Forget Meditation, Just Go For A Run

I’ve been working on my laptop at the dining table for much of the day.

The morning was productive, I got a few big items scored off.  But after my lunch break I took the foot off the pedal and now I’m realising that nothing very meaningful has happened in the last two hours.

My eyes flit between three or four documents – none of which I’m actually seriously focussed on – and skate over a bunch of internet browser tabs. The monkey mind has officially set in.

Somewhere in there, I have the sense to close the laptop. I go upstairs and put on my running shoes – very slowly, as if looking for something else to distract me with other than focus on the task in hand.

I grab my keys, but leave the iPhone behind.

And I go out the door, to run.

* * *

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a boom in products, books, apps, and lifehacks designed to help our day-to-day mental wellbeing.

They are designed to help us focus; help us reset; help us re-centre.

There’s the idea of the mind being a tormented sea, and with the help of these tools we can turn it into a still lake. Calm, at rest, and ready to accept the day.

These tools are becoming more and more ubiquitous – every major brand or lifestyle influencer seems to have their own product or partnership, their own recipe for attaining an effortless mindset.

I’ve tried a few of them – including a year of using Headspace, one of the most popular meditation apps. And while I have appreciated the benefits at times, I’ve personally struggled to develop a regular meditation habit.

* * *

When I leave my home behind and begin running, my mind is emptied without any effort on my part.

My body is cautiously limbering up, and I’m suddenly looking around everywhere, assessing what speed I can comfortably start to warm up with, feeling the outside temperature on my skin, slipping back into my normal rhythm.

I’ve physically removed myself from the environment where my monkey brain swings around freely. There’s no notifications, dormant internet tabs, or distracting things to check.

My body is in a minor state of shock – suddenly, it’s got to pump blood much faster, and all my muscles are activated and firing.  My breathing becomes deeper and more enriching to fuel the workout.

Meanwhile, my mind has too many sensory inputs to focus on anything else. It’s assessing the weather, the path ahead, the cars and pedestrians I’m passing, and checking in that my body is moving as it should.

I’m thinking about where I’m running, what route I could take, how far I want to go, and how much I feel like pushing myself today.

* * *

Taking time out to meditate undoubtedly works for many people.   Jerry Seinfeld credits much of his success to his twice-a-day practice of Transcendental Meditation – something he’s practiced for over 40 years.

The author Robert Greene uses a 30-minute zen meditation each morning, which he has described as brutally hard work, to help focus.

For me – and countless others – I’ve diligently tried a few methods, and just haven’t found one that sticks.

I get disenfranchised and frustrated when I see another meditation app popping up on the App Store, or when my Watch interrupts a conversation or a piece of work to try and encourage me to breathe deeply for a minute. 

It seems that the more successful meditators I’ve read about use less of these tools, and instead have found a meditation method which resonates deeply with them. No apps, no dinging smartphone making wave noises.

* * *

As my run continues, my mind drifts.

But it’s not a distracted, avoiding-the-moment mind drift.

It drifts to conversations and projects from the day before, and pieces them together in different ways.

It drifts to a friend I haven’t spoken to for a while, and I make a mental reminder that I meant to get in touch with them.

It drifts to my lungs, and I spend a few minutes running and sense checking how relaxed my breathing is, then how relaxed my hips, shoulders, and neck are.

As I mentioned earlier, I intentionally left my iPhone at home today.

* * *

Haruki Murakami has said of running: “I run in void. Or maybe I should put it another way; I run to acquire the void“.

When you go for a run, you don’t have to expend mental effort trying to reach a state of improved mental clarity.

It just happens.

You’re choosing you make physical changes to your body, and once you start running there’s no stopping it.

The blood flow, the sound of the environment around you and your shoes pacing on the road, your breathing, and nothing else.

I find any run of 20 minutes or more to have positive effects on the mind; often the longer the better, as the runner’s high endorphins begin to take hold. But running for too long also leaves me in a ‘too relaxed or tired to be productive‘ state, so there is always a middle ground.

* * *

Running is perhaps the most universal form of exercise; almost anyone can do it, you need very little gear, and you can do it almost anywhere.

I’ve run around deserted islands and huge cities. Often when on holiday somewhere new, the first thing I do is go for a run.  It helps me orientate myself and get a flavour of things, and push that big reset button in my brain.

If you’re anything like me, when it comes to meditation you struggle to sit still long enough to realise the benefits.

Instead, do yourself a favour and go for a run. It’s good for the mind, and the body. 

And leave your phone at home.

Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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