The mindfulness of running
Mackenzie Havey had reached the point of burnout. Too many marathons. Too many goals. Too much stress on the body and mind.
“This was largely due to the fact that I was grasping certain goals too tightly,” Havey says. “I would continue to push through training when my body and mind needed a break simply because I was worried about things like PRs and Boston qualifiers. And even when I did achieve those things, I'd find something else to obsess about. This sucked the joy out of running.”
Realizing and understanding the path that she was careening down, Havey stopped and reframed her approach to running.
“I rediscovered a love for the sport by focusing on the process of training over end goals,” she says. “By integrating the principles of mindfulness into my running, I found that I not only enjoyed training more, I also ran better.”
Havey began to compile research and interview other runners who shared similar experiences. She combined that material with own personal journey in Mindful Running, a book that coaches runners on how to tap into mindfulness to create a successful mind-body combination. (Learn more and order the book on Amazon.)
“As I began interviewing other runners about their own mindful running practices, I found that I wasn't alone in this discovery,” she recalls. “On top of all that, the research on mindfulness and how it can contribute to general wellbeing and performance is reaching a critical mass, so it seemed like the perfect time to release this book.”
Scientists, ultra champions agree
Perhaps her ah-ha moment was when she realized the connection with a key group of experts.
“One of the most interesting things I stumbled upon while working on the book was the fact that every single neuroscientist that I interviewed — these folks look at how meditation affects the brain and body — also happened to be endurance athletes,” she says. “What's more, they all said that they applied the principles of mindfulness to their training. That was a lightbulb moment for me when I knew I was really on to something.”
Havey points to a quote from neuroscientist Judson Brewer as the overarching reason for using mindfulness — "You're already awesome. Just get out of your own way."
We often throw roadblocks in our own way without even realizing it because we are so disengaged from what's going on directly in front of us and out of touch with the ways our bodies and minds are operating,” Havey says. “I've certainly been guilty of this. When you learn to embrace mindfulness in running and life, you're able to make better decisions and allocate energy to things that are most important to you.”
But it’s not just researchers who can excel when committing to a mindfulness practice.
Two-time Western States 100-mile race champion Timothy Olson is among the converts. “He is a huge proponent of mindfulness in running and life,” Havey says. “He contends that being in the moment as he runs not only helps him really listen to his body to know when to push and when to back off, but it also allows him to enjoy training and racing more. It turns out that top-level performance is a byproduct of that.”
Can one naturally have mindfulness or is it more of a learned process? Havey says that some people are naturally inclined to be more mindful than others.
“But the good news is that it can also be learned, so if you're highly distracted and lost in thought much of the time, you can actually train your brain to more readily exist in the moment,” she says. “At its core, mindfulness is attention training. The idea is not to clear your mind or control your thoughts, but simply redirect your attention to the present moment every time you notice it has wandered to worrying about the future or ruminating about the past.”
Just like endurance athletes train their bodies, they can also train their minds.
“Every time you redirect your thoughts back to the present, you can choose an ‘anchor’ like your breath if that helps,” Havey recommends. “It strengthens those neural pathways. Over time and training, it gets easier as those networks get more robust. Think of it like bicep curls; at first even a few reps may feel difficult, but over time, the bicep is strengthened and you can handle more weight and reps.”
And once one is able to use mindfulness during endurance training, it can also be applied to life’s everyday stressors. The lessons could be applied elsewhere in life, sharpening one's focus on other physical tasks, or non-physical ones.
“In our busy, digital world, we are accustomed to constantly having our minds occupied with something,” she says. “We struggle to just be. My hope is that my book will help people learn the concepts of mindfulness through running and that those lessons will find a way into other aspects of life. I know I've benefited greatly in other areas — I'm able to better focus on a writing project or enjoy just sitting and reading the same silly board books to my daughter over and over again. We get so caught up in wanting to be efficient that we often fail to slow down and take a breath. Learning to be present and patient on a long run, for instance, is a great skill that carries over into countless other areas of life.”
Of course, Havey has incorporated mindfulness into her running journey. Now, she takes in the scenery around her and checks in with her body.
“When my mind is wandering, it can be easy to back off as soon as the run gets uncomfortable, but when I tune into that discomfort with a mind of acceptance, I find I am able to relax into the run and perform better,” she says, noting this was especially true when she was pregnant. “By really learning to listen to my body's wisdom, I was able to take better care of myself and more importantly, my baby. What's more, as I progressed through pregnancy and got slower, I was able to still enjoy going out for a short jog. Coming back to running after pregnancy was much the same way.
“Mindful running is all about learning to see the bigger picture and take joy in the process of training over time.
Name: Mackenzie Havey
Number of years running: 26
Weekly mileage: 40 average Point of pride: “While I'm proud of the marathons and Ironman that I've done, being able to run through my entire pregnancy is an even bigger point of pride. The miles got much slower and shorter as I got closer to 40 weeks, but I felt fortunate to feel good enough to keep jogging until a couple of days before I had my daughter at 41 weeks.” Favorite race distance: marathon
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: oatmeal with peanut butter and banana Favorite piece of gear: Stunt Puppy waist leash that allows me to run with my dog hands-free Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't usually listen to music while I run Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "Today me will live in the moment, unless it's unpleasant, in which case me will eat a cookie." — Cookie Monster :) Where can other runners contact/follow you: • Website: www.mindfulrunningbook.com
• Twitter and instagram: @MackenzieHavey
• Facebook author page: Mackenzie L. Havey