Still Mind, Fast Body

Originally posted as “Mindful Runners Seek A Still Mind In A Fast Body” at by Jennifer Graham

When Giacomo Fasano took up running 10 years ago, the New Jersey writer was hoping to improve his fitness. He didn’t know he was about to improve his spiritual life as well.

As he grew fitter, and was able to run for longer periods of time, Fasano found that his workouts became increasingly meditative.

“You cannot run for 68 minutes without an elevated spirit,” he said. Endorphins, he said, are God’s gift to athletes, enabling clarity of thought and heightened communion with the divine.

The nearly 19 million runners who compete in road races each year in the U.S. might find it hard to enter a meditative state during a crowded, noisy 10K. But on treadmills and trails, many Americans are seeking to find not only fitness, but serenity through the practice of “mindful running.” It is the marriage of meditation and running, and while still gaining steam in the U.S., it has old roots, in ultrarunner Buddhists of ancient Tibet and the “marathon monks” of Japan.

By comparison, American mindful-running enthusiasts like Elinor Fish and Michael Sandler are new on the scene.

Fish, a running coach who offers a mindful-running retreat in Moab, Utah, said mindful running is a needed antidote to the stronger-faster-harder approach to running that leaves so many runners injured, fatigued and burned out.

“A lot of people start running to improve their bodies, have fun running races or connect with other people, and those are all great reasons,” Fish said. “But because running is one of the most natural things for humans to do — we’re beautifully designed for it — it makes us better people on a much deeper level. Mindful running is the best way to explore those deeper levels.”

Slow Mo

In his 2012 book “Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind,” Tibetan Buddhist leader Sakyong Mipham made the case that the benefits of meditation, normally achieved by sitting erect and motionless, can be achieved on the run.

“The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness,” Mipham writes in a book that made’s list of the 25 greatest running books of all time. To coordinate the two is an exercise in efficiency — and wellness.

When the first running boom hit the U.S. in the 1970s, few people exercised strenuously unless they were professional athletes. But the U.S. government now urges Americans to exercise vigorously for up to six days a week.

Similarly, meditation was once an alternative practice that has become mainstream. It is recommended by the National Institutes of Health as a therapy for conditions such as chronic pain and insomnia, and for reducing stress and anxiety. Adding exercise doubles the benefit; as Mipham notes: “There is a direct correlation between physical exertion and mental relief.”

So how to achieve it? On his Mindful Running blog, Sandler, who is also known an advocate of barefoot running, suggests that even accomplished runners go slow. “Focus on the breath and your footfalls, as thoughts come up let them go, and build your mental muscles strong.”

Yes, this means the 53 percent of runners who listen to music may need to leave their iPods at home.

When courting transcendence, location matters; it’s not something to seek on a busy road. Fasano prefers the treadmill, while Fish advocates for the trail.

“Seated meditation practitioners may use mantras or rhythmic breathing to help focus the mind and reduce physical tension. Similarly, running creates physical rhythm and breath, which are very helpful in focusing attention on the present moment,” Fish said.