[Editor’s note: This story is part one of a two-part series on the scientific study of mindfulness and meditation for runners, looking into the bigger picture of how your mindset can actually help improve your athletic performance. Be sure to check out part two of the series here.]
At the Doudy Draw trailhead, below the sandstone cliffs of Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon, Clare Gallagher starts her run on loose gravel. As the trail climbs and narrows, the 26-year-old sheds any thought of sponsor obligations or training schedules. She cuts around switchbacks, notices only wildflower meadows and pine forests. “I hit the trail and I zone out,” says Gallagher, a Boulder, Colorado-based runner who’s sponsored by Patagonia. “It’s a meditative run.” Nine miles later, her mind feels clear.
Present. Aware. In the moment. That describes mindfulness, a modern expression for an ancient practice. Gallagher first started meditating in college; now she’s an ultrarunner who prefers her mindful practice on the run.
Mindfulness is having a moment, thanks to bestselling books, apps, wellness programs and spiritual retreats. Research suggests the results are real—a 2016 British study conducted at the University of Oxford found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was as effective at preventing depression as pharmaceuticals. And as technology becomes more immersive, mindfulness techniques can help people unplug from the virtual realm and reconnect with the physical world. But can being more mindful make runners faster?
Of course, the relationship between Eastern philosophy and Western culture goes back centuries. Our modern fascination dates back to the rise of Buddhist communities in American cities and moments such as the year 1968, when the Beatles traveled to India to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, were photographed with their guru, and came home with songs that became the White Album.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a molecular biologist named Jon Kabat-Zinn studied Buddhism on the side. In 1979, he gathered chronic pain patients for a study that managed their symptoms with meditation and yoga. They got results—reduced pain, depression, anxiety and tension. He called the program mindfulness-based stress reduction and founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where eight-week courses are still offered.
But Kabat-Zinn’s broader legacy includes the science-based vocabulary. “He came out of a Buddhist tradition and secularized it,” says Dr. Rick Hecht, who studies mindfulness at the University of California San Francisco. “So there could be a broader benefit to people who might not take a Buddhist meditation course.” Since Kabat-Zinn published his study results 1982, more than 3,000 scientific articles have followed—with 1,200 in just the last couple of years.
More recent authors include Tracey Shors, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University. She knew two things: Aerobic exercise (read: yoga, dance, running) makes the brain produce neurons. And, in order to keep those freshly-minted nerve cells, the brain must learn—and the learning requires effort. But how do you create that in a lab setting? A friend sent Shors to a Zen meditation class.
“I found meditation is not only wide but deep,” says Shors. “The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know.” If unpacking that sentence gives you a headache, you now understand effortful learning. Shors designed an eight-week Mental and Physical (MAP) Training that combined sitting and walking meditations with treadmill sessions. Her studies showed MAP Training reduced depression in college students. She says the idea of mindful running makes sense: “You’re following the feet rather than following the breath.”
That’s old news to runners, especially Elinor Fish, who founded Run Wild Retreats in 2010. She leads small groups of women trail runners to Iceland, Spain, Moab and the Swiss Alps. In the six weeks before a trip, Fish coaches attendees with her mindful running training system, which focuses on intention, posture, breath and simple goals to manage the stress and emotions that disrupt run routines. Then she lets nature supply the final touch.
“We have a lot of habits that keep us stuck in patterns that don’t serve us—phones are our latest addiction,” says Fish. “Going on a retreat snaps you out of it. A new environment awakens a different part of the brain. You feel grateful, alive and vital.”
Which brings us back to Gallagher. At the 2016 Leadville 100, miles into the race, she ate a Snickers, tucked her water flask back into her race vest and matched her pacer’s strides along a lake edge in the Colorado high country. After the finish, all those miles felt simply blank to her. “I zoned out again,” she says. “I was so present in the moment, there was no energy for my brain to put what was happening in the memory pocket.”
But the clock’s numbers went straight to the record book: Gallagher won the Leadville 100 that year in 19:00.27, setting the second-fastest women’s time ever. Ready to run faster? Run mindful first.