A new industry is marrying meditation and running.
Driven, career-focused and busy — that’s Elinor Fish’s typical client at her Carbondale, Colorado-based firm, Run Wild Retreats and Wellness, which offers women’s running and wellness retreats. They don’t have the time or bandwidth to meticulously plan training or to monitor each workout. These clients usually want to dissociate from any pain that arises, to push through and attain the health benefits of the run, says Fish.
But Fish is training them to recognize that they can do more through an approach some call “mindful running,” which marries mindfulness practices and aerobic exercise to maximize the complementary health benefits of both. “Mindful running is about taking that average runner and saying, ‘You know what? It’s great to have these goals and pursue these specific outcomes, but don’t do it at the expense of cultivating this self-awareness.’”
She isn’t alone in capitalizing on mindful running. From brands to retreats, an industry that introduces the principles of meditation to goal-oriented runners is emerging. It’s a theme at the heart of fitness journalist Mackenzie L. Havey’s 2017 book, Mindful Running: How Meditative Running Can Improve Performance and Make You a Happier, More Fulfilled Person.
On the brand side, Asics launched a “blackout track” in 2018 to explore how lack of sound, technology, scenery and a finish line can enhance mental focus and performance. Nike partnered with Headspace in 2018 to create Nike Run Club and Nike Training Club apps, which take listeners on audio-led mindful runs. And mindful running retreats are cropping up from the Mediterranean to Moab. For companies, mindful running could prove the latest way to tap into a global wellness industry that’s estimated at $4.2 trillion — larger than the economy of Germany.
So what exactly does mindful running entail? It takes techniques athletes are familiar with — stride length, postural alignment, cadence and breathing — and focuses on boosting awareness of the body’s feedback. That means ditching the music and watch so that runners can tune in to their rhythms instead. “It’s about shifting attention away from relying on metrics and technology to regulate pace and effort to measure our fitness or progress,” Fish explains.
The idea is to evoke benefits associated with traditional meditation: slowing the mind down and observing thought generation without reacting. Remaining in the present moment, listening to your feet strike the pavement or track and using breath as an anchor allows runners to bring their attention back to form, enabling them to correct hunched shoulders or monitor negative self-talk, says Marty Kibiloski, co-founder of Running With the Mind of Meditation retreats and Mindful Runners, a running group in Boulder, Colorado.
It’s a mindfulness practice for people who don’t want to sit on the meditation cushion.
Elinor Fish, founder, Run Wild Retreats and Wellness
These self-awareness techniques have long been used by the sport’s elite competitors to optimize performance in demanding conditions, like marathons or Olympic races. But recreational runners are just beginning to harness mindful running techniques, treating physical and mental health benefits like reducing stress and managing burnout as goals in their own right.
As the concept gains traction, it can also appeal to milestone-oriented runners for whom “the idea of sitting and meditating … is nearly impossible,” Fish says. Mindful running lets people satisfy their need to progress while also relaxing their mind. “It’s a mindfulness practice for people who don’t want to sit on the meditation cushion,” Fish says.
It’s an approach that has allowed Kibiloski to regain his love for something he had given up. He failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympics in 1983 shortly after his coach unexpectedly died. The former University of Virginia athlete shifted his goal-setting energy to the business world, where he found that the same diligence, drive and long-term vision required in marathon training propelled him to professional success.
But he quickly became dissatisfied with the fleeting bursts of satisfaction he got from a promotion or achieving a milestone. The business track was a “great formula for high level of success and low level of contentment,” Kibiloski, 60, says. He was drawn to meditation because he wanted to figure out what drove his relentless need to prove himself. Mindful running has allowed him to link that pursuit with his first love, running.
Interest in this approach comes amid research showing the increase of chronic illnesses and the severity of the global mental health crisis. Americans are working more hours than ever. With more research suggesting the health benefits of meditation, people appear to have a growing appetite to incorporate these findings into their lives. Many people considered yoga “fringe” until about a decade ago, says Kibiloski, with meditation and mindfulness entering the mainstream next. It makes sense, he says, that offshoots like meditative running are beginning to spread.
In 2016, Rutgers University scientists conducted a study that found that 30 minutes of meditation followed by 30 minutes of running helped people suffering from depression. But so far there’s little scientific evidence of the benefits of mindful running — where you effectively meditate while running — says Brandon Alderman, one of the study’s authors. Some people turn to exercise precisely to let the mind wander and to ponder big thoughts, says Alderman. “The idea behind combining those two is built on a well-established foundation of evidence from each of the areas — exercise and meditation — but we do need much more in the way of the research on the two combined,” he says.
Then there are the concerns about commodifying running — long cherished as a sport that is both free and equipment-light — which could limit access. Run Wild Retreats and Wellness’ travel packages, for example, cost thousands of dollars. While Kibiloski doesn’t oppose commercializing mindfulness altogether, he emphasizes that productivity gains alone shouldn’t draw people to participate.
A focus on results counters the ethos of mindful running. For Kibiloski, at least, using mindfulness to examine his underlying motivations and need for validation has helped him better enjoy running for what, in its purest form, it is: an opportunity to move.