Why Mindful Running is the Foundation for our Women's Running Retreats

Even if you’ve seen articles about the health benefits of meditation or mindfulness, chances are you don’t see yourself sitting on a meditation cushion.

Perhaps you already think of your run as your moving “meditation,” of sorts, a private time you can clear your mind, fix a bad mood, stimulate your creativity or spend time with good friends. At the very least, you believe running plays an important role in your life, especially when it comes to managing stress.

And yet, there are times that running itself feel hard. You lose motivation or simply the time run in your busy schedule. You get too exhausted or injured to run. There are so many people relying on you to be there for them or get the work done that running sometimes falls to the wayside.

You hate it when it that happens, and feel worse for not putting your self care first. 

So you wonder if there isn’t a better way that allows you to run the way you want (without getting burned out or injured) and still get everything else done in the day. Well, I believe there is. As I’ve written about in the past, I discovered mindful running at a time of extreme burnout and overwhelm. Stress had seriously eroded my health despite being by most measures “very fit” through years of running trail ultramarathons around my home in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. This desperate situation led me to discover the power of making running a mindfulness practice to improve my health, better manage my stress and end the constant overwhelm. I learned how to become in tune with my body, recognize the signs of stress overload, and take action to mitigate stress’ effect on my body and my mind. 

This personal practice has evolved over the past 10 years we’ve been business to become the foundation of the Run Wild Retreat experience for one very good reason: it works. I’ve seen runners of all types and experience levels benefit from mindful running. Sometimes those benefits are in the form of better running performance. For others, it’s a heightened sense of confidence or a renewed appreciation and motivation to run consistently. The outcomes are different for everyone, and that’s the point.

When a journalist for Mindful magazine asked me what mindful running was for an article, I replied: “Mindful running is the practice of fully immersing yourself in the experience of running in the present-moment experience of running and its immediate effects on your mind and body, free from judgement, self-consciousness and self-doubt.” 

While I believe that definition is a great starting point, it’s hardly something you can immediately enact and elicit any meaningful results. Rather, the only way to truly know what mindful running can do for you at this point in you life–where ever you are right now in terms of your running fitness and experience–is to immerse yourself in the experience of doing it. And that’s what our running and wellness retreats are all about. We’ve infused the entire retreat experience from beginning to end with the principles of mindful running under the expert guidance of our highly trained retreat leaders.

The following is a sample of what you can expect to learn and experience with mindful running.

1. Run with more power and ease simultaneously

The first mindful running principle we introduce at the retreats is basic physical relaxation. It’s a lot simpler to learn how to relax the body than to slow the stream of thoughts running through your mind. And a typical runner carries around more tension than she’d like to believe. yeah, we’re a tense lot. It’s not surprising, however, considering how much emphasis there is on pushing, striving, effort and speed in run training. We’re told that to get better and faster and stronger, we have to work harder and do more (either in terms of overall mileage, race distances, race times or other quantifiable measure). For example, I often see women on our retreats, when faced with running up a steep hill, either stop and walk before the incline even begins or power-stride up the hill until they blow up with fatigue and are forced to walk. In both scenarios, the women assumed that a hill required more effort and force to conquer. 

Mindful running offers an alternative: relaxed effort in order to recruit more power. And the key to becoming more powerful is to run with natural running posture. A mindful approach to a steep hill would be to focus on the rhythm of the breath, relax the shoulder and arms, lean forward from the ankles, shorten the stride and settle into a steady cadence that is sustainable for the hill’s gradient. A mindful runner reaches the top with a minimally elevated heart rate that drops quickly upon reaching its crest. The larger mindfulness lesson here is that choosing to meet any type of daunting challenge–either on the trails or off–with ease instead of effort may get you through more easily than you might have initially expected.

2. Lighten your emotional load to build confidence

Oddly, people are wired to dwell on their shortcomings; to zero in on all the ways they don’t measure up to those around them. Everyone has that “little voice” that chatters incessantly inside the mind, usually reinforcing negative self views, pointing out reasons why you might fail, why you’re not good enough or why you don’t really belong here.

These negative stories and biases have become so ingrained in your identity that you’re unaware of how profoundly they shape your perception of your self and the surrounding world. As long was you remain locked in those ingrained attitudes, stories and beliefs, they limit your world view, blocking your ability to recognize what’s truly possible or all the reason you most definitely belong here.

Thankfully, mindful running offers an opportunity release the self-doubt that negative self-talk creates. Synchronizing your breath with your movement while running is incredibly soothing to the nervous system, and can help to slow down that stream of thoughts that typically crowd your consciousness. Within that mental space, it’s easier to recognize the mental chatter for what it really is: merely stories that you’ve made up and that aren’t necessarily true. 

