Whether you’re about to do your first endurance race or simply looking for a way to improve your running, a meditation practice may help give you the edge you seek.
“The act of running is itself an act of meditation,” says James McEvoy, a Road Runners Club of America-certified running coach in Brooklyn. “The runner engages in a repetitive motion that requires the body and breath to synchronize, which allows the runner to be fully present in the moment.”
A large part of meditation practice is about being present in the moment—however, uncomfortable that moment might be. And of course, running also involves discomfort. “All runners know that internal voice that tells them to ‘slow down’ or tries to convince them that the discomfort of a given moment is too great. Having the ability to parse through discomfort that is purely mental versus pain that foreshadows a potential injury is key to performing well in the late stages of an endurance event,” says McEvoy.
Here are six ways meditation can help your running performance:
Running requires extended and repetitive action, and it isn’t always comfortable. “You’re combating discomfort and boredom a lot of the time,” says New York City-based running coach Trina Bills. “By controlling how our mind perceives and reacts to those factors, we can control how running feels while we’re doing it.”
“I think our sport tends to attract extremely busy, type-A personalities,” says Melanie Kann, a certified running coach in NYC. “Runners tend to be nonstop—always rushing, moving, thinking and getting on to the next thing. I think a regular meditation practice could really help runners slow down and calm the chatter and the compulsive action in their minds and bodies in their everyday lives as well as on the road.”
Mental training for performance in sports is such an important part of running and athletics, says Laura DeLucia, a New York Road Runners coach. “When you’re training for a race, you have to not only train your body but your mind,” she adds.
While mental training can’t replace physical training, physical effort and talent alone are not enough to succeed consistently, especially when it comes to running a marathon. “I recently took a mental training for performance coaching course through USA Track & Field that drove home the point that, ‘A strong mind may not win a competition, but a weak mind can lose one,’” says DeLucia.
“I have found that meditation not only allows you to register experiences but also helps you to control your reaction to them,” says Bills, who says she meditates before bed. “If you experience pain or discomfort during a run, note that it’s there, decide if it’s something that needs to be dealt with now, and if not, move it to the back of your mind to deal with later knowing that it will not cause more harm.”
When you’re running a marathon, and a nagging tightness creeps up your leg, or you’re at mile 16 and you start to panic about how you’re going to make it 10 more miles, you can employ the techniques learned during meditation, suggests DeLucia. “Re-center your mind, acknowledge the discomfort and fear, but then put it to the side and focus on the next goal, such as getting to the next mile marker.”
“I think meditation is also one of the more important skills you can have if your breathing or stride gets out of sync,” says Bills. By practicing breathing and meditation skills over time, you can develop the ability to “actively” meditate while jogging along, she says. “You can enter into that calm and relaxed state while you run and then running becomes second nature. So, if something goes wrong [then] you can focus your energy on controlling your breathing or adjusting your stride, ” she says.
Bills says she spends time all season long visualizing races and race scenarios so that she’ll be prepared to act the way she wants to on race day. She was first introduced to visualization techniques from a college coach. “At that time, I was struggling mentally in races, and it was a great way to build back my confidence,” she says. “And when your head’s on straight, your body will follow.
“In general, though, practicing meditation techniques while running has allowed me to get through many difficult training sessions. By controlling my reactions to internal and external distractions, I can go that extra mile,” Bills adds.
Distance running requires an athlete to constantly be in tune with their bodies. “Pacing is really an intuitive skill, and the meditative skills of focusing inward on every breath really enables the runner to stay inside their bodies and monitor their effort level and pacing the entire way,” says Kann.
“Meditation will help you to train your mind to clear all of the million thoughts that are constantly racing through our minds, let go of everything else for a set amount of time, and focus on the task at hand,” DeLucia continues. “That very same practice is key to being a successful runner.”
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.