Meditation has long been used to promote calm and relaxation, cope with stress and illness, and manage anxiety and depression. As its list of positive effects grows, so too has the percent of adults in the United States who reported meditating—from 4% in 2012 to 14% in 2017, according to the most recent National Health Interview Survey.
Runners often call their time logging miles their moving meditation. However, if the disappointment of a slower-than-expected mile split or panic over unexplained tightness in your calf can derail your race or ruin your workout, adding a formal meditation practice to your training routine can better prepare you to handle these feelings and emotions—both on the run and in life. Just as lifting weights can strengthen your hips or hamstrings, meditation can strengthen your mind, enhancing your running and overall wellbeing.
Here, we will explain what meditation is, the benefits to your health and performance, and how you can make it a part of your training plan.
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What is meditation, and why should you meditate?
Meditation is a set of techniques used to bring awareness back to a specific focus when your mind wanders. These techniques can help your mind process emotions, contributing to your overall wellness and stress management.
A meditation practice typically involves focusing your attention while in a comfortable posture, such as sitting, lying down, or walking. And ideally, it’s practiced in a place with limited distractions.
Once you’ve checked those boxes, the meditation exercises themselves are simple. Focus on your breath by counting or repeating a mantra. Or you can scan your senses and observe what your body sees, hears, tastes, smells, or feels to center your attention.
When distracting thoughts arise—This is boring; My nose itches; We’re out of milk—come back to that focus. There is no time requirement to make the meditation “count,” so meditate for as long as you feel comfortable. Though the more you make an effort to meditate, the more you will get out of it.
Don’t be fooled though; while the practice itself is simple, meditating is not always easy. What meditation is not is peace and stillness from the moment you begin, so don’t get discouraged if your first few attempts feel awkward.
Rebecca Pacheco—the author of the book Still Life – The Myths and Magic of Mindful Living, and a meditation and yoga instructor—acknowledges that it will, at times, feel difficult for even the most experienced meditators. “You may find you are bored, anxious, or fidgety, and that’s okay,” Pacheco, a two-time Boston Marathon finisher, tells Runner’s World. You’re not doing it wrong.”
Meditation also is not self-improvement, but by practicing awareness and self-compassion, some people may argue that meditation can help you improve yourself. Your thoughts are not bad or wrong; the key is to approach them without judgement.
“Meditation is self-acceptance,” says Pacheco. “The purpose is to give you a place where you don’t have to get it right. And the irony is that things often will improve.”
What’s the difference between meditation and mindfulness?
Mindfulness and meditation are sometimes used interchangeably, though the two boil down into more specific descriptions: meditation is the practice, while mindfulness is a state of being. Practicing meditation trains your mind to pay attention mindfully.
Mindfulness training uses meditation exercises in combination with informal practices, such as running, to incorporate mindfulness into daily life. Together, these practices train your mind to focus less on negative thoughts, emotions, and memories, and instead makes space for it to concentrate on the present, without getting ahead of itself.
Dr. Keith Kaufman, a clinical sports psychologist and co-developer of the Mindful Sports Performance Enhancement (MSPE)® program, describes mindfulness as a nonreactive approach. The challenge is that humans naturally react to feeling uncomfortable and try to minimize it. He related it to the discomfort felt in a race.
“It’s called an ironic mental process,” Kaufman tells Runner’s World. “If you are saying, ‘I’m in so much pain right now. I shouldn’t feel this pain, I don’t want to feel this pain,’ what it does is actually bring more of your focus to the pain and can actually make it worse. Mindfulness training gives us a way of accepting [the pain and helping us think], ‘Right now, my body is in pain. Right now, this is how my body is feeling, but I can still feel this, and I can still proceed.’”
What are the benefits of meditation for Runners?
The benefits of meditation have been widely studied and researchers are continually finding positive effects on a variety of health conditions. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), some of those benefits include reducing high blood pressure, helping symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis flareups, and easing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Meditation has also shown promise when it comes to managing pain and improving insomnia, and it may help people quit smoking.
For some, these benefits may be enough to convince you to start meditating. But for those runners who need the extra nudge, research has shown sports-specific benefits associated with mindfulness-based interventions.
