For some people, the idea of meditation conjures up a spiritual image. For others, it’s a form of relaxation and a way to calm the mind. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine defines meditation as, “a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior.”
Meditation has been linked to decreased levels of pain, lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, reduced stress levels, and more—all things that can give you an edge as you pound the pavement. We sat down with Christina Cipra (CC), MSW, LMT, and certified yoga instructor to find out how meditation might help you take your running to the next level.
In your words, how would you describe meditation to a runner who might not know much about it?
CC: What I tell people is that yoga and meditation isn’t a religion, although many religions use their own version of meditation. Meditation can be a practice in and of itself, outside of any belief system. The simplest way to describe meditation is that anything is considered a meditation if you do it with awareness or mindfulness —which is another way of saying, it’s training your brain to pay attention.
Can meditation be useful to runners?
CC: There was a study done that showed our minds only stay focused on one thing for a few seconds before it’s off and running onto something else. So, if you are meditating on your breath, you are doing your best to pay attention to the breath. When your mind wanders from your object of focus—in this case, the breath—then you gently bring your attention back to it. The act of choosing to bring your attention back to the breath strengthens the mind’s ability to stay focused and present.
For runners, even if you [meditate] for just a few minutes a day, over time, you are training your brain from being scattered to being focused. You might notice that you don’t get lost in negative thinking as much, or maybe, for not as long as you use to.
Is there a simple meditation you could give runners to do before a workout or race?
CC: There is a lot of research out there showing increased performance for athletes by visualizing a successful race or game. In the moments before a workout or run, I would connect to my body—not just connect with my mind—but with sensations and feelings.
As a runner, try to feel the sensation of your feet on the ground, the shoes on your feet, and the clothes touching your skin. Then, move deeper, and feel your breath moving in and out, the rise and fall of the chest, your muscles stretching, and your skin moving. Check in from head to toe for any tension that’s held in the body, and breathe into it. Usually, when we are nervous or stressed, we shorten the breath. It’s beneficial for us to break that pattern, and breathe deeply with awareness. Changing the breath will change your mind and change your body.
When a runner begins a meditation practice, what benefits should they expect?
CC: Many people report a greater sense of focus, calm and strength. A deeper connection to the body can help with decreasing injuries. As body awareness grows, people report a decrease in reactivity, anxiety, tension, and an increase in confidence. A sharp, focused mind helps to make decisions with mindfulness. You respond instead of reacting, which is helpful when you need to think quickly in competitive sports.
If you’re looking to supplement your running practice with meditation, but don’t know where to start, consider apps like Headspace, Calm, Stop, Breathe, & Think, or mini meditation podcasts with Chel Hamilton. These companies provide free content at different lengths, so you can get a feeling for what you like during your meditation sessions.