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4 Mindfulness Exercises to Overcome Mental Hurdles

A runner in bright sunlight

There’s nothing like a new year to inspire fresh goals. Maybe you want to lose weight, set a new personal best or train for a marathon. Or perhaps you’re simply looking to finally start running and make it a regular part of your routine. Whatever your ambitions, you have to overcome the mental hurdles to training before you can effectively tackle new physical challenges.

This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is all about harboring a non-judgmental, present-moment awareness. This means focusing on what’s directly in front of you—getting out the door for a run or tackling that huge hill, for instance—rather than getting caught up in thoughts and worries rooted in the past or future.

The following are four ways that mindfulness can help you overcome those big mental hurdles, along with exercises for each.

A runner kneeling in the grass to tie her shoes

Mindfulness Trains Focus

We know supreme focus is key to optimal performance, whether that’s in a race or a workout. When you check out on a run and your mind is wandering, your body falls out of sync and the quality of the run suffers. Research shows that just 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day for five days has the potential to significantly fortify your ability to focus.

TRY THIS: Mindful Shoe Tying

Next time you’re going out for a run, take a moment to reflect on the steps involved in tying your shoes. Pay attention to how the lace feels in your hand. Feel the upper of the shoe tightening around your foot. Watch as you tie the knot. Notice how it feels once it’s tied. This sounds simple, but it can have a profound impact when it comes to setting the stage for a more present-focused run.

Mindfulness Increases Intrinsic Motivation

When you are intrinsically motivated to race and train, you engage in the act of running simply for the love of running itself. Researchers have discovered that mindfulness can boost an athlete’s intrinsic motivation to train and compete. This is in large part due to the fact that it tunes you into the spectrum of the running experience—the joys of beautiful surroundings or the freedom of movement—that you’re liable to otherwise overlook. These are the things that often make running worthwhile.

TRY THIS: Tweaks and Triumphs

While every run and race has its ups and downs, we often end up obsessing about the latter.

Next time you finish a workout, sit down for a couple minutes and list three things you think you did well and three things you might tweak during the next workout. This list acknowledges the fact that you’re constantly building towards something better. It’s OK to identify weaknesses, but it also helps emphasize the things that you’re doing well to keep you coming back for more.

Mindfulness Lowers Stress

Stress has a way of sapping energy and keeping you on the couch, instead of on the run. The worst part is, when you’re stressed, running can be an important antidote. Fortunately, so can mindfulness. A 2018 study found mindfulness can help athletes view stress and negative thoughts with a mind of acceptance, thereby improving performance. Even a brief mindfulness intervention could lower stress levels, according to a 2014 study.

TRY THIS: Tension Inventory

Set aside a few moments to sit silently in a chair with your back straight and your hands resting gently in your lap. Close your eyes and begin to slowly scan from your head down to your toes. Feel each region of the body and bring awareness to tightness and discomfort. If you notice tension, pause for a moment to see if simply focusing on it and examining it helps to release it. Using this technique, mindfulness can also help optimize recovery.

With practice, this exercise can help not only relieve stress but also build better body awareness.

A woman running on a trail through the forest

Mindfulness Reduces Self-Judgment

Self-critical thoughts often loom large at the beginning of the season after you’ve taken some time off. Maybe you’re feeling out of shape or getting down on yourself for your lack of motivation. This kind of thinking not only can cause you to underestimate your potential, but it also signals a lack of focus. Interestingly, new research demonstrates that more mindful individuals deactivate certain areas of the brain responsible for self-referential processes. There’s also plenty of anecdotal research to show that mindfulness can help a person remain focused on what is directly in front of them in the present moment, rather than jumping down the rabbit hole of obsessive thoughts and anxieties.

TRY THIS: Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing exercises can be a great way to slow down self-referential thought processes in order to refocus on the present moment. Set aside at least five minutes in a quiet place for either of these exercises.

  • Matching Breath: Start by inhaling as you slowly count to four in your head. Then exhale, again counting to four. As you become more relaxed, see if you can slow your breathing rate down and count to five or six.
  • Breath Counting: Focus on breathing in deeply, filling your lungs completely. Pause and then slowly expel all of the air out of your lungs as you exhale. That is one round. Continue to count each round up to 20.

By Mackenzie L. Havey. Mackenzie Havey (née Lobby) writes about endurance sports, mind/body health and wellness, and adventure travel. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Triathlete, TheAtlantic.com, ESPN.com, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. In addition to completing 14 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, she is a USA Track & Field-certified coach, an instructor in the Physical Activity Program in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and has done training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

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