What is Mindful Running?

three runners moving away from the camera against a blue background

~ This post was originally published on RUN:ZEN and an excerpt is shared here with permission. RUN:ZEN’s founder, Stuart McLeod has represented Great Britain at International triathlon and duathlon Championships and is a ‘Trained Teacher with a specialism in MBSR’ (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) having completed the Teacher Training Pathway with Bangor University’s Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice.

We like to share the success of graduates connected to Bangor University and the Mindfulness Network and Stuart is also offering a donation-based event for us in May 2024: Running with Heart and Mind – Mindfulness for Runners ~


So what is mindful running? The most useful way to address this question is to see mindfulness as the application of particular attitudes and a skill or way of being that we consciously train in and apply to our running.

Jon Kabat Zinn offers a definition of mindfulness and its core qualities which can help us here. He describes mindfulness as the awareness that arises through paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.

A tendency when many of us run is to be on autopilot. This is when we find our mind everywhere else but present and aware of the embodied and rich sensory experience of running. Running mindfully begins with paying attention. We become more aware of our inner and outer experience as it unfolds, with less reactivity and more stability of mind. This steady awareness also extends to the body in movement. This may seem a straightforward enough proposition. In fact this requires a radical shift from the deeply worn habit of the mind to wander off into reviewing the past, projecting into the future or commenting on the present. Indeed, this habit or tendency towards distraction is one of the earliest discoveries a new practitioner of mindfulness-meditation wakes up to.

INTENTIONPaying attention…on purpose

The first quality of how we pay attention is to do so on purpose. Here we are making a conscious decision to pay attention. We make a choice and establish an intention – to run and know that we are running. This doesn’t just mean having the thought “I am running.” Rather the knowing that is being pointed to here is a fully embodied experience of “being in the run”, as opposed to being caught up in our head.

ATTENTION: Paying attention…in the present moment

Next we pay attention in the present moment. Here we recognise the mind’s tendency to ruminate on past events or project forward into a future which has not and may never happen. Instead we pay attention to running in the here and now focused on the activity at hand. We do this by applying certain skills learned through a variety of mindfulness meditations. We learn these both in stillness and in movement through the application of a specific sequence designed by RUN:ZEN to develop and eventually fully integrate one’s natural state of relaxed presence and awareness into all aspects of your run. Again, it sounds simple, but check for yourself the next time you run. Where is your mind moment by moment? Is it in your body, in connection with your senses and the environment, or somewhere else?

ATTITUDE: Paying attention…non-judgementally

Lastly, we pay attention to our running without judgement. At the core of a non-judgemental attitude is the quality of acceptance or being kind towards our present moment experience, whatever it might be. We acknowledge things as they are right now. This can often be an enormous test when we run, especially when fatigue sets in and we may spiral off into negative thinking.

The quality of acceptance when applying a mindful approach sometimes gets a bad rap. It can be construed as passive resignation, impotence or giving up/giving in. This misinterprets the point being made. Acknowledging and accepting ‘I am tired’ or ‘my knees are hurting’ honours our present moment experience just as it is. We don’t need to judge this experience as good or bad, nor to try to change or fix our experience. In this way we slowly learn to accept and be at peace with what is. This non-judgemental orientation can then pay dividends not only on the trail, but in our daily life too.

From a basis of acceptance, we can make skilful choices. It may be that we simply experience that these feelings and sensations are present but choose to carry on, helping us cultivate other qualities such as patience and resilience. On another occasion we may be able to intuit that we are pushing ourselves too hard, risking injury and that we need to ease back. This can help us become more sustainable runners and people in our daily lives.

Befriending the thinking mind

Finally, we want to be clear that mindfulness as an approach or skill is not antagonistic towards the thinking mind. Thinking is part of the mind’s nature and is a vital component of our ability to function in life. Thinking enables us to plan and organise a run and keep safe while we do it. So, what we’re talking about here are the less helpful habits of the wandering mind. These may range from basic distractedness through to mindlessly believing thoughts which are counterproductive to our runs. Such thoughts may also more generally disturb our peace of mind day to day.

Some well-worn examples of unhelpful habits of the wandering mind that runners often report getting caught up in include, ‘I’m no good at this’ and ‘I can’t do this.’ The comparing mind can also derail us with thoughts such as ‘she’s better than me’ or ‘I wish I could run like them.’ What unhelpful thinking patterns do you recognise? Becoming familiar with yours and recognising them in awareness is the first step to being able to let them go. We come back home into our body, into our run and offer the opportunity to connect with the unmediated joy of it all as it simply unfolds – effortlessly, moment by moment and step by step.

So next time you hit the trail or streets, bring to mind the three qualities of mindful running. Paying attention: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement. Or if you prefer, bring to mind intention, attention, attitude.

To read this blog post in full, visit the RUN:ZEN website.

Join Stuart online in May 2024 for an evening discussion: Donation Event: Running with Heart and Mind – Mindfulness for Runners

When: 20 May 2024
Where: Online Event
Tutors: Stuart McLeod, Cesare Saguato

When: 20 May 2024 Where: Online Event Tutors: Stuart McLeod, Cesare Saguato

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