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Improve your run with a little relaxation

I am certainly more qualified in running than in Buddhism, but I know that by adding a dash of Zen to my routine, I can improve running form and performance.

Many people think of running as harmful, in terms of the strain it causes both mentally and physically (the pressure to run faster and farther, as well as the stress to joints from all that pounding the pavement). By changing our attitude, however, we can learn to run more freely. The essential points are relaxation, breathing and awareness.

If you've ever watched Usain Bolt racing in slow motion, you will see no creases on his forehead and his jowls move freely up and down through his stride. This is an extreme example of relaxed running. Relaxing is a key component to healthy, efficient running, starting with your head and working down to your feet.

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The easiest way to relax your face is to smile. It eases tension, leaving this energy to be used more effectively. Through proper breathing, you can help loosen up the rest of your body, especially your shoulders. To relax your shoulders while running, breathe in deeply through your nose, and completely fill your lungs. Your shoulders will rise with the air intake. Exhale a little forcefully through your mouth, dropping your shoulders and expelling all the air. Notice that your shoulders drop and your arms relax.

After one or two of these breaths, return to regular breathing. Go back to the deeper breaths as you become fatigued or if you notice your shoulders tensing.

Another way to ease tension is to drop your hands and shake out your arms and hands while running. Try these tricks and see which one(s) work best for you. Once your head and torso have relaxed, the rest of your body will follow suit.

During your regular runs, do a mental check to monitor how relaxed you feel and how well your breath is flowing. With this increased awareness, you'll not only feel better and enjoy your runs more, you'll also race faster. Tension is a source of energy. In order to make use of this energy, first you have to recognize it and then know how to better direct it. Once you start using these relaxation techniques in races, you can channel this new-found energy into catching the runners ahead of you.

Another perk techniques is that you will eventually land on the path to enlightenment and reach that elusive runner's high.

Nicole Stevenson is a running coach and the ninth-fastest female marathon runner in Canadian history. She is a long-time competitor in the Canada Running Series.

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