Think of running and what comes to mind? Gasping for air? Bruised and battered feet? Memories of splodging through fields during dreaded school cross-country runs? Or perhaps sensations of inner peace? Or feelings of moving with grace and ease?
For many, running is used as a form of meditation. Many find the more traditional approach to meditation – sitting still with the eyes closed – extremely difficult, thus writing meditation off as something that’s ‘not for them’. The great news is that there are alternatives, with ‘moving meditation’ becoming increasingly popular and ‘mindful running’ becoming the preferred choice for many.
But what is mindful running? Often called chi running, it’s a concept that encourages a mindful approach, its ethos being that when we run with less effort, it becomes more enjoyable and a lifelong practice. Think of it as a surprisingly complementary blend of Far Eastern wisdom and Western sports science: applying the principles of Eastern movement practices, such as tai chi, to running. This means moving with awareness: for example, noticing the sensations as each foot makes contact with the ground, feeling the thighbones as they glide in the hip sockets, focussing on good posture by lengthening the spine, becoming aware of the breath.
Lucy Jeczalik, a London-based mindful running coach, tells of a client who used mindful running to help manage her stress levels. “When I started working with Carla, even her normal breathing pattern was irregular and rapid, therefore, before we even thought about running we worked on using the breath to get her back in touch with her body.”
Developing a good breathing technique plays a key part in most forms of meditation, as the simple action of taking longer, deeper breaths has an immediate, calming effect on the nervous system. This is achieved by a shift to the parasympathetic system – also known as the ‘rest and digest’ state – prompting pleasant sensations of relaxation. By running mindfully, we maintain awareness of the breath throughout, with the aim of keeping it controlled and steady. This awareness means we’re able to recognise when the breath begins to quicken or become shallow, knowing when to pull back to a more manageable pace – walking if need be – until the breath returns to something more natural and comfortable.
Lucy continues: “Observing the breath as an illustration of how the body copes with stress – physical, mental, or emotional – is an age-old route to mindfulness and meditation. I find working with the breath to be particularly important when working with clients, as not only does it help unite the mind and body, but it also serves as a key indicator for being relaxed and in control.”
What next for Carla? “We focused on maintaining a relaxed pattern of breathing, gradually progressing from walking to running. The results were incredible. She soon began to feel strong, comfortable and in control of her breathing and physical posture for entire sessions. This is what we call the flow state – the ultimate mindful experience.”
Mindful running isn’t limited to awareness of the physical sensations we experience as we move, it also encourages us to take in what’s going on around us. Noticing sounds; the happy song of chirping birds, the delightful crunch of leaves beneath our feet, or the cooling sensations of a gentle breeze against our skin. As with so many other activities, we’re often so caught up in our thoughts, or keen to get it over and done with, that we barely remember what we have done or where we have been. Running in a mindful way enables us to tap in to the present moment, ensuring we soak up the full experience and savour every step. All of this can have a powerful knock-on effect on our everyday lives, as achieving a more relaxed physical state equips us to better deal with stressors. The quality of our sleep improves, as does our digestion, not to mention brighter skin and an overall sense of improved wellbeing.
Patrick Karantinos is an Athens-based tai chi and mindfulness student and teacher who has spent the last 20 years honing his skills in Eastern methodologies. This wealth of experience has taught him that applying tai chi principles to moving can make even the most physical activities, such as running, a gentler experience. He advises “avoiding locking the joints, keeping the body relaxed and becoming aware of the breath, focusing on the present moment. Applying these principles to running makes it smoother and less tiring for the body. All in all, you gain much more than a simple cardio workout. Mindfully observe yourself and find a natural way of moving. If you understand that then running can become a joy in itself”.
Mindful running holds appeal across all walks of life, introducing many who would never consider themselves a runner to a form of exercise that can elicit instant, yet longlasting feelings of joy and calmness. More experienced runners are also being drawn to the approach, with many choosing to abandon their (often stress-inducing) gadgets to enable them to truly tune in to the sensations of running, as opposed to relying on technology to assess the fruits of their labour.
Nick Constantine from Soul in Motion is a mindful running coach and long-time yoga practitioner, who poetically describes running as “… the joy of being, breath and silence”. Nick explains how he helps his clients to harness that joy and the benefits of doing so by keeping things simple; “Find simplicity, rather than adding complex actions, theories or descriptions.” He speaks of one client – an experienced marathon runner – who recognised it was time to change his approach: “Tension and stress were clearly manifesting themselves in the movement pattern of his whole body…”
Nick worked with the athlete to return to a more simple and natural way of moving. The result? “The difference was clear and striking, he was relaxed, yet powerful, soft and strong with an ease of movement. He regained his love for running and that was such a joy to see.” So, a form of exercise that can improve our emotional, mental and physical health, with no targets, no gadgets and no pressure? All this, while building strong foundations for longterm self improvement, self-discovery, and the opportunity to discover that running can become a joy in itself. Certainly worth a trying a mindful step to see if it works for you!
What are the benefits of chi running?
Improved mental health
Recent Harvard studies show that practising mindfulness can have a significant effect on improving our mental and emotional wellbeing. Taking a mindful approach to any activity means we focus on the here and now, as opposed to being pulled in to a state of ‘monkey mind’ with thoughts of the past or future. This helps us to approach situations from a calmer place.
Running mindfully can help to improve sleep. As opposed to physical exertion that leads to exhaustion, mindful running gently soothes the nervous system. This has a gentler effect on the human body clock – our circadian rhythm – leaving us to drift off to a more restful sleep.
Mindful runners can enjoy the benefits of physical activity without the negative elements. Painful joints and soft-tissue injuries can be avoided by running mindfully, and knowing when to pull back to a manageable pace, good posture and good breathing technique. Mindful running also helps to regulate the metabolism: great news for maintaining a healthy weight.
Benefits for experienced runners
Even those who have been running for years can experience benefits. Awareness of posture improves form. As opposed to pushing through the pain barrier runners remain within the comfort zones that keep the body injury free. Awareness of good breathing leads to running more efficiently.
Find out more about chi running
- Lucy Jeczalik: On Instagram, @runmindfullucy
- Patrick Karantinos: taichigreece.com
- Nick Constantine: soulinmotion.co.uk
- To find an instructor near you, visit chirunning.uk
Looking for more mindful fitness tips? Learn how to awaken the spine with Scaravelli yoga, try our 5 best yoga poses for confidence or discover why exercise is good for your physical and mental health.
This article was first published in Project Calm issue 11 in 2018. Featured image by Unsplash/Zac Ong.