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When most people think of meditation, they envision a Zen master sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat. But what if Zen could be found on the run?
“Endurance activities like running are very conducive to achieving a meditative state of mind,” says Elinor Fish, mindfulness expert and creator of the Mindful Running Training System. “Movements like running synchronize your breath with the limbs in a rhythmic pattern, which is very calming and focusing to the mind. This whole-body rhythm helps to focus the mind on the present moment, which is where you find a meditative state.”
Fish, who teaches mindful running techniques to athletes around the world, says meditation is frequently misunderstood. The practice is not about emptying the mind of all thoughts, as so many believe, but instead choosing to pay attention to the present moment. Instead of ruminating on the past or anticipating what may happen in the future, meditation allows an athlete to focus on the here and now by paying attention to the sound of your breath, the cadence of your bike pedals, or the feel of your arm as it moves through the water.
This practice can increase athletic performance, says Fish:
“When you are fully focused and experiencing your body’s movements and the exchange of air through your nose and lungs, you better relax into those movements. The less tension there is in your limbs, the more powerfully and efficiently they can move. As athletes experience from time to time, “flow” is that seemingly magical state of physical and mental engagement that can happen during sport in which they perform to their very highest ability with seemingly little effort.”
Meditation also has significant mental benefits. We perform our best on the race course when we feel completely confident in our ability to meet the challenge ahead. Being in a meditative state of mind helps focus all mental energy on the present-moment activity, leaving no room for self-doubt based on past experiences or fears about our chances of success.
Incorporating mindfulness techniques into your daily training is not difficult, says Fish. With just a few simple practices, athletes can create the circumstances required for flow to occur in almost any workout.
Zen Habit 1: Focus On Your Form
“A great place to start with mindful exercise is to focus on your form or gait,” says Fish. “Like in a seated meditation, where someone may use a lit candle to focus their gaze in order to focus the mind and slow one’s thoughts, during exercise, mindfully moving your body has a similar effect on the mind.”
Being precise with your swim stroke or thinking about landing as lightly as possible with your feet during the run gait cycle is a very effective way to move more efficiently. Don’t get frustrated if your mind wanders—when you catch yourself thinking about something else, just relax and refocus on the specific element of your form you are trying to maintain.
Zen Habit 2: Use a Mantra
Mantras aren’t only for monks and yogis. A mantra is an oft-repeated word, formula, or phrase that helps athletes achieve a consistent rhythm and synchronize movement with breath while slowing thoughts and focusing the mind.
For athletes, what works well is a truism that supports your intention or purpose for the day’s workout, such as to work on uphill running strength or good form. Fish recommends her mindful running clients use an uneven breathing pattern that involves three beats on the inhalation, two beats for the exhalation. A mantra, said silently to oneself, would mirror that 1-2-3/1-2 breathing pattern:
Pos – ture tall and straight
Shoul – ders back and down
I am strong and calm
Zen Habit 3: Breathe Mindfully
Babies are masters at belly breathing. But as we age, a stressful and sedentary lifestyle leads us to become habitual shallow breathers. To breathe like a baby, inhale slowly, extending the belly outward. This helps draw the breath into the lower lungs and extend the diaphragm. By fully inflating the lungs, you’re also taking in the maximum amount of oxygen possible with each breath.
As you exhale, the belly draws in and the diaphragm moves upward. Since it may feel “backwards” to breathe this way, practice belly breathing while walking before using it in workouts until it feels more natural.
Specific breathing techniques help you achieve this state by focusing on deeper, longer inhalations that fill the lower lobes of the lungs, not just the upper lobes, which is what happens when you take short, rapid inhalations. These deeper inhalations keep the body relaxed and help you pace yourself and move most efficiently.