Connecting with Your Mind
Updated: May 26, 2020
Mindful Running Series #5
One thing I notice every time I go for a run is how quickly my mind wanders, skipping from one random topic to another. I might set off thinking I’m going to run to clear my head, but before I know it I’m trying to problem-solve a particular work project, planning what I’m cooking for dinner, and ruminating over an argument I had with my teenage child. This is often called the ‘monkey mind’ – your mind jumping from one thought to the next like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. As our mind does this and new thoughts jump into focus, our brain reacts super-fast, attaching emotions and sometimes physical sensations to the thought (e.g. butterflies in your stomach, increased heart rate or breathing). We react automatically based on our previous experiences and frames of reference. This is more obvious when faced with a difficult or unpleasant situation, for example:
"That shop assistant is really miserable. I’m never coming in here again"
"This run is really hard, my legs hurt, I’m awful at running"
Our mind often jumps straight to the next step on a negative path because it reacts automatically with no time for reflection. Incorporating mindfulness into your run (and into your everyday life) gives you a chance to slow down that thought-journey.
And in the time that you gain lives perspective and choice.
Now let’s replay those examples. What if the shop assistant had just received some bad news? And next time you went in you were served by someone smiling and friendly? What if your run was hard because you’ve been at work all day, or you didn’t sleep well last night?
When I start my run I let my monkey mind do its thing for the first few minutes, and then I use this mindfulness technique to slow it down. The first element is to be aware of the thought that has popped into your head. What exactly are you thinking about?
“I’m thinking about the argument I had with my husband before I left the house.”
Next identify if there are any feelings or emotions attached to this thought.
“I feel angry and I can feel my chest tighten.”
And now, once you have identified the thought, and then labelled it, try to let it go, without any judgment. Mindfulness practitioners often describe this process to children as watching a bus go by – if the thought is pleasant and positive, jump on the bus and go with it. If it is a negative thought, just let the bus go on by.
This purposeful pause can also help with confrontation, or generally dealing with negative incidents in everyday life. When a situation occurs, our brain often takes us straight to a preconceived thought or conclusion, but using mindfulness can help us make different choices. Let’s go back to the argument with the husband again. Words are exchanged. Now take a few deep, intentional breaths. This is your opportunity to consider what is really going on here. Is the argument over something petty, are either of you being unreasonable? Are either of you under a lot of pressure and snapped unnecessarily? These few breaths give you time to make a considered response instead of an automatic reaction. You may still respond to that thought, situation or incident in exactly the same way, but nine times out of ten it allows you to be more considered, it may reduce or even prevent the physical response that often follows and can leave you feeling calmer and more positive. It’s the same principle as ‘counting to ten’ when you are really angry, but with the added curiosity and analysis that mindfulness brings.
The monkey mind can also cause havoc in the days/hours/minutes leading up to a race, and this is when a pre-race routine can come in handy, alongside maintaining a focus on what’s happening in the present, in order to get that monkey under control.
Being curious regarding our thoughts and connecting with our mind like this is another way of enhancing your running experience, as it enables us to intercept thoughts that might bring a negative curtain down on what could have been a pleasant and enjoyable run.
“I can’t do this, everything hurts!”
“I’m not a runner, I must look really stupid”
“I’m not going to make it, I just want to stop”
How many times have we heard a friend spit words like these – mid-race, during a ‘bad’ run, when it’s hot, when they’re under-prepared, or as a beginner, questioning why they ever thought running would be a good idea. And what do you say in reply?
“Yeah you’re right, running sucks” or “No, you’ll never be a runner, might as well quit now!”
I guarantee you’ve never said these things to your running companion; instead we choose words of encouragement and kindness.
But sometimes (often) that negative chatter isn’t coming from your running buddy, it’s coming from inside our own heads. And if left unchecked, it can be all-consuming, dangerously persuasive and potentially self-fulfilling. So why it is so hard to be kind to ourselves?
Next time you go for a run and hear the internal negative narration begin, bring your awareness to your thought and use your breath as an anchor. Take time to consider what is really going on and try to reframe those unhelpful thoughts – and accord the same generosity, encouragement and kindness to yourself as you would to your running friend.
Another way to combat the internal negative chatter is to start your run or race armed with a mantra or positive word/phrase that you can call upon when needed. Perhaps writing a few words of motivation on the back of your hand could just give you the drive you need at a point when your run seems impossibly hard.
There’s a well-known saying that running is 90% mental, and the rest is in your head, so connecting with our minds when running can be a powerful tool. Whether visualising the finish line (a practise favoured by many elite athletes) or identifying unhelpful internal dialogue, this form of mindfulness can give us more control over our run.
Next time you go for a run, connect to your mind, see what’s going on there, focus on your breathing and let your thoughts go. When you notice your mind wandering again, which it will, bring your focus back to your breathing. The more you practise this, the more present you will become – and from a running perspective you can fully enjoy the scenery, the sounds, the synchronicity of your feet and your breathing and the simple joy of your body moving, one foot in front of another.