Learning to run by learning to sit

Buddhism wouldn’t make the cut if I were to pick a religion based solely on whether it helped me run faster. I’d choose voodoo – make a doll of myself, strap bottle rockets to the feet and strike a match. If it worked, I’d smash world records. If not, no loss – sticking fireworks to stuff and making it go boom is its own reward.

I’ve become a slower runner since engaging in Buddhist practice, though I’m not trying to make a scapegoat of spirituality. The Buddha didn’t post speed limits or recommend wearing clunky shoes. The slackened pace is down to the usual speed bumps that trip up runners – growing older and maybe a little rounder, and just being in the road-racing offseason when there’s no real need to focus on speed training.

If the dharma has been complicit in taming my pace, it’s been by hinting that focusing too much on things like race results might not be a great idea. There’s nothing wrong with having a time target, but holding onto that goal too tightly can constrict the full experience of running.

Buddhism hasn’t made a speed demon of me and probably never will. But it has made me a better runner.

I certainly don’t approach the dharma as a tool for boosting performance. While I’ve found that Buddhist practice and running complement each other in many ways, to tout the dharma as an exercise enhancer would be a gross trivialization.

That said, honesty is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. To deny I’ve experienced specific benefits as a runner would be dishonest.

The main thing that has stood out to me recently is the impact seated meditation has had on endurance. I may be running slower, but I’m going farther.

I’ve started training for the Sulphur Springs 100-mile trail race at the end of May. That’s twice as far as I’ve ever run; I’ll have to cover some decent mileage before then if I’m to have any chance of crossing the finish line.

Training, particularly on my weekly long runs, has revealed just how much meditation is shaping my experience out on the trails, both physically and mentally.

The most noticeable physical improvement has been to my posture. Meditation, if nothing else, gives you plenty of practice keeping your back straight. Maintaining good posture not only eases oxygen intake – particularly important during challenging uphill runs – but helps anchor a positive disposition as fatigue sets in. I’ve seen – and sported – the slumped shoulders that appear at the 20-mile mark of a marathon. I’ve also been able to find my second wind by paying attention to when I’m just starting to slouch, and correcting it. Posture can be a result of mood, to be sure, but it can also influence it. Being mindful to keep your back and shoulders straight and relaxed improves your odds of a strong finish.

Concentrating on the breath, a key part of seated meditation, has also taken on more importance during runs. For the important stuff, like sucking in enough air to keep you from dying, the lungs pretty much take care of themselves and can chug along fine without your attention. Where focusing on them can really become valuable is pacing. The rhythm and depth of your breathing can be a helpful indicator of how much energy you’re exerting.

My breath has become my most reliable gauge for pacing, and has kept me from flaming out during longer outings. You might be able to run 15 miles at a nine-minute-per-mile pace one week, but that same pace might be too much for you the next, whether that’s because you’re too tired, or dehydrated, or just having a bad running day like every runner has. I’ve found I’ve been able to finish stronger – in some cases, simply finish – by checking in with my breath rather than the pace read-out on my watch. It’s not only helped me reserve enough in the tank to complete some tough runs, but it’s clued me in to when I’ve been dogging it and could stand to go faster.

Meditation experience isn’t necessary to pay attention to the breath during runs, of course, but daily seated practice does make remembering to come back to the breath more intuitive as the mind starts to wander and the miles stretch on.

By far the biggest impact meditation has had on running performance is mental. Specifically, meditation has taught me that I needn’t take every thought that pops into my head so seriously.

Time on the cushion is, in part, a chance to practice being aware of what’s going on without necessarily reacting to it. If I’m resting my attention on the breath, and up comes a thought, like “a fly just landed on my face,” or “we’re low on cat food,” there’s no need to flick the fly off my forehead, or to start writing a grocery list. There’s value in allowing thoughts and insects to come and go on their own.

The most frequent thought I get when out for a run, especially after an hour or so, is “I’m done. It’s time to stop. Now.”

Not so long ago, I’d obey such thoughts without fail. Why wouldn’t I? I’m the one thinking them. I must know what I’m talking about.

Since meditating regularly, I’ve been more inclined to give those thoughts some space, and rather than react to them, take a closer look at the intention behind them. Why do I need to stop? Do I require some sort of medical attention? Or do I just want the comfort of a hot shower and a cup of tea a little bit sooner? Like the fly, the inner insistence to give up tends to buzz off without the need to intervene.

That’s not to say there’s never a time to quit. If I feel a sudden pain that’s clearly more serious than a passing stitch, I’m done. Same goes for if I smell something burning and hear our smoke alarm beeping while I’m on the meditation cushion. There are times when it’s best not to give a fire the time and space to burn itself out.

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