How to Find Mindfulness in Running
Psychotherapist and author William Pullen shares his story of mindful running.
50% or more of the runners I meet run in order to address their mental health. That’s why it seems fitting to tell you about my story of becoming a runner. I’m a psychotherapist who uses running as part of their therapeutic approach. It’s unusual but there are more and more of us. Like with many psychotherapists, my career began at a point of crisis. In my case a midlife crisis.
Because I believe sharing our stories unites and heals us, I’m going to share the chronology of some moving and not so moving parts of my journey in achieving mindfulness through running and becoming a psychotherapist and the founder of my own approach, Dynamic Running Therapy.
Depression takes hold
Perhaps I was lucky to already have had a little experience with depression and to have been old enough to know that the repeated messages you hear in your head are lies. So, when it visited me at 39, though it was crushing and terrifying, I was at least committed to do something about it. I write that with ease, but the truth is it was six months before I took any action, with the help of my doctor’s suggestion that I take antidepressants.
Just as he described, the pills quietened down the black blizzard in my head so that I was able to think clearly enough to consider my options. The end of a fantastic but troubled relationship had triggered what felt like a perfect storm of unfinished business.
Having been sent away to school in Hong Kong at the age of eight, I was familiar with the sense of despair and abandonment I was experiencing. My passions since then had included most of the vices you can imagine. These lifestyle choices were all avoidance strategies and had worked quite well for about 20 years. None had seemingly got the better of me and yet here I was on my knees.
Avoidance strategies tend to be successful when they are situational. When they become the itinerary of daily life, the debt we owe ourselves begins to build until one day the bailiffs show up. The unconscious, the soul, whatever you like to call it, reaches up and engulfs us looking to straighten out our path. (It’s important to acknowledge that for some people depression is a medical condition unconnected to lifestyle choices and events.)
Connecting with nature
“The more I ran the more I felt empowered – I had control over my body and could feel my confidence growing.”
Being a child of the seventies, I possess strong memories of the invigorating powers of the outdoors. So, it was to nature I turned. I knew if I could get out of the house and socialise just a little, life would open up.
I rang a poker buddy and suggested we begin a daily walk with a goal to becoming runners. At the same time, I began psychotherapy. This two-pronged treatment for my blues turned into my saving. In fact, over time I realised it wasn’t two-pronged – I discovered the body and mind were interlinked as one.
Running in the park became a way I could bring myself out of the drama of the past and future and into the present. The more I ran the more I felt empowered – I had control over my body and could feel my confidence growing. I had a method to address my runaway mind and feelings that grounded me into a self I hadn’t seen in months or years.
Running as therapy
My friend and I began breaking through unimaginable benchmark distances like 100m, 500m and 1k (I’m a big believer in bite-sized incremental progress). In time we found ourselves able to talk while on the move, something that revealed a property about running that surprised me and gave birth to my vocation, a book, a TEDx and an app. Running, I discovered, seemed to provide a sense of focus to our conversation. Not only did I feel more in touch with what I was feeling, but running helped me find the words to better describe it too. I was able to dig a little deeper, if you like, and in a way that felt connected – something that I didn’t always feel during my therapy sessions.
One year later I took the leap to jump from psychotherapy client to psychotherapy student. Four years after that I was practising. I continued to run throughout my studies, seeking a way to combine what I was learning with what had been so helpful for me. I took elements from several approaches including person-centred therapy, CBT, existential therapy and mindfulness, fusing them all into an approach I named Dynamic Running Therapy, now available by book, or by app.
We often jump ahead and find excuses not to do the things we have an instinct for. Jumping ahead is disastrous for several reasons.
Firstly, because if we search hard enough, we are bound to find something in our imagination to stop us. These things are often the very reasons we should push on forward. They are outdated doubts about our competency that spring up from childhood. We need to challenge them because we are much more capable than we think.
Secondly, when jumping ahead we put the endeavour through a binary lens – success or failure – tending to undervalue the role of passion and excitement. The journey can and should be as much about discovery and pleasure if we are to push through the struggles to success.
Thirdly, the road never leads to where we think it will. When we jump ahead, we find blocks in the road but can’t see that this will not be the path – the path is always changing. With flexibility and perseverance, we can get anywhere.
Here is a guide to achieving mindfulness through running:
- Begin your run in a peaceful setting (city streets ok if quiet, parks are ideal).
- Become mindful of the environment you are in and all the senses it triggers. Notice the weather, be conscious of the colours, smells and shapes around you.
- Begin your run slowly, counting either each left or right footfall. Don’t count both as it will be hectic! Or count your breath, trees, or fellow runners.
- When you get to 10, start again.
- Each time you are distracted, bring your mind gently back to your footfall or breath. Find a neutral, peaceful pace within. Don’t search for sensory input, it is there anyway – give it the space to come into your awareness. Don’t strive – allow yourself to let go.
- When you find yourself in the kind of zone where the world disappears and it is just you and your steps, then you are in your flow.