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How Meditation takes the Pain out of hard running

This blog post took me a long time to write, more than two months actually. From the start I knew exactly what I wanted to say- how important meditation is for running- but I couldn’t find the words. Like most Americans, meditative practice does not come easy for me. I wasn’t raised to routinely get out of bed, brush my teeth and meditate. It takes practice. And I think that’s why this post was so hard for me to write. As much practice and repetition as running has taken me to get a personal record, and as much practice meditation takes to quiet my mind; Writing for a blog takes a lot of practice too. So here’s my attempt. 🙂

I think we’ve all hit that running pain threshold before. You’re out on a long run, with a set distance in mind. Half way through your run, you start to endure pain. For me in particular, it’s a sheering pain on the lateral (outside) aspect of my right knee. Ouch! This knee pain happens every run over 8 miles for me, and I’ve come to expect the pain, even after ten years of running! I know it’s not an injury because the pain passes shortly after finishing my run. But meditation has taught me to shift my focus and lessen the pain. Let’s start with how to practice meditation.

group yoga and meditation in Bali

Learning how to meditate

I set myself up for meditation like a newborn novice always imagined this practice would go. By sitting in a still-water hot tub, with my thumb touching pointer finger, Legs crossed in a pretzel and gently close my eyes. I start the meditative practice with a humble “Oooooommmm” – long on the exhale- and chuckle. “I must look like a real hippy,” I think, “hopefully I don’t get caught. That would be embarrassing.”

Although slightly embarassed, I continue meditating because I strongly desire the benefits meditation has promised for running improvements.

I then start on breath work. Slow inhale, counting in my head to One. Slow exhale, sighing with my mouth slightly open. count to Two. Again, One…. two. It’s now that I finally notice how uncomfortable I am. My shoulders are slouched. This puts a twinge of pain between my shoulder blades. There’s a bead of sweat on my forehead from the heat. “Maybe this serene hot tub was not as ideal as I had imagined“, I think.

Our newborn goats are bleating in the background and I wish they would be quieter. ‘Can’t they see I’m trying to meditate here?’ I peek one eye open, making the movement sly, as if I’m cheating in Jr. high science by glancing around the propped up folder. There’s nobody around to catch me, I’m only cheating my own practice. With a side glance, one eye open, I look at the clock. It’s been two minutes. A measly two minutes and my mind has already wandered. I feel like I’m failing at mediation entirely, and that I’ll never get it right.

meditating in Bali

Meditation snaps us out of autopilot and into awareness.

I need more meditative practice, I think. Let’s try again. I close my eyes once more and start a slow, steady breath in. It’s very intimate to feel all of your senses. The goats continue to wail in the background, but I’m able to dim them. I hear the echoing of the black-capped chickadee bird whistling three syllables, which has an uncanny consistency sounding like “cheese-bur-ger”. The wind has a very soft rustle through the fir trees close to me that carries a breeze to caress my cheek and cool me down. This gently pushes that bead of sweat from my brow to my raised cheekbone.

During meditative practice, this uncomfortable perspiration is no longer irritating, rather comforting.

sweat is my body’s automatic protective measure to keep me cool. I am grateful for that salt-filled bead of sweat and resist the urge to wipe it away. I’ve always been dependent on sight as my primary sense. But during this meditation, my other senses flourish. The smell of fresh cut grass fills my brain, and although I know the grass was recently mowed, with this sense of smell I can now “see it”. The fragrance is clean, almost moist and reminds me summer is ending and Fall is drawing nearer. “Don’t forget to plant your winter squash”, my mind reminds me.

The chatter from my mind has wandered back into my meditative practice. I smile, acknowledge the thought and push it right back to the background. This is normal, and my todo list can wait.

I focus on breath work through the body. What is the purpose of breath work and it’s profound presence in the meditative practice? Slow, long inhale in, through slightly flared nostrils. The air is slightly chilled as the morning fog is clearing. I am deeply grateful for the hot tub water that warms me now. Inhale, One. My abdomen billows with air and my diaphragm expands my rib cage and my shoulders, that are no longer slouched. There is still a twinge of pain between my shoulder blades. The pain is neither good nor bad- simply present- like the rest of my body.

meditation for running
Meditation takes the pain out of running

Recognizing the pain in endurance running

During endurance running we anticipate pain. Whether you are pushing your pace for a faster personal record, or pushing for a further distance, pain ensures. Meditation allows us to snap out of running in autopilot and zoom out our perception of that pain. This gives us a ‘birds eye’ awareness into what you are actually experiencing. You are able to objectively tell yourself, ‘There is pain here right now’. This is the raw data that also assures you, ‘this pain will not last forever’.

During both meditative practice and endurance running, a strategy to lessen your pain will be to use the acronym,

R.A.I.N.

Recognize the emotion.

Running is hard, recognize that you are doing hard things! Pain is part of the living process. And It’s a normal process, to warn our bodies something may be causing harm. Recognizing you have pain allows you to tell yourself, “yes, you have knee pain, and this too shall pass”.

Allow life to be, just as it is.

After acknowledging that your pain is present during the run, accept this emotion is how you feel right now. Even if that feeling is unwelcome. Allowing your emotion towards pain gives you the space to create power over, and freedom from the pain.

Investigate with self compassion.

What does that running pain feel like? Narrow your focus. For me, my right knee generally begins to hurt after mile 8. This pain is on the outside portion of my right knee and has a dull ache. It will slowly radiate to my right hip and I am keenly aware how I could spend more time focusing on stretching my hips and foam rolling my IT band after my run. Thankfully this knee pain is not a prolonged injury.

Non-identification.

This is where your meditative practice is able to take the pain out of running. Pain is part of the living process, suffering does not have to be. When you’re able to view the pain in running as a passing event and temporary, it softly dissipates. My knee aches while running a half marathon, but all the other participants of the same race are also enduring pain as well. Perhaps in different locations in their body, but this pain is not fixed within you, and this pain shall pass.

(*Knee disclaimer* I feel it’s very important to emphasize running does not cause ‘bad knees’ with age. This is a very common misconception. I have knee pain because I neglect other aspects of running that are so important, mainly stretching my hips. In fact, running actually strengthens the knees and prevents osteoarthritis. By regularly running, the weight bearing exercise brings more fluid to the joints to keep them lubricated. This benefits your joints and overall health. This post is a reminder to myself to incorporate yoga into my running practice.)

Using RAIN during endurance runs has helped my mindset tremendously. My thought process has shifted from, “this hurts, I can’t finish” to an appreciation of how strong my body has become through training for half marathons. I hope you’re able to use this tool to improve your running performance.

we run the states

Well, after two months I’ve posted! Let me know any way I can improve the way I presented meditation, running endurance or my writing!

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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