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Woman & Home
Grace Walsh

What is running meditation? Experts explain how to clear your mind with this exercise

Woman running through nature with back to camera towards woodland area and sunshine, representing running meditation.

If you can get into the flow of running meditation, it can do wonders for your mind. The effects of mindfulness on our mental health are well established but not everyone finds seated meditation easy, so this offers a good alternative with added health benefits. 

Running meditation to some might sound like an oxymoron, with stress relief sitting among the top benefits of running for our mental health. But running to clear your mind and running meditation are two separate things. 

The key difference is the intention, says personal trainer Lucie Cowan, who works with Third Space. "While both practices can reduce stress, running meditation involves physical movement that complements the mental aspect of meditation. There is a dynamic mind-body connection as you run. You focus on your breath, the rhythm of your strides, and the sensations in your body, fostering a holistic experience."

Researchers are offering us new information about the important link between meditation and movement every day with a review by the National Taiwan Sport University as the strongest evidence of the benefits of incorporating the two. To explain how to get the most out of the experience, before you pick up your running shoes, we speak to two certified fitness and meditation experts. 

What is running meditation? 

As the name suggests, running meditation is a form of moving meditation where you combine running with the practice of clearing your mind and connecting with the present, says Derek Aidoo, a meditation coach. "The goal is to place undivided attention on your physical body whilst you run, which includes connecting with your breath, observing the journey of your thoughts and continuing to come back to thinking about the desired outcome of your run when your mind begins to wander."

It's especially useful for those looking for another way to learn how to beat stress and avoid burnout. "It can help you let go of the tensions of the day, help you to release worries and lower anxiety," says Aidoo, who works with the audio-fitness app, WithU. "By bringing your mind back to your intention, you give your mind space to separate from the things causing you stress for a short period and this allows the cortisol levels in your body to lower."

You can also take up running meditation indoors if the benefits of exercising in cold weather haven't reached you yet. "Running meditation on a treadmill allows you to enjoy all the benefits of meditation in a controlled indoor environment, making it an excellent option for those with limited daylight hours or adverse weather conditions," says Cowan. 

How to try running meditation as a beginner

1. Set an intention

Before you do anything else, ask yourself, why am I practising running meditation today? Ask yourself the reason why you're heading out, suggests Aidoo. "Is it for your mental health to let go of the tension of the day, to relieve anxiety or to help you sleep better? Is it for your physical health? To help you feel fitter and healthier? Or are you running to work towards a goal such as improving your time, or to train for a marathon?"

Whatever the reason, he says, this is the intention that you need to come back to and remind yourself of when your mind wanders during the run. "Say your intention or mantra out loud before you set off to cement it in your mind," he says.

2. Concentrate on the present moment

To experience the true benefits of running meditation, you need to enter the 'flow state' - an optimal experience where you're fully immersed in the activity, with skill and challenge in balance.

"Pay close attention to your breath, the rhythm of your steps, and the sensations in your body" to get into this state, says Cowan. "Avoiding listening to high-energy music or zoning out by watching TV [if you're running indoors], and instead, tune into calming, instrumental music or a session on one of the best meditation apps." 

3. Set the right environment if you're running indoors

With winter fast approaching, you might find that more of your running takes place indoors than outside. That's totally fine, says Cowan, but you'll need to make sure your environment is right for a meditative state. 

"Running meditation on a treadmill requires creating a conducive environment," says Cowan. "Choose a quiet and clutter-free space where you won't be easily distracted, and ensure proper lighting and good ventilation and room temperature to make the experience as comfortable as you possibly can." 

4. Don't force progression

 The whole point of running meditation is that it's a mindful activity, one that you're doing for your mental health, with physical health benefits as a happy side effect. So, when starting out, don't push yourself too hard. 

If you can go running for 20 minutes a day or 30 minutes a day in times of peak stress, that's more than enough.

"Begin with a comfortable pace and duration, gradually increasing the intensity as you become more accustomed to the practice," says Cowan. "This prevents overexertion and helps build a sustainable routine."

5. Be kind to yourself

If your mind does wander during your run, let it happen, Aidoo says. "The mind’s purpose is to generate thoughts, with experts estimating we think between 70,000 - 80,000 thoughts per day, which equates to a huge number of thoughts during the timeframe of your run." It's totally normal. 

"The practice of meditation isn’t to stop your mind wandering but to consciously guide it back to your intention when it does. And remember, this is something that takes time and practice," he says. 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Benefits of running meditation 

  • Running meditation can help to reduce stress: "Running triggers endorphins, which are natural mood elevators," says Cowan. "These neurochemicals help reduce stress and promote feelings of wellbeing. Additionally, running offers a productive way to work through stress, as the physical exertion and rhythmic motion can be a form of active meditation, calming the mind."
  • It can bring you into the present moment: "Runners often describe achieving a "flow state," where they lose track of time and become fully absorbed in the activity. This flow state can be a powerful stress reducer, as it shifts your focus away from stressors and into the present moment," says the personal trainer.
  • Running meditation can improve your mood: "Regular running has been linked to improved mood and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. It increases the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which play a key role in regulating mood. The act of running also allows individuals to clear their minds, providing mental clarity and an opportunity to process thoughts and emotions."
  • It can help you get into the fresh air: Running outdoors can help you take advantage of all the benefits of nature and fresh air. As researchers at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found in their review, there are long-term associations between exposure to nature and a decreased risk of depression and chronic disease, and higher cognitive function.
  • Running meditation can help you sleep: "All forms of meditation help you calm the mind, which is particularly valuable when it comes to getting a better night’s sleep, which is essential for boosting your mental health," says Aidoo. 
  • May be easier than seated meditation: "Running provides an outlet for excess energy and pent-up emotions, which can be difficult to achieve in seated meditation," says Cowan. "This active release can be particularly therapeutic for those who find it challenging to sit still during traditional meditation."

Running isn't the only sport that offers meditative benefits, says Cowan. "For example, yoga workouts combine physical postures with controlled breathing and meditation. It's renowned for its ability to enhance mindfulness, flexibility and relaxation. Swimming as a workout, particularly in quiet and controlled environments like lap pools, can also be a meditative experience, as can indoor cycling, hiking in nature, and certain forms of dance."

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