Mindful Running

Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is the only moment.

— Thich Nhat Hanh
I studied a martial art for nearly a third of my life, not the kind of martial art where you learn to kill someone with one finger or the two-headed monkey spinning death hands, but a nice, peaceful, practical, bone-twisting, joint-jarring art called Shorinji Kempo.  It's not that popular in the U.S.  Its philosophy is based on Buddhism and it forbids teachers and practitioners from making a profit by using or teaching Shorinji Kempo, thus the snail-pace growth through the martial art strip-mall, 6 weeks to black belt culture.  This served to weed out a lot of the tools you usually see in dojos, people who sign up looking for a fast and easy way to cause pain and back up the bicep-curling, overpriced Affliction t-shirt wearing bravado.  I spent twelve years studying Shorinji Kempo at UCSD and in Japan, and during those twelve years, I would always return to one wrist-twisting submission technique that I could never quite master.

This wasn't an accident.  I found that because there was no quick path to mastery, there was always room for improvement, and there was always minor tweaking to be done.  I knew the basic concept: someone (preferably someone larger and stronger than you) grabs your wrist, you get in a defensive, balanced stance while slightly pulling them off balance and in that instant, right after you smack them in the eyes and they are off-kilter, you grab their wrist and turn, rotating around them and using their wrist as leverage to lock up their elbow and shoulder and using that leverage to drop their head in a whiplash-like snap to the ground.  If you got all of that right, the pin and submission were easy.  The problem was that it was hard to get it all right, especially when the person you were working with was a Sensei who knew every trick and turn and escape from that technique and he would say "again," and after offering small crumbs of advice, say "again," "again," and finally it would work, but I knew deep down he was giving it to me, that small sense of accomplishment, and that if I tried the same exact technique the next session, it wouldn't work and I would be back to tinkering.  Falling asleep at night, I would imagine all the intricate movements that would go into this one technique.  Twelve years of classes two, three, and in Japan, four times a week and I never mastered this technique, and maybe the point wasn't mastery.  While studying this one technique I was forced to concentrate and be mindful of all the various ways the wrist can turn and how it connects to the elbow, the shoulder, the neck and the head.

Okuri Gote

This constant tweaking of technique is prevalent in so many sports, baseball pitchers will analyse their set-up, delivery, and follow-through using video and hi-tech computer imaging. Swimmers will adjust something as small as the way their fingertips enter the water and achieve major improvements in efficiency and speed.  As runners, we tend to just run.

This is one of the draws and the joys of running. It's low-tech, you put one foot in front of the other and the person who has trained the best and who can suffer the most usually wins. However, there is something to be said for running mindfully, and all the great runners do it, whether they are conscious of it or not.  In fact, a lot of the running techniques that are designed to improve your efficiency and keep you running injury free are basically methods of running mindfully — Chi Running, Pose Method, barefoot running, forefoot running, etc. What all of these systems have in common is that they force you to examine your running form and be mindful of the way that you move your body over a surface.  It can get much more complicated than that and I have read a number of books with thousands of words devoted to perfect running form that basically can be distilled to two fundamental principles:
  1. Run softly
  2. Pay attention
I prefer to keep things simple and I love shortcuts, so I try to focus on these two things and I have found that when I run softly, and when I pay attention, especially to my breathing, I run faster with less effort.  As with the Shorinji Kempo technique above, the less brute force I used, the more calm and focused I was, the better the technique worked.

A good way to practice running softly is to go out and scare the shit out of people.  There's a great trail in Cardiff that attracts a lot of birdwatchers of a certain age.  I try my hardest not to disturb the watchers or the birds, so I run very softly and they don't hear me coming.  As I pass, I give them a wave or a good morning and sometimes they jump to the side or put their hand to their heart.  I hope there are no legal ramifications here; the intent is to preserve the peaceful setting, not to give old people heart attacks.  Once in awhile I'll hit  the holy grail and scare a dog, which is tough to do except when they are daydreaming about sausages.

Breathing is also very important.

That needs a line of its own for some reason.  I used to meditate.  Four or five times a week I would sit quietly on a meditation pillow and slow my breathing.  Since I have to attach some form of competition and measure to everything in order to hold my interest, I would clock my breath and I got my breathing down to a minute; 30 seconds in, 30 seconds out, and I would keep that rhythm for fifteen to thirty minutes.  I would always end these sessions calm, happy, refreshed and I could go nearly an hour without yelling at my kids.  Unfortunately, my meditation practice has slipped.  Now, I multi-task.  I just checked my email five times while composing that sentence.

Running has become a form of meditation for me.  The rhythm of the breath, usually 2-2 or 3-2 depending on the effort.  Two steps while breathing in, two steps while breathing out.  Clear mind, soft feet and focus on what I am doing in the present.  This is hard while running and even more difficult while meditating.  The mind drifts to the late start you got this morning, the re-design of a website, monthly budgeting, can we really handle a dog, shiny metal object.  When I hold track sessions, I advise the runners not to think about all the intricacies and bio-mechanics of running, but to focus on one thing for that session.  There are so many components to good running form that it is hard to focus on more than one at a time without over-thinking it and screwing it up.  Among the plethora of things to focus on (remember: pick one) are focus on running tall, relax your facial muscles (don't grimace), drop your shoulders (tight shoulders are way too common), pull your shoulders back and open your chest (this is part of running tall), a smooth arm swing that doesn't cross in front of your chest, don't bend at the waist and hunch over (again, part of running tall), pick up your feet behind you, focus on driving your knee forward at the front of the stride and picking your heel up toward your butt at the end of the stride, and pay attention to how your foot makes contact with the ground and does it cause more impact than it should?

