes need more than physical training to compete. Incorporating mindfulness in your training can provide focus to give you a winning edge.
Mental Health and Sport
Athletes have turned to mental health professionals to assist with performance for decades. In the early 1990s, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson asked sport psychologist George Mumford to teach the players the skill of mindfulness. Coach Jackson’s success with the Chicago Bulls was undeniable. Two-time U.S. Olympian in long-distance track events Elva Dryer, who took second to Deena Kaastor in the 10,000-meter run at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team trials, uses mindfulness techniques for a half hour before every run.
Applying mindfulness techniques to sports has benefits in and out of competition. Mindfulness training allows an athlete to focus on an object and maintain that focus over time. Further, mindfulness provides the skill to have awareness of self and environment. It takes into account the athlete’s setting, more in line with social work principles, allowing it to reach beyond traditional sports psychology.
In my practice, I teach athletes to embrace and accept uncomfortable or unpleasant thoughts and feelings rather than training them to deny or attempt to control them, as well as become more aware of the feelings and thoughts in that very moment. Athletes of all sports—including runners—find ways to use mindfulness as part of their daily training. More times than not, when I introduce mindfulness to an athlete it’s a new concept. After applying some of the techniques, they find it becomes a valued addition to their preparation.
Benefits of Mindfulness
A variety of studies have supported the benefits of mindfulness:
- Stress reduction. Thirty-nine studies indicated mindfulness was effective in reducing stress.
- Focus. Another study found that experienced mindfulness meditators had better performance on all attentional functioning.
- More cognitive flexibility. One study found people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation.
- Reduced rumination. There are several studies that suggest that mindfulness reduces rumination, or repetitively thinking about upsetting aspects of a situation. Meditators reported fewer depressive symptoms, improved memory as well as maintaining attention during performance tasks.
Enhancing Your Running Performance
Incorporating mindfulness into your training has diverse benefits. Learning the skill of being present in the moment can allow you to embrace the task, whether it’s running a 5K or longer, without internal or external distractions negatively affecting you.
Mindfulness can benefit your running by reducing stress on and off the track. As academic research and athletes have recorded consistently, mindfulness contributed to the reduction of perceived stress. We know how stress can adversely affect performance; having a method to counteract that would be ideal for your run.
Plus, using mindfulness techniques can help you cope and deal with pain while running. Sakyong Miphan, author of Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lesson for Training Body and Mind, provides an excellent example in his book. He discusses how during his very first marathon, he got a blister on his foot. For many, this could have been a source of great physical and emotional pain.
The mind could easily create major fear and anxiety about how this would affect performance. Many would advise attempting to block the pain or pretending not to feel in. In contrast, mindfulness taught Miphan to pay attention to the pain while not allowing it to take over his mind. This can be very powerful in the midst of pain and stress.
People engaged in physical activity and sports can expect to experience highs and lows. Mindfulness can aid in managing the disappointment of past shortcomings by allowing you to free your mind and commit to what’s in the present moment.
3 Ways to Start Using Mindfulness
- Start with breathing. Begin with just two to five minutes at a time. Find a quiet place. Keep your back straight yet relaxed. Focus on the air moving in and out of your body. When the mind allows thought to shift your focus, gently move your mind back to the breathing. As you master five minutes, increase your time. A good goal is 20 minutes. You can do this in the morning, evening, or before competing. Be patient with yourself as this skill takes time.
- Visualization. Write down short words or phrases. When Olympian Michael Johnson was going for his record-setting 200-meter race he wrote, “Keep head down, pump my arms, explode, react like a bullet.” This is a go-to for my patients. I recommend reading what you wrote the week of your race or competition.
- Pay more attention. This seems obvious, but with smartphones it’s very difficult to be present in our daily living. I recommend unplugging and finding 30 minutes with no phones, laptops, etc. each day. Focus on nature, people watching or watching your current setting.
When practicing mindfulness breathing, commit to six months to maximize result. Visualizing and paying attention could yield results in a shorter length of time. Adopt mindfulness as part of your training to give the edge you need.