Running, many runners insist, is what keeps them sane – a stress-busting, mind-calming, bliss-finding form of mobile meditation. So it was an unpleasant surprise for Mackenzie Havey, during one of the most stressful years of her life, to realize that her running was making things worse rather than better.
"At the time, I was preparing for the Boston Marathon and also getting ready to defend my master's thesis, and my stress levels were at an all-time high," recalls Havey, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based journalist and endurance coach who was studying sports and exercise psychology. "It occurred to me that instead of relieving stress in my life – one of the big reasons I ran in the first place – my training was actually contributing to it."
This epiphany led Havey to reassess her mental approach to running and, eventually, to formulate the ideas she lays out in her new book, Mindful Running: How Meditative Running Can Improve Performance and Make You a Happier, More Fulfilled Person, which will be published on Oct. 10. The book joins a growing move to link or even equate physical exercise with meditation. But can you really swap your massage cushion for a pair of running shoes without losing anything?
Havey's transformation started out gradually, with an attempt to be more conscious of her thoughts and emotions while running – a habit that overlaps with the trendy concept of mindfulness, which she defines as "upholding present-moment awareness of the body, mind and surroundings in a non-judgmental manner." Intrigued by the parallels, she tried a few guided meditation apps, then signed up for an eight-week "mindfulness-based stress reduction" (MBSR) course.
The widely popular MBSR course, developed in the 1970s by University of Massachusetts professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, has played a major role in extracting the concept of mindfulness from its Buddhist roots and establishing it as a secular, research-tested tool for coping with stress, pain and anxiety.
These days, mindfulness is a burgeoning industry, which has prompted critics to decry its "troubling perversion" – a point of view advanced, for example, by Florida State psychologist Thomas Joiner in his recent book, Mindlessness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism. In a sense, the exact terminology is beside the point. Whether or not Havey's concept of mindful running aligns with traditional Buddhist conceptions, there's increasing evidence that practising the principles she espouses can indeed have positive effects on mood and even – according to Rutgers University researcher Tracey Shors – on the proliferation and health of new brain cells. In fact, Shors argues, the combination of meditation and aerobic exercise may be better for the brain than either of them alone.
Other researchers have adapted the traditional MBSR course to specifically address the anxieties faced by athletes. A team led by Lori Haase, a clinical psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego, used MRI scans to demonstrate changes in how the brains of elite BMX riders with the U.S. national team responded to sudden challenges after mindfulness training. As one of the experts Havey consults tells her, "The hallmark of a mindful athlete is how well you handle the unexpected."
The template offered by Havey follows three stages, which she dubs "focus, fathom and flow." The first stage cultivates awareness, with an "environmental scan" (What do you hear when you're running? What do you smell and taste?), a head-to-toe body scan and a mental scan of the thoughts and emotions bouncing around your head. During her stressful year, Havey realized that her obsession with goals such as qualifying for the Boston Marathon was turning her daily runs into an ordeal rather than a pleasure.
The second stage involves determining if you need to make any adjustments based on the feelings you've noticed in the first stage – shifting emphasis from goal to process, for example. And the final stage involves choosing an anchor for your thoughts, such as your breathing or the rhythm of your feet hitting the ground, and "getting curious" about it.
So can following this roadmap really reproduce the benefits of seated meditation? Yes – to a point, says Brad Stulberg, who explored related themes in his recent book (co-authored with Steve Magness), Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.
In some ways, Stulberg says, cultivating non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts is actually easier during running, thanks to the unique brain chemistry and physiological arousal associated with exercise, along with the built-in distraction of the act of running. That's great during the run, but to extend that mindset to the rest of your life is more challenging and may require the skills you develop during seated meditation.
Havey agrees. Her routine these days typically involves 30 minutes of seated mindfulness meditation followed by a run. Seated meditation, though, is a tough sell for some people – and mindful running may serve as a "gateway" that introduces people to the concepts and perhaps gets them hooked.
In the end, Stulberg says, citing the Tibetan Lama (and marathoner) Sakyong Mipham, running is running and meditation is meditation. "Both are great for you and they appear to offer overlapping benefits. Better to do one than none, but best to do both."
Alex Hutchinson's latest book is Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience