How You Can Learn to Run With Mindfulness

Learning to run with mindfulness means paying attention to how your body, mind and emotions are responding to training and racing. Photo: Brian Metzler

Josh Weinstein will never forget the first time he saw marathoner and master meditator Sakyong Mipham Rinphoche. It was during a class at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., where Weinstein, a runner and former backcountry ski touring guide, was enrolled in a masters of divinity program. The Sakyong (an honorary term meaning “earth protector”) poked his head through the classroom door.

“I was immediately struck,” Weinstein, 46, said recently. “It is hard to describe. He felt like an old friend. There was something about him.”

That ineffable “something” is what Weinstein and others call “mindfulness,” a somewhat nebulous term that has gained national foothold in recent years. We certainly know when we meet a “mindful” person; he or she exudes a calmness, a sense of being grounded and connected that is appealing.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is one such runner. His father, Chogyam Trungpa, helped bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West and founded Naropa in 1974. Sakyong is a meditator-turned-3-hour marathoner.

While he was an early advocate of “Running with the Mind of Meditation”—the title of his 2011 bestseller (No. 17 on Competitor’s list of the Best Running Books of All-Time)—and of an annual eponymous Labor Day retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colo., others in the nascent movement are runners-turned-meditators.

Examples include Michael Sandler of barefoot running fame and ultrarunning star Timmy Olson. He leads a popular retreat called “Run Mindful,” while Elinor Fish also leads mindful running retreats.

Other runners who incorporate meditation—a path to mindfulness, which can be defined as non-judgmental “noticing” or “paying attention to”—include ultra legend Scott Jurek, 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Lorraine Moller, and former prep star Melody Fairchild.

Do not, however, think that “mindfulness” is something new. Despite its current popularity in the national media. the best long-distance runners have always run with a “mind of meditation,” although they might not have called it so. They had; otherwise, they would not have become champions.

Arturo Barrios was not the best collegiate runner while attending Texas A&M in the early 1980s; he admits he would not have later become a five-time world-record holder and finished fifth in the 10,000-meter run at the 1988 Olympics if he had not run “mindfully.”

What does that mean? The term has become a social meme, springing up in daily conversations, from eating mindfully to parenting mindfully to living mindfully. In Barrios’ case—and for other runners who make it to the top—it simply means paying attention to how their bodies, minds and emotions are responding to their training and racing and how all three are intertwined.

And, of utmost importance for runners, accepting our feelings, thoughts, emotions and not trying to force or “effort” our way through a workout or a race.

RELATED: Is running meditation?

Being mindful is what Jurek was doing when he changed his diet and his training on his way to becoming a seven-time Western States 100 winner. And two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper was being mindful when he decided to skip recovery day runs with fellow elites Adam Goucher and Jorge Torres and run on his own, in order to run the pace he felt he needed.

Weinstein, program development manager of the new “Runing with the Mind” online course, is codifying the many disparate tenants of running, yoga and meditation, all part of what he calls “the emerging movement in mindful athletics.”

“Running with the Mind” recently launched a Kickstarter campaign that continues through the end of the month. Weinstein said the goal of launching “Running with the Mind” was to bring the Sakyong’s teachings to the millions of runners who are not able to attend his yearly retreats. (Competitor readers can get an 85 percent discount on the premier of the seven-week online course by pledging $25 to the Kickstarter and then sending the code “Competitor Magazine” via the “contact me” link.)

Those teachings, whether at a retreat, in the book “Running with the Mind of Meditation,” or in the new online course are simple, yet powerful. One is that just as we need to build a base of aerobic training, so do we need a base of meditation. Even a master teacher as Sakyong Mipham had a wandering “monkey mind” in his early years of learning meditation from his father.

It took years of meditation—the Tibetan word for which is “gaining familiarity with”—for Sakyong Mipham to reach a state of mindfulness in all aspects of life, as much as possible.

Again, what does “being mindful” in life mean? Simply “being present,” focusing on what you are doing right now, whether writing an article, running a trail, talking with your child or your partner, or shooting a free throw.

You accept what has taken place in the past, without judging it, and do not fret about the future, the next race or workout, for example. Rather, it is a focus on “the power of now.”

RELATED: Why You Should Attend a Holistic Running Renewal Retreat

“I had read about mindfulness, but until you see someone living it, it is just an idea,” Weinstein said in explaining the instantaneous connection he felt upon first seeing Sakyong Mipham. “He was already on the path. It opened the door to the possibility of really learning from someone else.

Weinstein said there are many teachers out there; he was ready when the Sakyong appeared, just as you will be.

“Mindfulness can be very internal, and when I saw someone really awake, it made the possibility of sharing the experience. There is someone doing what I want to do. It was that kind of inspiration.”

For more about Running with the Mind and hear testimonials about the program, go to rwtm.org.

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