How to Become a Mindful Runner

Ironically, to become a mindful runner, you don’t have to be focused on your thoughts while running at all. The development of strong mental health begins off the track, or trail, and in your day-to-day life. There are three easy ways to enhance your mental strength and become a mindful runner for performance improvements. (I say easy in italics because when you read them, you’ll think- ‘I can do those no problem’, but I’ll forewarn you, they can be quite challenging!)

Let’s start with my own self-realization that I needed to improve my mental health in order to see running performance gains. I never actually recognized that I was overweight- as noted in the picture below from last year; that was not my driving factor to improve my health. I actually felt pretty darn physically fit. I had run at least one half marathon every year since 2012,  staying active most of the year and had improved my nutrition to the point of completing a whole 30 days with no sugar, grains, alcohol, or dairy. Yet I was still constantly ‘tired and heavy’. I had the usual medical workup, checking my thyroid and for anemia- all (thankfully) normal. But something was still missing. It wasn’t until I took the time to focus on my mental health that I started to see rapid improvement.

June 2020 and June 2021

2020 brought many challenges with covid. Being in healthcare, I didn’t have much of an option but to enter the hospital with those infected daily. Although I can’t say I was ever scared to go to work, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I felt forced to be ok with exposing myself to covid daily when I went to round on patient’s in the ICU setting. In retrospect, (and it’s only been a few months since vaccinations have become readily available) my mind was searching for some rest and recovery. 

2021 has brought a profound journey to improve my mental health, and only good things have followed. Here are three easy steps to become a mindful runner, and subsequently improve your running abilities.

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Step One: Make Changes

For my family, we made a BIG change. Justifiably, we had been talking about this change for over a decade. But it still seemed surreal when we moved from our home, our stable jobs and city life as we knew it, to a rural community in the mountains of California. Of course I’m not suggesting to improve your mental health you have to move across states, haha. What I am suggesting, is to really focus on what you need to change in your life? Hint: The first thing that just came to your mind is probably what you need to change. Although it may not be easy, there’s no better time than now. 

“It is never too late to be what you might have been”.

The mental clarity I’ve developed sitting on my porch with my family watching the horses and chickens graze, as well as the reward I feel when watching my garden grow slow and in abundance has given me the rest I was desperately seeking. 

Another, more subtle change, I made this year was addressing my mental addiction to soda. More specifically, Dr. Pepper. Those who truly know me, know I have been dependent on Dr. Pepper my whole life. And although there have been brief times I’ve given up soda to be ‘more healthy’, it wasn’t until I got to the root derivative of my mental addiction that I was able to quit.

If it makes you feel better to know; it’s not your fault (or mine) to be addicted to Dr. Pepper, (or donuts, ice cream, candy, whatever your vice is,…..sugar). Your brain actually releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when you consume this treat and sends a pleasurable reward between neurons in the brain. Imagine taking that soda away by choice, you’ve just taken the dopamine reward pathway away as well. Once I comprehended that Dr. Pepper served no health benefits to my body- with the excessive amount of sugar contributing to my overall inflammation and peak lows after a few hours of drinking soda, I was able to make the conscious choice to quit. 

I choose daily to NOT drink Dr. Pepper, and it’s hard.

But I’ve passed that mental barrier and I reap the benefits of a no-sugar-added diet. 

How has quitting sugar and moving to a new state affected my ability to become a mindful runner? I’ve learned to embrace change. I’ve learned that each of my decisions while running is a conscious choice. When I’m struggling to push faster during my run to get closer to my goal pace, I am choosing to push through the pain. Unsurprisingly, my body is fully capable of this push of pace- all along it’s been my mind telling me I couldn’t do it. 

Step two: Meditate

Ok. Before you skip right over this section, hear me out. I prescribe meditation to my patient’s daily. It may sound ‘too hippy’, but most of the world (besides American’s) meditate routinely for their health.

Here is a quick list of the benefits of meditation and how they can make you become a mindful runner:

Meditation actually changes the structures of your brain. It increases cortical thickness in the hippocampus improving your self-awareness and focus. It physically decreases brain cell volume in the amygdala that subsequently decreases anxiety, depression, chronic pain and offers a coping mechanism for traumatic events. Meditation can lower your blood pressure and help decrease cravings of addiction. With daily meditation- even if just for a few minutes- you’ll become more patient with your spouse, children and those around you. You’ll sleep better. You’ll get rid of facial wrinkles and enhance your sex life. Meditation helps you learn to be present and more comfortable with just sitting still.

There’s just one catch; you have to actually meditate for it to work.

How did meditation lead me to become a mindful runner? Well, did you read the paragraph above? Lol

How you can start meditation: Just sit down and close your eyes. Turn your phone on do not disturb and set a timer. 3 minutes at first is plenty. Focus on your breath, inhale….exhale. Count your breath if it helps. Once you find your mind wandering, (Did I pull the chicken out of the freezer for dinner? How many patient charts do I have to complete from work today? What time should I wake up in the morning to exercise?)

Bring yourself back to meditation, and breathe. That’s a great start.

Step Three: Ask for help

This was a hard one. As a Nurse Practitioner, I recommend health improvements to others on a daily basis. For me it took an outside prospective- my best friend from high school- to open my eyes. She called me, distraught about hardships every mother endures, including child temper tantrums and testing her own patience daily. However she kept saying, ‘I shouldn’t have to feel this bad everyday’. This was a different level of hard. She didn’t feel like the ‘perfect mom’ expectation she had imagined becoming. She told me she planned to talk to her provider about starting an antidepressant medication and asking me, her best friend, if she should feel bad for ‘needing a medication to control the chaotic world of life that she loved being a part of- family, work, health journey, etc.’

Immediately I validated all of her emotions and thanked her for being so brave for talking about it. But because she’s my best friend, our discussion really hit home. 

Depression is something that you have, not something that you are.

I had all the same emotions. Yet I would never talk about them to anybody in fear of ‘not being good enough’. There in front of me, represented the stigma of not feeling good enough if I talked about my feelings. And I spend my whole day at work recognizing the feelings of others! What the heck! 

Her bravery supported me to talk to my own healthcare provider. Many times that’s all we need, a healthy outlet to discuss that our feelings are valid and that there’s many ways to improve the process- journaling, meditation, medication, deep breathing techniques, praying to god, counseling, massage. 

We just have to take the first scary step, and ask for help.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to write about mental health. The key factor I’m sure, is there is still such a strong stigma around mental health in America. So much so, that about 50% of American’s do not seek treatment in fear of being discriminated against. The fact of the matter is, your mindset has just as many physical symptoms as any other illness. (insert the tired and heaviness I described before). Yet any other illnesses such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol is more ‘socially acceptable’ and ‘manageable’.

Making these conscious changes to focus on my mental health has improved my overall well-being more than I could have ever imagined. I also was able to set goals and achieve many of them already within six months, including losing 18 lbs and becoming a stronger, faster and more consistent runner. I hope these steps encourage you to do the same and encourage you to become a mindful runner.

If you notice in the picture from last year to today, the first thing I noticed was significant cellulite in my arms. Cellulite is actually just stored energy used by the liver to produce glucose for energy during long exercise! (I’m kind of an underlying anatomy and physiology nerd geek, haha). Key point is- We CAN get RID of this cellulite! – In one years time! I have many, many things to improve my running performance on still, but this was definitely a good start.

No promotion or sponsorships, I just really like writing and sharing 🙂

As always- Run strong, Travel and Eat. Real. Food. -We Run the States

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