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Inside Mindful Running

A Q&A with author Mackenzie Havey

Mackenzie Havey, of Minneapolis, MN, has been running most of her life and writing about running, fitness, and wellness for over a decade. At some point along her journey, though, she found herself approaching burnout. “I was so set on goals in the far-off future that I’d blindly charge ahead towards them without really immersing myself in the process of day-to-day training,” Havey says. She also found herself worrying about all the “what ifs,” and ruminating about unsuccessful workouts and races.

She realized her mind was wandering everywhere but the current moment. Training was no longer fun. Still, she did too much, she pushed too hard, and she wound up injured. That’s when she started studying mindfulness.

“As I began to apply the principles of mindfulness to my running, I rediscovered a love for the sport, and by way of that, I performed better,” she says. “By putting more emphasis on the process, taking one day at a time, and rolling with the good, the bad, and the ugly with a mind of acceptance, I stopped wasting energy trying to steer things in a particular direction. I discovered that a mindful approach to my running injected a fresh sense of intentionality, purpose, and joy.”

And with that new sense of purpose, she set off on a mission to inform the rest of us. Just last month, Havey came out with a new book, Mindful Running. Between travels and promoting her new book, she took a few minutes to answer some questions about mindfulness and running.

How did this go from a personal practice to a book? Was there a moment you can remember that stands out as ‘the’ moment the whole concept clicked for you so much that you felt compelled to share an entire book about the subject?

As I deconstructed my mindful running practice and dug into the topic, I read thousands of pages of research-based in neuroscience, psychology, physiology, and beyond. I interviewed runners from around the world. I wasn’t surprised by the fact that many top-level athletes identified present-moment awareness as vital to successful running. I’ve been a running journalist for over a decade and whether or not they call it “mindfulness,” most athletes will tell you that being intentionally engaged in the process of training is essential.

I had a major lightbulb moment after I’d interviewed several neuroscientists. These experts study the ways that meditation—in particular, mindfulness meditation—changes the structure and function of the brain. Without exception, all of them happened to be endurance athletes who applied mindful principles to their training. On top of that, the research in the field of contemplative neuroscience is reaching a critical mass, so it seemed like the perfect time to release this book.


Through all of your research, is there a running story that stands out as one of the best examples of the role of mindfulness in our ability to train well and be happy?

I share a variety of stories in the book, but I’d say that ultrarunner Timothy Olson’s story is one of the most compelling. He leveraged the power of mindfulness and running to pull himself out addiction and depression, finding that mindful running could help him restore a baseline of good health and also allow him to thrive beyond his wildest dreams.

He then applied that mindset to his running, emphasizing present moment awareness of his body, mind, and environment over specific goals. This offered him a sense of freedom and engagement on the trails and, as a byproduct of that, impressive race results. Since then, he’s twice won the prestigious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and countless other ultra-mountain running races around the globe.


Could you give us two exercises from your book to help us incorporate mindfulness into our running routine?

If you’ve never done any sort of meditation, one really basic exercise to try is to tie your running shoes mindfully before a run. This is a mundane activity that we tend to do mindlessly, but when you tune in, you’re able to set the stage for a more present-focused workout.

To do this, simply pay attention to how your foot feels as you carefully slide it into the shoe. Notice how the arch of the shoe meets the arch of your foot. Pay attention to the sensation of the upper of shoe’s upper wrapped around the top of your foot as you lace it up with intention. Feel the laces in your hands as you do this. If you find your mind wandering or zoning out, simply notice and redirect to the process of tying your shoes. Mindfulness isn’t about being in the present moment 100% of the time, but rather, to have the wherewithal to notice when your mind has wandered and course correct to steer it back towards what’s right in front of you in the present.

Another exercise to try is to scan your surroundings once you get moving. Consider designating the first 10 minutes of your run to mindfully engaging your senses and notice the sights, sounds, smells, and beyond in your environment. This can make runs a whole lot more vivid if you regularly commit to this practice. In fact, research demonstrates that simply noticing the natural world around you with intention boosts mood and overall wellbeing. Remember that this isn’t about judging anything in your environment, it’s just an exercise in bringing awareness to the moment at hand with a mind of curiosity. Again, if your mind wanders, notice and bring it back to your senses and the environment around you.


In your opinion how does this practice extend beyond running?

The science of neuroplasticity shows us that we can train our brains similarly to the way we train our bodies. To fortify the mental muscle of mindfulness, you have to regularly notice that your mind has wandered to ruminating about the past or worrying about the future to successfully redirect it to the present moment.

Over time, neural pathways strengthen, and this becomes easier. For instance, while staying present and focused on your immediate environment for just 10 minutes during a run will likely feel challenging at first, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes. What’s more, through this practice you’re training your brain to be more present and focused in other areas of life, too. When you’re more in touch with life in the moment, you’re better able to allocate time, energy, and attention to the things that are important to you.


What do you say to the people who see mindfulness as a new-age gimmick?

There are some misconceptions about mindfulness—it often conjures images of levitating swamis and healing crystals—which can send some people running in the opposite direction. All it is, though, is attention training. I hope that my book can provide a gateway of sorts for learning the concepts of mindfulness during an activity in which you’re already engaging—running. In my opinion, the sport is extremely well-suited thanks to its rhythmic nature and peaceful qualities, especially when you run outside.

Regarding empirical evidence to back up the practice,research suggests that mindfulness may reduce our perception of pain and discomfort, an obvious benefit for a sport with inherent discomfort. It also helps us gain better body awareness—so we can discern when we need to back off because of an oncoming injury. With 40- to 80-percent of runners suffering from an injury on an annual basis, this is huge. Research also shows that mindful individuals more adeptly cope with stressful situations, like dealing with pre-race nerves or taking a bad mile in a race in stride, rather than panicking and throwing in the towel.

Perhaps best of all, some studies show how mindfulness can boost self-confidence, increase optimism, and decrease anxiety. As luck would have it, people also report enjoying exercise more when they remain in the moment. All of this has significant implications for running motivation, sustainable training, and overall health and wellness.

And if you’re still skeptical, keep in mind that everyone from the Seattle Seahawks, to extreme Red Bull athletes, to executives at companies like Google and Twitter leverage the power of mindfulness. The anecdotal evidence combined with an ever-growing body of research shows that simply changing the way we relate to our bodies, minds, and environments can be a game-changer, not just in terms of the sustainability of high performance, but also in learning to take more joy in everyday life. Why not apply these principles to running?


Mackenzie L. 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. She studied English at the College of St. Benedict and has a master’s in kinesiology with an emphasis in sport and exercise psychology from the University of Minnesota. She lives with her husband, daughter, and vizsla in Minneapolis. www.mindfulrunningbook.com

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