What would you say if I told you meditation doesn’t have to involve lotus position, sitting on a cushion, or even being quiet—that there are actually ways to meditate while running?
People run for a number of reasons—to relieve stress, to improve health, and to feel happy. Most runners will tell you that creating a daily running habit can transform your life. They’ll also tell you that running requires determination and consistency, but that the results are definitely worth it.
Here’s the thing: people who meditate will give you the exact same speech.
As much as running trains your body, meditation trains your mind. The practice of mindfulness meditation brings awareness to your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Studies have even shown that meditation really does impact the brain. A consistent practice can increase both your physical and psychological well-being.
As it turns out, sitting on a cushion and hitting the pavement are more alike than you would think. Both practices bring great benefits to your life—so why not combine them?
Find Your Anchor
One of the most important parts of running is also central to meditation: breathing. Whether you are sitting on a cushion or running in the park, you will need to find an “anchor.” This anchor will serve as your focal point and will guide you back from any mental distractions. Easily enough, the most common anchor for meditation is your breath.
While you are running, your breath will be an anchor for your attention. It may seem odd, but this practice has been the foundation of many styles of meditation for hundreds of years.
To start, bring your attention to your nostrils. Feel the air hit as you inhale a breath and it enters your body. Imagine the path of the breath as it enters your body and fills your lungs. Feel the rising and falling of your chest. Follow the breath as you exhale and it leaves your body. By following the breath as it moves through your body, you are meditating and cultivating awareness and mindfulness.
Focusing on your breathing as you run won’t always be easy. You will find that your thoughts wander as quickly as your feet move. Don’t worry: that is natural. Imagine the anchor of a large ship—it is there to keep the ship still and steady. When your breath is an anchor, it will always be there for you. You can drift away and always have a point to return to as you meditate while running.
Focusing on the breath is not for everyone. If you have trouble breathing while running, you should pick a different anchor. That’s okay because there are many different focal points to try. The goal is to find a neutral anchor, or something that is not too pleasant or too painful. It should feel easy. Your anchor could be the movement of your breath, the feeling of your hands, or even the sound of your feet hitting the pavement. As long as you feel neutral about it, it can be your anchor.
Give Yourself Permission
The beauty of meditation is that it is radically simple. Marvin Belzer, PhD, has taught mindfulness meditation for over 20 years. He describes the practice of mindfulness as “giving yourself permission.” But, permission to do what?
During meditation, you give yourself permission to bring attention into your body and let it stay there. Our daily lives are often so busy and chaotic that it may seem strange to give attention to something so simple and boring as our own bodies. That’s the radical part: just give yourself permission to focus on your body and let it stay there for the length of your run.
This is a great way to meditate while running. How does your body feel? How does the air feel on your skin? What sensations are coming and going? Is there any vibration in your body? What about tension, pain, or heat?
Make sure to tune in to the actual sensations that are happening. Don’t search for a special feeling or try to create a new sensation. Instead, focus on what is actually happening and be present in the moment. Notice the sensations as they come and go. You may notice things you have never felt before.
The Mind Wanders… Let It Happen!
There will be many distractions as you meditate while running. As many runners know, there might be some pain present during a run. If your attention goes to the pain in your body, first, try to adjust your pace, gait, or body in any way to relieve that pain. If the pain is still there, you can use it in your meditation practice while running.
Try to bring awareness to the pain. Where is the pain located in your body? How intense is it? Put your full attention on the pain and explore what is happening. You may notice that the pain changes when you focus on it. Buddhism believes that the mind and body are intertwined; You may realize there is a connection between the thoughts of pain and the actual feeling of pain in your body.
As you meditate while running, you will quickly notice that your mind will drift away and you will soon be daydreaming, planning, and thinking. That’s part of meditation, too. It may surprise you how quickly the mind drifts away to a thought. “Oh, I’m thinking about what I will cook for dinner,” or “I wonder if I’m meeting my target heart rate right now.” Mindfulness is taking notice of these drifting thoughts.
Here’s the most important thing to remember: Be gentle when you catch yourself red-handed.
Part of mindfulness is practicing how to be kind to yourself. When you catch yourself thinking, that is completely fine! Meditation does not teach you to turn thinking off. It teaches you to notice when a thought is happening. So, tell yourself “Oh! I’m thinking!” Then, gently bring your attention back to your anchor. It may even help to smile while doing so.
When you catch yourself inside a thought, go a little deeper. Notice what is happening, and if there is any emotion that might be attached to that thought. Is it excitement? Joy? Anxiety? Anger? Try and identify the emotions attached to your thoughts.
Leave Perfection Behind
You may discover that it is harder to focus on a neutral anchor point than you would think. You might not be able to stop following your thoughts for more than a breath or two during one run. That’s okay… you are still doing it right!
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana is the author of Mindfulness in Plain English. His foundational book is a guide to Vipassana meditation and explores the great benefits mindfulness can bring to everyday life. He explains:
“Meditation is primarily an exercise in awareness. Emptying the mind is not as important as being mindful of what the mind is doing. If you are frantic and you can’t do a thing to stop it, just observe. It is all you… Above all, don’t get frustrated over the nonstop chatter of your mind. That babble is just one more thing to be mindful of.”
Your mind might be completely full of thoughts during a run. Even if you struggle to focus on your breath or anchor point during your run, that is completely fine. You are still bringing awareness to your mind and body, which means you are meditating! Just remember that everyone is different and will have a unique experience. As long as you are practicing how to bring awareness to your mind and body, there is actually no right or wrong way to meditate while running.
Don’t Get Attached
Every runner knows there are good days and bad days. The same goes for meditation. Meditation goes in cycles. You may have a clear head one day, and then be completely unable to focus the next day. You’ll be happy to hear that is completely natural.
Just remember that when you feel yourself resisting the process, meditation is a skill, and just like any skill, it takes plenty of practice. Don’t get too attached to the idea of perfect meditation or a moment when you felt amazing. Those ideas are just thoughts, and as you’ll learn from meditating, these thoughts will easily come and go.
By bringing awareness to your body and mind with these few tips, you can find ways to meditate while running and see rewards in your daily life. The benefits of mindfulness can help you deal with the common stress of day-to-day life and difficult situations. When you learn to notice how quickly thoughts can come and go, you might also learn that some negative thoughts don’t have as much power as we give them.
Next time you go for a run, leave your headphones behind. Instead, tune into yourself and use these simple ways to meditate while running.