Meditation can help you get “in the zone”—when you are so absorbed in your run that it feels effortless, an experience that has been associated with peak performance. A 2009 study in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, following long distance runners who used the MSPE program co-developed by Dr. Kaufman, showed improvements in mindfulness and awareness, and decreases in sport-related worries and perfectionism—factors that may aid runners in reaching that flow state.
“If you’re thinking about your time and if you’re thinking about the end result of the race, it’s really hard to get into that rhythm, it’s really hard to get into that flow. By letting go of the outcome and instead focusing on what’s happening right now, which is one of the big targets of attention that we talk about, then that can help us get more into the state of flow,” Kaufman says.
Meditation can also improve your perception of pain and fatigue, which may prevent you from giving up or slowing down on the run. A 2020 study in Neural Plasticity showed athletes who completed mindfulness training improved endurance performances by having a higher threshold for exhaustion. And a 2021 study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that following the completion of a mindfulness-based training program, female college students reported decreases in their perception of exercise intensity and other negative feelings, such as fatigue, following an 800-meter run.
The takeaway here: If your brain thinks you have more gas in the tank, your body can push harder, or at least enjoy the run a bit more.
Additionally, meditation can get you back on your feet sooner following a workout or injury. A 2021 study in the Journal of Athletic Training found mindfulness training, in conjunction with traditional physical therapies, reduced pain while running, improved coping strategies, and decreased pain catastrophizing in patients with knee pain.
And a 2000 study in the Journal of British Sport Medicine showed that runners who practiced meditation exercises as part of a relaxation training significantly decreased their blood lactate concentration—which is an indirect marker for fatigue in exercising muscles—after exercise. This is just another reason to take a rest day, and using some of that time off from running to meditate may get you back on your feet sooner.
But will meditating make you run faster? A 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology showed improvements in runners’ mile times one year after the mindfulness training program was completed by participants.
However, Kaufman cautions, “It would be way overstating the science of meditation to say if you meditate, you’re going to be faster. But by meditating, it can change the way you pay attention in competitive moments. It really can change the entire trajectory of your performance if you’re not getting stuck in a reaction to something. You can stay present, and you can keep making choices that are best for your performance, and in that sense it could help you run faster.”
How can runners practice meditation?
Both Kaufman and Pacheco agree that using running as an informal way to practice mindfulness is important because the goal, ultimately, is to integrate these skills into daily life. However, much like your training plan may include easy, tempo and long runs, Kaufman believes a formal meditation practice can help you develop the range of skills necessary for remaining mindful on your run, or life, as a variety of situations are thrown your way.
Here are a few tips to start your meditation practice:
→ Start small. If you were starting to run for the first time, you would not go out for a ten-mile tempo run. The same goes for meditation. “Start with three minutes,” says Pacheco, “Then try to string together days, then weeks. A little can go a long way.”
→ Just begin. The hardest part of a run is often getting out the door. Set yourself up for success by designating a time to meditate when you might actually do it, like immediately after a run. And then actually do it! Just as it might take a mile or two to settle into a run, so too may it take a moment to get settled into a mediation practice.
“Often if you keep going, something clears and the run turns around. And even if it doesn’t, you often feel better than when you started. Meditation works the same way,” Pacheco says.
→ Use available resources. Apps like Headspace, Calm, or Insight Timer have libraries of guided meditations if you feel you don’t know where to start. Dr. Kaufman’s podcast, Mindful Sports Performance, begins each episode with a mindfulness exercise. Find what works for you.
→ Fit meditation into your day in a way that works best for you. If you can’t sit down on a meditation cushion with incense burning to meditate, that’s okay! Meditation doesn’t have to look a certain way. “All it takes to be a good meditator, is to meditate,” Pacheco says.
Pacheco suggests using existing moments in the day to meditate, such as while waiting in the exam room for your doctor or while sitting in your (preferably parked) car if you arrive early for a meeting or date. Or the next time you are about to mindlessly scroll on your phone, try two minutes of breathwork instead. There is no right or wrong way to meditate.