The sound of running shoes crunching the soft pine needles lining the loamy trail lulls the runners into a relaxed rhythm. A forest thick with conifer tress hugs the trail, so all they can see is the well-worn trail ahead. There’s no sound of cars or traffic of any kind. Their inhalation and exhalation breath cycles fall into a similar rhythm. They’re not all running at the same pace, yet somehow are in a shared state of flow.
That is, until, a digital female voice says “workout paused.” “Workout resumed” the voice followed up.
“Ping” goes another watch from the back of the pack. “Beep, beep beep!” goes another device, its exact location indeterminate.
The group slows to a fast hike as the trail’s pitch kicks up a few notches. “Workout paused,” a sharp digital female voice declares.
The group stops at point where the trees open to reveal a view of the valley below. Runners pull out their phones to take photos of a waterfall, while many also press the “pause” button on their GPS watches. A few reply to text messages flooding in thanks to the 4G connection randomly available on the (what had seemed like a remote) mountain trail.
The technology seems radically out of place in this serene natural environment. More than half their time standing at the lookout is spent looking at glowing screens. Not only are these runners seeing and experiencing less than they would without their devices, they are checking their time, mileage and pace-per-mile, even though, it could be argued, such metrics detract from their actual experience.
A More Mindful Way to Run
A running and wellness retreat is not only a journey to a beautiful new destination, one that offers scenery and cultural experiences you can savor and enjoy. It also offers space to be more mindful and present, if you make space for it. And our devices (watches, GPS, phones) don’t help that process in this setting.
So how does this enhance running as a mindful experience?
1. When you don’t know your pace per mile, you are better at noticing the body’s natural feedback system to gauge your effort level. Feeling tired, you slow down. Feeling charged up, you speed up.
2. When you no longer hear a “ping” for each mile completed, you are better able to focus on the process of running rather than the progress from start to finish. Knowing that your running guide is keeping you on track, you are more open to taking in your surroundings, your fellow runners and notice how your body is feeling.
3. Replacing digital cues and alarms with the sounds of nature and your own body’s movement is a powerful experience. When you pay attention, you can hear your breath (is it soft and even, or shallow and ragged?) and the sound of your feet on the ground (are they pounding or tapping lightly?). These sounds are key indicators to the quality of your running form. And you can only improve your form if you develop a high level of body awareness.
4. Metrics have nothing to do with the quality of the running experience. On retreat, we encourage another type of success measurement: your degree of joy. And joy has everything to do with how running makes you feel, and nothing to do with how far or fast you ran.
Science Supports that Ditching Devices Can Help you Run Better
Fitness writer and author of the book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, Brad Stulberg, who experimented with gadget-less training, reported that he had some performance breakthroughs when he ran by feel (slowing when he felt tired, and speeding up when he felt strong) rather than by pace-per mile.
But more important, in my opinion, was what Noel Brick, a sports psychologist at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, told Stulberg in an interview: “Relying on a watch excessively can promote unhelpful thoughts and emotions, such as anxiety.” This anxiety can even occur on a subconscious level, fueling negative self-talk or judgement without you even realizing it’s happening.”
Another side effect of metrics-driven anxiety is physical tension. “In a recent study, Brick and his colleagues found that runners were a whopping 10 percent faster when they were focused on relaxing or the act of running itself versus external metrics like pace,” reports Stulberg.
Even though running faster isn’t a focus of the retreats, running more relaxed is in essence a mindful running practice that lowers stress as well as increases performance. This is why posture is the focus of the first mindful running clinic our retreat leaders offer at the start of each retreat. Practice the postural cues she offers and you may notice more flow and ease throughout each run.
Enter: the Presence Policy
With that in mind, Run Wild Retreats has introduced a Presence Policy for all its retreats that is designed to enhance runners’ personal experience, on and off the trails. We share this policy with all of our retreat participants prior to the retreat, and review as a group at the opening meeting.
This policy states:
• When on the trails, keep your phone in Airplane Mode. This way, you can use as much as you like to take photos (which we strongly encourage!), but aren’t distracted by incoming messages or phone calls.
• Turn off all audible sounds from your watch or GPS devices. If you have an electronic device that is making sounds, your retreat leader will ask you turn it off.
• Even better: leave your watch behind! There’s no need to log, map, measure or time your runs while on the retreat. You will have a richer retreat experience if you forego all forms of measurement and focus on the purpose of each day’s run: to practice mindful presence.
• Turn off your phone (or leave it in your hotel room) during Wellness Workshops, retreat meetings and during group meals. There is plenty of time in the day, while traveling from place to place or free time, during which you can catch up with friends and family, post photos to social media, etc. We simply ask that you don’t do this during group time.