Mindful Running: 5 Questions with Author Mackenzie L. Havey

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Mackenzie Havey is the author of Mindful Running: How meditative running can improve performance and make you a happier, more fulfilled person. Published last month, the book is a very well-researched guide to applying the concepts of mindfulness to running - and also to using running as a gateway to mindfulness. Havey kindly agreed to answer some questions about the book for the Run Walk Talk blog, including whether problem-solving while running is okay, and how to use mindfulness to manage training.

What do you think it is about running and mindfulness that makes these two activities so complementary?

The rhythmic nature of the running movement—the in-and-out breath and the left-right-left of your feet—make it a perfect activity during which to achieve a mindful state. The simplicity of the sport also contributes to making it a venue ripe for meditation. You don’t need a closetful of fancy gear, a special location, or even other people. The absence of those extraneous distractions can allow you to more readily tune into the moment at hand.

Aside from anecdotes, empirical evidence suggests that running and mindfulness meditation make a symbiotic pairing as well. Aerobic exercise is unique in that it prompts neurogenesis in the brain in a way that other workouts don’t. With that said, many of those new cells wither within weeks if they aren’t nurtured. That’s where mindfulness comes in. Experts think that meditation might be one way to nurture those cells and help certain areas of the brain grow, thereby bolstering learning and memory.

I do like to point out that while you’ll often hear people say that running is their “meditation,” I’d argue that can only be so if you’re directing your attention in a particular way. Integrating mindfulness into your running is all about staying tuned into the present moment-by-moment in a non-judgmental way. Every time you notice your attention has wandered to planning for the future or ruminating about the past, as it inevitably will, you course-correct and bring it back to the present.

In the book, you introduce mindful running in a three-step process of "focus-fathom-flow" - in developing this concept, do you have a sense for which part of the process is hardest for people who are new to running? What about for more seasoned runners? 

Regardless of running experience, I think we are all guilty of spending much of our time lost in thoughts related to the past or future. Research out of Harvard puts it at somewhere around 50% of our waking hours. As such, the simple act of focusing in on your environment, body, and mind in the present, as I explain in the “focus” step in the book, is probably equally difficult for all of us.

Similarly, taking those things we noticed from the first step and “fathoming” if any action is necessary is also challenging for everyone. Take the example of tuning into your physical body. New runners are often unfamiliar with the inherent discomfort that even moderate intensity running can involve, so they often mentally check-out just to “get through” a run. With that said, experienced runners are also notorious for pushing too hard and ignoring signals that their bodies send them, especially when it comes to those associated with burnout and impending injuries. That’s largely why somewhere between 40-80% of runners end up injured on an annual basis.

The one place I would say experience runners have a leg-up when it comes to mindful running is in the “flow” step. While research suggests that a mindful mindset can help cultivate the conditions for flow to arise, running experience over weeks, months, and years is also important. Getting in the zone requires a sense of self-efficacy—the belief that you can succeed at a given task. This is a mindset that is usually built over time. Being physically fit is obviously also helpful when it comes to getting in the zone on a run. While flow certainly isn’t out of reach for newer runners, I do believe it’s more accessible to those who have been committed to a running practice for some time.

One of the things I struggled with early on as a runner and still have a hard time with sometimes in the "fathom" phase of my own mindful running practice is sorting out when I'm just physically uncomfortable because my body is working with a new challenge and it's best to keep going, and when I'm at risk of getting hurt and should ease up or stop. This is especially true for me when I've had any physical shifts and am getting accustomed to the change (weight gain or loss, adding a new activity to the mix, etc.). What are some ways to determine the difference between healthy discomfort and potential injury using mindfulness? 

The ever-changing nature of our bodies definitely makes this tough. I’ve found myself at both ends of the spectrum—selling myself short and backing off despite the fact that my fitness suggested I was ready to take training to the next level, but at other times, continuing to push in workouts when my body was begging me to rest.

Mindfulness doesn’t magically grant you 100% discernment for every niggle you experience on the run, but it can assist you in responding with a higher level of reasoning. In large part this is due to the fact that it trains you to listen to and get to know your body. By way of this process, you internalize what’s “normal” for you and what’s not. Take for example a slight discomfort you feel in your foot while training. For one runner, that might be something she always experiences the first mile of a run and then it resolves on its own. But for another, it might signal an oncoming stress fracture. This is where the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” comes into play. Mindfulness can help you tune into what’s status quo for you, so when you feel something out of the ordinary, it raises a red flag and signals you to explore it more deeply.

As you suggested, our bodies do change and what’s normal at one point, might not be at another. With that said, they tend to change slowly over time, whether that’s due to weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy, improved fitness, whatever, so if you stay tuned in over time, you’ll be able to usually discern the small changes from the big ones.

 Photo via mindfulrunningbook.com

Photo via mindfulrunningbook.com

A lot of people use running as a way to problem-solve mentally; is this aligned with mindful running? You write about a fascinating concept, "mindful mind wandering" - how does it work? 

Yes! That is, if you do it right. As a writer and entrepreneur, I definitely use runs to help me come up with creative insights. What mindfulness does is it allows you to recognize when your thinking has gone from dynamic to detrimental. For instance, say you started out your run dreaming up the perfect opening for a big presentation. The creative juices are flowing. A couple miles down the road, however, that thinking might go from fresh and innovative to obsessive and anxious.

Maybe you hit a wall in figuring out how exactly to structure the presentation or you start to worry about whether it’ll be well received. Perhaps you even begin ruminating about negative feedback you got from a co-worker during your last presentation. It can quickly go from a helpful and intentional brainstorming session to an out-of-control hurricane sucking unproductive thoughts and emotions into the vortex with each rotation.

The research that looks at the nature of how our minds work suggests that if we allow them to wander and brainstorm totally unchecked and unencumbered, they almost always end up in a less than productive place. When you’re being mindful about your mind wandering, brainstorming, or daydreaming, you invoke the ability to discern whether your line of thought is productive. Mindfulness helps you harness the clarity of mind to keep you from getting entangled in fruitless thoughts and emotions that only serve to waste energy and pull you away from things that are important to you.

Rather than mindlessly operating in autopilot, you’re able to act with intention and volition. Sometimes that means giving your mind a longer leash to brainstorm, but a mindful person will always be able to check in and make sure the direction of the thoughts continues to serve a purpose.

Keep in mind that even when your mind wanders to positive places, it can also be detrimental to your health and well-being. Consider the number of people, especially the most ambitious among us, who can’t shut off their thinking at night in order to get some rest. Creative thoughts can feel like they are coming out of a fire hose sometimes—one that we have no control over. While that’s not a problem if it only occasionally impedes your ability to sleep, when it happens night after night, it can have a harmful effect on everything from productivity, to mood, to overall health. Mindfulness gives you a tool to help guide your thoughts and emotions in intentional ways, whether that means allowing for a bit of woolgathering or being totally tuned into what’s directly in front of you.

Thanks, Mackenzie! To buy Mackenzie's book, click here and see the book's site here.

InterviewsSepideh Saremi