A mindful approach to running: part one

In Fitness / Health, People / Groups, Running

Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness, with businesses such as Apple, Ikea and the Bank of England putting on mindfulness sessions for staff, and the creation of numerous apps offering all manner of meditation sessions. Type the word into Google and you’ll find a stream of news articles either singing its praises or decrying it as just another passing fad. Either way, there’s no getting away from the fact that, for an increasing number of people, mindfulness and meditation – part of the practice of mindfulness – is proving the key to lowering stress, managing anxiety and generally coping better with the ever-increasing speed at which many of us tend to live.

Frances Trussell of Mindfully Happy Mindfulness CoachFrances Trussell, Mindfulness Teacher

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, but its secular form has been around since the 1970s when the American academic Jon Kabat-Zinn founded ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ to treat chronically ill patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

At its heart, mindfulness is the art of paying more attention to the present moment. That moment might involve sitting quietly in a chair noticing your thoughts, positive and negative, or the sound of birds outside. Or, it could be eating your breakfast, having a shower, or out on your evening run after work. It sounds simple but noticing your thoughts is not the same as thinking. And, in a world where so many of us are caught up in cycles of stress and frustration, taking this time out to recognise that our minds are often full of competing priorities can have an enormous impact on our wellbeing.

Incorporated into your exercise routine, mindfulness can transform a ‘I-have-to-do-this-because-it’s-good-for-me’ run into a more holistic experience, where your body is guiding your session rather than your head. It can also simply make that routine a much more vivid experience as you start to notice the world around you a little more.

With the London Marathon just around the corner, we wanted to find out how to go about incorporating a more mindful approach into those last training sessions, the day itself and beyond. So, over the next two weeks, we will be talking to mindfulness teacher and ITV’s Sugar Free Farm mindfulness coach Frances Trussell to find out more about this ancient art and the positive impact it can have on any long-distance training session.

Running on a hill top mindfully

What drew you to mindfulness?

I was really miserable, I had been for years and thought that was just the way I was and would always be. When I finally found mindfulness I knew I'd found the key to a better way of living.

For the uninitiated, what is it?

I describe mindfulness as having your mind full of what you are doing, when you are doing it, rather than being lost in your thoughts. I had got totally lost in the world of my thoughts and that’s where I lived – when I discovered that these thoughts were mostly a load of nonsense it was like waking up from a bad dream to find out that in reality life can actually be fairly wonderful.

Are mindfulness and meditating the same thing?

Meditating is, for me, practising being mindful. It's where we train ourselves to be better at living.

Do you have to spend loads of time meditating? 

Absolutely not. When I first started mediating, around 10 minutes was all I could bear! I thought that my head might explode with frustration at all the thoughts that were rushing in and that I would never get ‘good’ at it. Slowly and gently, as I persevered, I gained more and more insight to what was going on both inside and out and tiny gaps began to appear in between all the noise. The kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to give ourselves even the smallest time every day to focus on being, rather than doing.

How do you know you're doing it right? 

If you are bothering to take the time to do it, then turning up, sitting or lying there, and letting things unfold is doing it right. It is not about ‘clearing your mind’ but, rather, being open and aware when thoughts come. Instead of pushing them away, we just notice when we have been distracted by them and, without judging ourselves, gently keep bringing ourselves back into the meditation.

Why would you encourage someone to try it?

Because it will change their experience of life – I don’t know anyone who has set out on a journey of meditation who has regretted it.

Is it possible to incorporate mindfulness into your exercise routine?

Yes. Just be there for your experience of exercising – feel your body moving, tune in to this and the sensations of your breathing. Mindfulness is in essence the experience of being in flow, in the zone, this is something that we hopefully experience quite naturally when exercising – it’s hard to be off thinking about the past or the future when we have a ball hurtling towards our heads and if we are not in the zone then exercise feels like a chore, rather than a pleasure, so just enjoy what you are doing, when you are doing it, with the fullness of your attention – that’s mindfulness.

Mindfulness can help make running a more holistic experience

How can mindfulness help long-distance runners? 

In mindfulness, we have the wonderful concept of ‘beginner’s mind’. This is where, as we feel any distraction or discomfort arise, we give ourselves permission to ‘begin again’, to let go of all that has built up and start over exactly where we are. Practising this process of letting go within meditation is rehearsal for doing so in life. In my work with sports people ‘beginner’s mind’ has been revolutionary for many, mastering the ability to shift our mental attitude in this way is incredibly empowering.

What sort of things might a runner do or notice in order to encourage a more mindful approach to their exercise? 

Keep noticing when you have become distracted by, or lost in, thought and come back to the moment. Noticing inner dialogue is key; we can be our worst enemy, or our biggest cheerleader, and being aware of the words we say to ourselves is the first step in making sure that our language is in alignment with our desires. We are usually compelled to run through a desire to feel really alive, so diving really deeply into the sensation of the aliveness in our body is key to returning to that state of flow that we are seeking.

Arriving at the London Marathon start line – particularly for first-timers – can be an overwhelming experience on the senses. What tip would you give a runner to calm the nerves?

Changing how we breathe changes how we feel. Notice if you have begun breathing into your chest and see if you can invite some deeper breaths to lower this. Abdominal breathing kicks off the body’s natural relaxation response. It is good to remember that it is OK to feel excited, allow yourself to enjoy this sensation – it’s not so often that we get to bask in excitement once we are grown-ups –we become so unaccustomed to excitement that we can misinterpret this sensation as fear, or anxiety, so turn into the sensations that arise with a gentle curiosity, maybe this is what excitement feels like?

Many committed runners talk about becoming almost addicted to the feeling – do you think mindfulness might be playing a natural role in that?

All of our feelings come from inside of us; mindfulness explores this relationship and the role that we play as ‘feeling generators’. It’s less the circumstance that we find ourselves in that generates the feeling, but how we interpret that circumstance.

Is it realistic to try and be mindful throughout the duration of a run or is it better to have a goal – for instance, try to incorporate it for five minutes, or so?

Mindfulness is not about the destination, but the journey. Of course your mind will wander – that’s what minds do – but it has been shown to be so helpful in cultivating the ability to keep gently, without judgement, bringing it back to wherever you find yourself now, allowing the next moment to unfold all by itself.

See part two of our interview with Frances, when we will be finding out more about the benefits of mindfulness and we’ll hear from one of her clients – a long-distance runner who has seen enormous benefit in working the practice into his training. You can now read 'A Mindful Approach to Running: Part Two' here.

You can also find out more about Frances and her work at francestrussell.com, or follow Mindfully Happy on Twitter @francestrussell, or join the Mindfully Happy Facebook community