In the retreat setting, we experiment with mindful breathing as a tool for finding that synchronization of movement and breath in order to tap into that higher state of awareness. That, combined with being in a beautiful natural environment filled with sights you’ve never seen before, be they Moab’s expansive red desert or Ireland’s soaring Cliffs of Moher, further shifts your awareness away from the mental chatter and opens you up to new ways of perceiving yourself and the world around you that is unrestrained by past biases and misplaced beliefs. The result is a whole new level of confidence that opens you up to new possibilities in running and in life.

3. Help others to help yourself

Running is one my favorite things to do by myself, especially on a workday. It’s time for me to focus on myself, go at my pace, where I want, when I want. I savor that solo time, and perhaps you do, too. Though running is just as powerful a way to connect with others, when you’re open to it. Many of the women who come on our retreats usually run by themselves, so running with others can, at first, stir up feelings of self-consciousness, comparison to others and other difficult feelings.

But something really powerful can happen when a group runs together. When you support others, you boost your own sense of well being. The tricky thing is that it’s hardest to help others when you are in a deeply depleted state, whether it’s a period of low energy during a run or an ongoing, major life upheaval. However, that’s when an act of loving kindness can be most powerful at helping you recover. One of the most vivid example of this principle comes from the 2018 Boston Marathon, when American runner Desiree Linden completely transformed a bad race into her biggest career victory.

And she did it by spending a portion of her race encouraging her struggling compatriot, Shalane Flanagan, to stay in the race. The science backs up this idea, says Nicole Detling, Ph.D., sports psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Utah. “Your brain releases endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin when you help someone.” These hormones can significantly decrease physical pain, increase mood, motivation and focus, all of which contribute to you having a better run.

4. Tap into an infinite source of motivation  

Is being a runner a big part of your identity? If running is new to you, you may not be there yet, but perhaps you are curious about what being a runner could do for you. Whether you’ve been running for 4 months or 40 years, why you run matters. It matters a lot. The reasons why I run have evolved considerably, which is important because what motivated me in my 20s no longer motivates me in my 40s.

Is that true for you, too? The mindfulness practice of setting intentions is a powerful exercise we do during the retreat to realign with our personal values. Values matter because they shape our decisions and priorities in all aspects of life.

If you ever struggle to motivate or resist a change or commitment, it’s probably not aligned with your values, whether you’re aware of them or not. For example, a woman came on a retreat once who had signed up for to race a half marathon only because her training buddies were doing it and pressured her to join them. “It will motivate you to keep running through the winter!” they said. However, as the race day approached, she ran less and less. Guilt and stress accumulated and fitness waned with every skipped workout. The last thing she felt like doing was running in winter. Upon reflection, it turned out she really wanted to spend these months skiing with her family on the weekends. Family time was something she highly valued, and committing time to a race she didn’t care about was making it hard for her to spend that time with her family, the only time of year her family did a sport all together. She sees now that if she’d been aware of her values, she would have been able to turn down the half marathon without the guilt. 

Taking the opportunity to get clear on running’s role in your life and making sure it aligns with your values can reveal new truths about what’s really motivating you to do (or not do) something. These insights can then serve as your “true north,” guiding you towards making decisions that support a consistent, healthy running practice when you return home, or whatever is most important to you.

5. Measure joy rather than miles

How much satisfaction do you get from logging every run on your GPS device and seeing the miles accumulate? A lot of runners do, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, being on a retreat is an opportunity to tap into a new unit for measuring each run’s efficacy: your enjoyment level. That’s right! I’m talking about simply how much you enjoyed the run as an indication of how effective it was in building your fitness, lowering your stress, or whatever your goal.

Instead of defining your running success (or degree of satisfaction) by miles run, what if you measured it by how you feel? It’s far easier to be aware of your enjoyment level when you’re not focused how far you ran. Scientific studies have shown that perceived joy derived from aerobic exercise makes that exercise more effective in building fitness and increases your likelihood of sticking with it consistently over time. This is why we have the Presence Policy, which discourages the use of watches and GPS devices. Without following your mileage and progress, it’s easier to focus on the process of running, which is the key to cultivating more presence and joy. This way, when you focus on how running makes you feel in this moment, it becomes truly joyful instead of just another thing on the to-do list. 

About the Author 

Elinor Fish, a Canadian ex-pat who now calls Colorado home, has worked in the travel, tourism and running industries since 1999. The life-long runner who has run and raced around the world, has been designing mindful running travel experiences for over a decade. She is also the former managing editor of Trail Runner magazine, and a prolific writer. Elinor’s magazine articles, public speaking presentations and retreat workshops about mindful running have since helped thousands of runners make their running a mindfulness practice to reduce their stress.

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