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Mindful runners seek a still mind in a fast body
To become a faster runner, slow down your mind. Proponents of "mindful running" say that it's not only possible to both meditate and run, but the practice will make you a better runner as well. It also turns a workout into quality time with God. - photo by Jennifer Graham
When Giacomo Fasano took up running 10 years ago, the New Jersey writer was hoping to improve his fitness. He didnt know he was about to improve his spiritual life as well.

As he grew fitter, and was able to run for longer periods of time, Fasano found that his workouts became increasingly meditative.

You cannot run for 68 minutes without an elevated spirit, he said. Endorphins, he said, are Gods gift to athletes, enabling clarity of thought and heightened communion with the divine.

The nearly 19 million runners who compete in road races each year in the U.S. might find it hard to enter a meditative state during a crowded, noisy 10K. But on treadmills and trails, many Americans are seeking to find not only fitness, but serenity through the practice of mindful running. It is the marriage of meditation and running, and while still gaining steam in the U.S., it has old roots, in ultrarunner Buddhists of ancient Tibet and the "marathon monks" of Japan.

By comparison, American mindful-running enthusiasts like Elinor Fish and Michael Sandler are new on the scene.

Fish, a running coach who offers a mindful-running retreat in Moab, Utah, said mindful running is a needed antidote to the stronger-faster-harder approach to running that leaves so many runners injured, fatigued and burned out.

"A lot of people start running to improve their bodies, have fun running races or connect with other people, and those are all great reasons," Fish said. "But because running is one of the most natural things for humans to do we're beautifully designed for it it makes us better people on a much deeper level. Mindful running is the best way to explore those deeper levels."

Slow Mo

In his 2012 book Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind, Tibetan Buddhist leader Sakyong Mipham made the case that the benefits of meditation, normally achieved by sitting erect and motionless, can be achieved on the run.

The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness, Mipham writes in a book that made's list of the 25 greatest running books of all time. To coordinate the two is an exercise in efficiency and wellness.

When the first running boom hit the U.S. in the 1970s, few people exercised strenuously unless they were professional athletes. But the U.S. government now urges Americans to exercise vigorously for up to six days a week.

Similarly, meditation was once an alternative practice that has become mainstream. It is recommended by the National Institutes of Health as a therapy for conditions such as chronic pain and insomnia, and for reducing stress and anxiety. Adding exercise doubles the benefit; as Mipham notes: There is a direct correlation between physical exertion and mental relief.

So how to achieve it? On his Mindful Running blog, Sandler, who is also known an advocate of barefoot running, suggests that even accomplished runners go slow. "Focus on the breath and your footfalls, as thoughts come up let them go, and build your mental muscles strong."

Yes, this means the 53 percent of runners who listen to music may need to leave their iPods at home.

When courting transcendence, location matters; it's not something to seek on a busy road. Fasano prefers the treadmill, while Fish advocates for the trail.

"Seated meditation practitioners may use mantras or rhythmic breathing to help focus the mind and reduce physical tension. Similarly, running creates physical rhythm and breath, which are very helpful in focusing attention on the present moment," Fish said.

"In trail running, it's essential to pay attention to the terrain in front of you to avoid tripping. The kind of gentle focus required on trails, I find very effective for slowing down a busy mind and creating present-moment awareness."

Like still meditation, mindful running can also include breathing techniques taught in yoga in particular, the Ujjayi technique of inhaling deeply, then tightening the throat muscles while exhaling, so as to produce a guttural, ocean-like sound; as well the "belly breathing" most often recommended for athletes.

Exercise for the soul

For Fasano, who has written a book about his running revelations, its the sustained effort and the accompanying endorphins that produce the mindful, meditative state he believes is ideal for communicating with God or exercising your soul, as he puts it.

In contemplative exercise, he said, youre as close to God as you can get" and the human body was built for this intimate communion through movement. "The combination of physical exertion with meditation and prayer is a guaranteed pathway to a firm connection with God," Fasano said.

Contemplative running is practiced by people of faith from Ryan and Sara Hall, the American marathoners known for their speed and devotion to God, and the marathoning monks of Japan, who attempt a thousand days of running marathons in a quest not for fitness, but spiritual enlightenment.

However, the most legendary of mindful runners may be the Lung-Gom-Pa, the Tibetan monks who were said to spend three years in isolation, practicing mindfulness and breathing, in preparation for running up to 200 miles in a day in an effort to rid the region from demons. (America's 5K "zombie runs," where recreational runners try to escape people dressed like the evil undead, is a comical inversion of what, for the monks, is a serious and sacred practice.)

The people who come to Fish's retreats in the U.S. and Canada are often hard-driving, ambitious achievers who used to love running, but have found it hard to get motivated because they essentially lost the soul of the experience. "Studies have shown that how you mentally approach something like exercise greatly influences its efficacy," she said. "If you believe running is a chore and boring, and you plug in your headphones to distract yourself from the experience, you actually reduce its potential benefits."

Stripping away distractions like music and chatter allows people to note the shift from stressed to focus and calm, the gradual shift in hormones and increased blood oxygenation and other physiological changes that running brings, she said.

There's another benefit, too, Fish notes: "For people in a go-go-go mode all the time, a calm, seated meditation can feel daunting."

For some runners, mindful running may be all the meditation they get or it may entice them to try sitting down.

"Once I started approaching running as a mindfulness practice, I was eventually able to add a daily seated meditation practice to my routine as well," she said.
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