When I first began running, I hadn’t given it much thought. It was just a simple and cheap way for me to get in my daily dose of activity. I already knew how to run and it didn’t need me to invest in a lot of gear. All I needed was a pair of decent shoes and my earphones.
Through my earphones I was constantly accompanied by the sound of music, radio jockeys, podcast hosts and audiobook narrators. I could continue to be plugged in to information and data even as I ran, giving my body a break from sitting. That was until they stopped working. And in the time it took me to replace them, I had unexpectedly discovered something that reframed my idea of what running could offer me.
The first couple of days of running without my near-constant companions were strange. It took a lot more effort and energy out of me to cover the same distance. But then I began to take notice of a range of occurrences, both, outside and inside me.
As I ran through my regular route, details grabbed my attention that hadn’t done so before – the lettering on the board announcing the local cafe, the many kinds of dogs out for walks with their owners, the small crowds milling around food stalls. And some of these details changed and shifted, providing me with a route that was intriguingly new, yet comfortingly familiar, everyday.
However, what fascinated me most was my experience of paying attention to my body while running. In school I’d studied with a detached and clinical precision the various processes that kept living things ticking. Now, I was experiencing them in high definition. Energy giving processes such as glycolysis were manifesting themselves through the swinging of my arms, the pumping of my legs and the slow burn in my muscles. They were no longer just complex diagrams and equations.
By simply being mindful of what was taking place inside me, the effect of the movements of my limbs and my breathing, I was growing aware of patterns in them and how they were affecting my performance and even my mood throughout the day. I learnt how making minor adjustments and alterations enhanced my overall experience.
Unwrapping Running as Meditation
Earlier, ‘unwinding’ had translated into switching my attention from one stream of external information to another. It was not a real break.
Running is more than exercise to me. In the stress and bustle of life, it is my time to (ironically) slow down and pay attention to myself. Whether I focus inwards or soak in my surroundings, it gives my mind a break from perpetual evaluation and processing. It is, instead, a zone of clarity and no judgment. I am able to allow myself to be present in the moment without being pulled in the multitude of directions that otherwise demand my attention.
Running has become my window of purposeful disengagement from work and worries. It provides me with a space away from the sensory overload that comes with living in the digital age. I had previously attempted the more commonly recognized form of meditation requiring stillness and focus, but it didn’t work for me. Thus, finding that calm and peace in the more strenuous motion of running surprised me. It has, on the other hand, considerably enhanced my experience of the activity.
And as with other forms of meditation, the benefits of running have spilled over into the other areas of my life. The mental break it affords me has boosted my productivity and creativity. Concentrating on one task at a time has become easier, and consequently, the results have improved as well. My level of mental exhaustion has declined as well.
Focussing meditatively on repetition has several well documented benefits. However, simply knowing them and actually experiencing them are two different things entirely. Running has placed me in the latter category.
Today I don’t run disassociated and unattached. I drink in the environment I pass through, and I take the time to luxuriate in the sensations of the wind on my forehead and of physical movement. It’s been months since I replaced my earphones, but I longer need them on my runs.
Alan is an online STEM tutor, teaching K-12 students. His love for interdisciplinary education and everyday psychology has prompted him to start blogging. You can check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.