I’ve been a runner for 25 years, but I wasn’t always healthy.
For most of that time, I’ve lived with psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune disease that makes my skin cells reproduce much faster than normal, creating large patches of thickened, red, flaky skin all over my legs, arms, torso and scalp. Doctors told me that other than the discomfort and humiliation of dry, itchy skin, I was “perfectly healthy.”
But I didn’t see myself as healthy. However, it wasn’t until developing adrenal fatigue four years ago that I finally understood my other condition’s root cause. While I have a genetic predisposition to psoriasis, that alone wasn’t causing my disease. It was fueled by a steady stream of emotional and physical stress. Self-defeating thoughts, low self-esteem, and constant striving in everything from sports to relationships to my career were overloading my system.
Recovering from that health crisis required that I learn all I could about stress. Exercise—especially running—had been my stress reliever. But at that point, it was contributing to my burnout. Running had become just another source of stress. And the results were more inflammation, hormonal changes and less energy to heal. Then I discovered the power of mindfulness on healing. Immediately, I made mindful running a central part of my healing process. As someone who’s constantly on the go, I was an unlikely candidate for a seated meditation practice. However, I could practice mindfulness while running and achieve similar benefits.
To me, mindful running involves tuning in to the present moment, noticing its physical sensations, how it focuses my mind and lifts my mood.
After years of practicing mindful running and coaching hundreds of runners on these same techniques, I’ve seen how profoundly this simple practice helps runners lower their stress and improve their health.
As I always say: you need a foundation of health to build fitness. There’s no point in being fit and fast if you don’t have a healthy body and strong mind. I still live with psoriasis, though I manage my condition better than ever thanks to these practices. Even if you don’t have a serious health condition, mindful running can help you improve your health in some way.
Here are the top six ways mindful running improves your health:
1. Lifts you out of a bad mood.
Have you ever begun a run in a totally negative mental state, only to feel transformed by the end? The effect isn’t imagined. Scientists say exercise elevates mood by stimulating the release of natural brain chemicals like endorphins and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, both of which affect mood. And you probably feel smarter, too. Other research has linked exercise to the growth of new neurons in the brain, and the growth of proteins that support memory and recall. This means you’re better at problem solving and rational thinking after a run.
For some people, running is as effective as taking antidepressants for improving their mental health. In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, a group of depressed patients who hadn’t seen any improvement with antidepressant medications saw 30% go into remission (get better) with a regular exercise regimen.
When you’re having a bad day and wonder what type of workout would be most effective at turning your day around, click here for your running prescription.
2. Warns you of doing too much.
Most runners push themselves harder than they need to to reach their goals. Compelled by feelings that they’re never quite “doing enough,” many runners don’t recover enough between training sessions. When this happens, your body can no longer make the physiological adaptations necessary to build fitness. Instead, fatigue accumulates. Injuries develop. Muscles can’t heal. Pain lingers.
Eighty percent of your total mileage should be at an “easy” pace. Mindful running helps you to stay within that easy effort level by regulating your pace using perceived exertion. Rating your perceived exertion level on a scale of 1 (easiest) to 10 (hardest) allows you to go as slow as you need to find that zone. This subjective rating system makes heart rate training zones and pace per mile irrelevant. What feels “easy” one day can “hard” the next, depending on the cumulative effects of everything going on in your life.
Sleep quality, emotional stress, relationship problems, job crises and financial strain all influence your perceived exertion level. Regulating your pace by feel makes your training more instinctual and more effective because your output level aligns better with the resources (energy) available to you on any given day.
3. Cultivates more confidence.
Comparing your running to your peers’ is guaranteed to erode your confidence. There’s always someone out there who’s a little bit better than you or who finishes ahead of you in races with seemingly less effort. But measuring your running success by comparing yourself to others will eat away at your enthusiasm and motivation. This is one of the negative outcomes of the technology and apps that make it easier than ever to compare your mileage, speed, and race results to those of your friends and people you’ll never meet.
This metrics-focused mindset distracts you from the intrinsic enjoyment of running and exacerbates feelings that you’re not training hard enough. As a result, I often hear people insist that they’re “not really runners.” In my book, if you run, then you’re a runner. It’s one of the most natural human movements. To feel that you haven’t deserved “runner status” because you do don’t run as much as your friends or aren’t as competitive as your peers, makes you no less of a runner.
This process replaces measuring success in terms of quantifiable outcomes (like speed or race results) with deriving confidence from your own evolution as a runner.
If you’re new to mindful running, begin with setting intentions for your daily runs in combination with goals. While goals are helpful in giving structure and focus to your training, intentions are a powerful way to boost your confidence daily as you see yourself improve over time.
4. Achieves effortlessness.
In the magical state known as “flow,” you have a heightened sense of relaxed control over what you’re doing. Your focus is completely on the experience of running because it is just challenging enough to require your full attention, but within your ability level. You are able to hold a steady focus, fully enjoying and engaged with the task at hand without the distraction of any unrelated thoughts.
In athletics, this state is also known as being “in the zone.” In the flow state, you are relaxed and able to easily maintain a steady rhythm with your breath and your feet. If your breathing becomes at all erratic or labored, that sense of flow may be lost. So in order to cultivate the circumstances for flow to occur, pay attention to your perceived effort level rather than what your watch tells you about your pace. At the start of your run, go as slow as you need to find a pace that allows you to stay relaxed and see if you can enter that magical flow state.
5. Builds an injury-resistant body.
Let’s get one thing clear: it’s a myth that running, as a high-impact sport, ruins your knees. Just the opposite, in fact: running mindfully offers just the right amount of stress to strengthen your knees. Studies have proven that running thickens joint cartilage, thereby making your knees and hips less likely to wear out or develop osteoarthritis.
Being mindful of your running form starts with The Power Posture, which helps you minimize impact with proper joint alignment and an efficient gait. Throughout your run, check in with how your body feels. Its signals (including pain, tightness or fluidity and power) comprise the biofeedback that lets you know if you’re running with good form. Your focused attention to your body’s signals (biofeedback) lets you take action and make the changes that will prevent serious injuries from developing.
6. Makes you better able to handle life stress.
As you just learned, running is a form of good stress that can boost your confidence, strengthen your body and make you happier. Collectively, all these benefits make you better at handling life’s crises. I’ve met countless runners who swear that if it weren’t for running, they never would have gotten through [insert major life event here]. From divorces, death of a loved one, loss of a child, career disasters, family strife to financial ruin, running seems to have a way to help make these events more manageable.
It turns out however, that the evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Studies on the physical effects of stress have demonstrated that the right amount of stress makes you better at handling the big, scary stressors of life. Mindful running makes you more fit and more stress resilient rather than more exhausted, burned out, or injured.
Everyone’s “right amount” is different which is why running mindfully is so essential.
You must know how much is enough for you. Given your lifestyle, your other activities, your health history and a whole host of other factors, what it takes for you to run a 3:30 marathon is going to be very different from what it takes your training partner to run a 3:30 marathon. Mindful running lets you tap into your biofeedback system so you learn to recognize when you’re in your training “sweet spot” where your health and fitness are improving, versus wearing you down.
Plus, this practice gives you the present moment focus and relaxation of a movement meditation that can bring about feelings of peace, contentment and gratitude, which can do wonders for elevating self-confidence.