I picked up a copy of this book back in the summer after excitedly entering a few ultra marathons and then subsequently feeling daunted by the prospect of running a race longer than 26.2 miles. Despite feeling ridiculously enthused by the thought of taking on a new challenge, niggling away in the back of my mind was the fear that running for five-plus hours could get really boring.
And that’s just the event itself, not the months of training: pretty essential to prepare for a massive long race. The 30 mile training runs, the long back to back runs on both days of the weekend; somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I was going to have to retrain my brain to find running less, well, boring.
Enter, Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. The book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting when I started reading it. I suppose I presumed it would talk about meditating while running or suggest that you should meditate to become a better runner. But instead it draws parallels between the two completely different disciplines and highlights similarities between them.
Breathing is the key thing connecting the two activities. In meditation you’re encouraged to start with a clear mind and to focus on your breath. If the mind wanders you bring your thoughts back to your breathing and pay attention to this. For those that haven’t come across the concept of ‘being present’ in the activity you’re engaged in (unlikely if you’ve ever read this blog, as I go on about it all the time), this is essentially it.
By being conscious of your breathing you’re basically anchoring yourself to the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ of what you’re doing (ie running), focussing on this rather than on the past or the future. I’d puzzled over this concept of ‘being present’ previously and wasn’t sure how it really applied to running and life in general.
But it turns out that when the mind is completely focussed on the activity it’s engaged in it’s much easy to apply 100% effort, rather than worrying about what’s around the corner. For me, it’s about letting go of things that aren’t relevant to the current moment or that are outside of my control. For instance, I frequently trouble over things like an exam that’s looming or an exchange I had with someone earlier in the day, despite knowing that it’s counterproductive to focus my energy on things that I just can’t change or influence (not by worrying about them, anyway). Running should be a time when we’re allowed to let go of the day’s stresses. Focussing on breathing helps facilitate this and to relinquish the things that are weighing down our mind.
By following this approach I’ve genuinely found running has been much more enjoyable. My brain gets bored a lot less easily (quite helpful when your short runs are rarely under 10k and long runs are anything up to 35 miles) and I’ve found my mind wandering into a state of peaceful transcendence on long runs. I stopped listening to music about four months ago (coinciding with reading the book) and much prefer being able to hear my breathing and natural running rhythm. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having tunes on runs but am starting to wonder whether being more aware of your running form and technique could even play a broader role in injury prevention.
Speaking of injuries and niggles, another part of the book I found particularly interesting was the section about dealing with pain. Our reaction to pain or discomfort on a run can be to try to block it out or focus on it to such a great extent that it effectively ‘steals our mind’. Both these tactics create a whole load of mental pain and worry which only serve to exacerbate the problem and result in a downward spiral in our mental and physical wellbeing. I’ve certainly been there and have blown feelings of minor physical fatigue into a huge mental maelstrom when it really needn’t have been, and afterwards felt like I’d wasted three months of hard training needlessly.
Sankyong suggests that we first acknowledge that we’re in discomfort, rather than objectifying the pain and blaming it for our suffering (I mean, getting all ragey at something which is essentially a projection of our minds just isn’t cool). By recognising it we have the opportunity to accept it is there which effectively disempowers it, allowing us to return our focus to the race. This might sound a little wacko but trust me, it really works.
And lastly, although this post refers a lot to ultra running and long-old distances, it’s definitely a book I’d recommend to runners of all distances. Sakyong’s wise words and useful tips are accessible to everyone (not to mention broken down into easy to read sections, making it easy to pick up and put down). What I liked the most was the fact that it doesn’t really suggest changing anything you’re already doing. It doesn’t ask that you alter your diet or even buy new trainers. For me, it really helped shift the paradigm from tolerating running to loving it. Which is pretty OK by me.
Running with the mind of meditation is available online here.