How to Listen to Your Body and Recover Better

A group of runners stretch after their run.

Injuries are without a doubt the most frustrating part of running. Unfortunately, most runners will deal with an injury at some point during their career. While there are a number of culprits, an improper approach to rest and recovery is at the top of the list. This is largely because we as runners often fall into the trap of believing that rest is the absence of training, rather than an integral part of it. Indeed, more is not always better when it comes to running.

One of the best ways to combat the pull of overtraining is to leverage the power of mindfulness in your approach to recovery. Whether it’s taking a day off during a normal training cycle, coming back from an injury, tapering before competition, or resting after a big race, mindfulness in running and recovery is one of the best tools you can utilize.

While we hear a lot about the psychological benefits of meditation, research from the Frontiers Research Foundation also shows that mindfulness can help you hone physical awareness—so you can tune into what’s going on with your body at any given moment. This is important because we miss vital physical clues when we are constantly distracted, focused on goals far in the future or simply lost in thought.

Knowing When to Rest

A woman lays on the ground with her feet propped up on the wall.

So how can you learn to be more mindful about listening to your body to enhance recovery?

The most important part of the process is knowing when your body needs rest. To do this, I recommend trying a head-to-toe body scan a few minutes into most runs, whether that’s an easy jog or the warm-up before a workout. This can help you get a handle on things like how tired your legs feel, if your breathing seems more labored than usual or if your posture or gait are sub-par. By paying attention to how you feel physically, part by part, you tune out extraneous worries and distractions and allow yourself to be anchored to the present moment via your body—and you could help prevent common running injuries.

I suggest doing this scan five to 10 minutes into a run. The scan itself takes most runners three to five minutes. Don’t worry if you get distracted in the midst of your scan. Mindfulness simply calls you to notice that your thoughts have wandered away from the present moment and redirect back to it.

How to do a Body Scan While Running

A man runs through the woods, smiling.
  • Bring awareness to the top of your head. Then direct your attention to your forehead, eyes and face. Are you furrowing your brow or clenching your jaw?
  • Next, move your focus to your neck and shoulders. Are you tight, relaxed or somewhere in between?
  • Pay attention to your breathing for a moment. Are you inhaling through your nose, mouth or both? Are your breaths shallow or deep?
  • How do your arms, hands and fingers feel? Are your fists clenched or relaxed?
  • Next, scan down your spine. How’s your posture? Do you feel strong and confident or are you hunching forward?
  • Move on to your core, including your lower back, abdominals and hips. Do these muscles feel like they are supporting you optimally?
  • Bring your attention to your legs, taking stock of your quads, hamstrings, knees, shins and calves. Are there any twinges of pain or discomfort? Do your legs feel fresh or tired?
  • Finish by observing your feet. Do they feel fatigued and achy or light and fast?

The observations you make during these scans can help you take stock of what your recovery needs might be. While you can’t assume you need a day off of training at the first sign of fatigue—that’s part of the training process, after all—getting to know your body through these scans can help you identify when something is amiss and you need to back off. It’s about learning to let your body guide training, not just what you have written down on your training calendar.

Mindfulness During Recovery

More traditional mindfulness meditation can also help facilitate recovery as a supplementary exercise to running.

Yogis often refer to something called “bodysensing,” which is an apt description. This technique can help calm your central nervous system and assist in bouncing back from the physical and mental wear and tear of training.

To do this, find a quiet spot and either lie down or sit in a chair with a straight back. Make sure you’re comfortable before you begin the above scan or feel free to use a recorded body scan from one of the many meditation apps available. This can take anywhere from three to 30 minutes depending on how much time you want to devote to it.

Since you don’t have the added complication of moving, this meditation is the perfect time to focus on switching from “thinking” mode to “feeling” mode.

A man sits outside with his legs crossed on a yoga mat.

Making the switch from thinking to feeling simply means that as you scan from head to toe, instead of getting carried away by your intellectual understanding of why your neck might be tight, you work on feeling those physical sensations without ascribing meaning to them. This sounds like a subtle change in thinking, but it can dramatically deepen your mindfulness practice.

Whether you’re harnessing the power of mindfulness via a running or seated body scan to optimize recovery, practice makes perfect. Remember that you’re bound to get distracted during these exercises—you may find yourself mentally making a grocery list or thinking about your weekend plans or stressing about work. Not to worry, this happens to everyone.

Mindfulness just requires you to take note and redirect to the present, again and again. Research shows that over time, this mode of operation becomes more second nature and easier to practice. This translates into better body awareness, more effective rest and recovery, and in turn, hopefully better training and racing.

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,,, 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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