One thing that I have learned from experience is that the more you run, the more efficient you become.  Your body naturally adapts to good form, and will correct your form with time, but you can hasten the process by running mindfully.  The runners in the video below are mostly ultra-runners who probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about their form, but most have great form due to the insane amount of mileage they do.

If this doesn't get you out on the trails, nothing will

I hope this helps you run more efficiently and I hope that the guy at the Encinitas YMCA who gets on the treadmill, turns it up to about 10 miles per hour, holds on to the bar and smacks his feet on the belt while hanging on for dear life and summoning the gods of rain with his footfalls reads this, because it worked, the reservoirs are full.


  1. Awesome post. Meditation is amazingly difficult, I've failed a million times at it, which is why I loved your post. Darkush.blogspot.com is cool and talks often about breathing technique. I've experimented a ton with this while running and soon the run turns in to a more successful meditation session than I ever had while trying sit still. I think the rhythmic breathing and movement of running lends itself to meditation. Hypoxia at high altitude enhances it too :)
    I've raced twice down near Okinawa (Miyakojima to be exact) I love everything about the Japanese culture!

  2. Lucho - thanks for the link and the comments. We were in Yamaguchi and I never got down to Okinawa, but I heard it was beautiful. Would love to go back to Japan someday and run.
    Any tips on running at high altitude? I'm doing an Everest Base Camp trek in a couple of months and I would love to get some short trail runs in on the "rest days."

  3. Not a whole lot you can do in a short period of time besides alter your exertion levels. I feel that volume is OK but hard running taxes you far more. Plus your recovery will really be the biggest issue at REALLY high altitude. Nothing heals. Even at my 8200ft recovery is slowed noticeably. Hydration is HUGE. It's also been shown (in a study done on Everest climbers) that an increase in simple sugars is more effective for fueling and recovery. It takes a ton more oxygen to break down fat and protein, so in the short term it is effective to eat more CHO and recover with a more simple CHO. Honey is great. I would say to keep the runs on the easy side and if you want more of a challenge then just run longer if you can. Promise you'll post tons of pics!!!?

  4. That was an awesome post. I'm gonna scare people from now on. On a side note, I went running with Sanam on Sunday and really enjoyed myself. Thanks for running the running group and all that you do!

    Oh, and Sanam told me to tell you that you're an amazing writer. That's kind of a joke, since she says you never believe it from her.


  5. Lucho - definitely taking a camera and will try to squeeze a few blog posts out of the trek.

    Ike - thanks. It's not that I don't believe her, it's just that she has to say it. My mom tells me I'm great, too. I'm glad you had a good run on Sunday, and I hope I can run with you soon.

  6. Love the post. Good stuff. I totally want to sneak up on peeps now, just to see if I can do it :) Some helpful tips in there and I plan on trying these out!

  7. Great post, Dax. Despite my aversion to running it makes me want to get out there and try out the techniques you mentioned. I think instead, I'll try to "practice quietly" and "pay attention" tonight in SK class. Maybe, just once, I can "sneak" up on sensei. ;)

  8. Dax, Enjoy reading your thoughts and reflections!

    I see that you are doing the Catalina Marathon. Hopefully you'll meet Eileen Waters and Sally Byram at the beginning or at the end. They are two of my heroes.

    For me two spiritual marathons were The Catalina Marathon and the Avenue of the Giants. For me it was about finishing with mind/body/spirit all going across the finish line at the same moment. Catalina always allowed me to see where I am especially from mile 18 on.

    Just finished a run around 9 this evening. Little over 12000 steps at a cadence around 185. Not running fast but practicing nose breathing between a 6 steps in and 6 steps out down to a 3 in/2 out or a 3 out/2in. When I first started nose breathing as a challenge I could go about 100 years before panic set it. Gradually worked up to marathon distance. My best through the nose was a 3:27.

    Like you I had judo back in the 50's with Sensei Ben Sughi and Al Holtman. When I started to think about running fast, I realized that if running is whole body movement then the best way to get fast was to move in perfect sync as slowly as possible. That was my reasoning for learn tai chi.

  9. Just wanted to share that this morning I ran mindfully. Had this post in my head going into it, then cleared out everything and focused on two things (couldn't pick just one just yet!): running tall, and a lighter step. Man it felt good! It also somehow staved off the pain in my recovering pulled muscle. Like I said, good stuff, dude!

  10. Awesome awesome post. Thanks soo much for aharing this wisdom. It is something I needed to see today.

  11. Ozzie - thank you for the thoughts. I have been reading some of your posts at http://www.mindfulness.com/category/mindful-running/ and I really enjoy them. Very comprehensive.

    Paige - glad to hear that it helped. I hope you have a good recovery, because I am hoping to read an epic race report from the Leadville 100.

  12. Nice writing Dax, I enjoyed reading it and will definitively be thinking about it and practicing while running :).

  13. Wow, I felt at peace after reading this post and watching that video. Will try your suggestions on a 25 miler I'm doing tomorrow off Ortega Highway. Keep it coming Brother Dax!

  14. My muscles never get tired. The only thing that slows me down is when my breathing gets out of sync or can't keep up. I still pace respectably in the sixes but I feel like I can go further if I get the breathing down. This article should be a great start (I've always been a fan of run softly - I call it run "quietly"). I thought I'd share something I read today and get your input: breathe from the stomach/diaphragm, NOT the chest. Your stomach should suck in then balloon out - don't breath by expanding your chest... I think I've been chest breathing all these years! I can't wait to try it! Thoughts?


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