Let’s face it. Exercise is the number one resolution people make each New Year, but it is also the most unkept resolution. The mere thought of strenuous exercise can be daunting! Yet some revel in it and the benefits are immense. Exercise has even recently been proposed as an adjunct therapy for cancer. But how can you reach the point of consistently forcing yourself to go for a run, or even better, enjoying this hugely beneficial activity?

I believe the most potent motivator for exercise is feeling yourself improve. So I’m here to let you in on some of the secrets that will help you improve your results and find the enjoyment in exercise.

When it comes to running, there are three main factors that feed into how well you perform: muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness and mental fortitude. When you first start running, you’ll quickly be able to identify which of these is your limiting factor; whether it’s your muscles aching and feeling as heavy as lead, huffing and puffing until it feels like your heart might explode, or psyching yourself out with doubt and resentment. Your best chance at success is building an exercise routine that promotes this triad of factors. So how would this work?

Find <a href="https://www.swimmersguide.com/">a pool near you</a> to improve your breath control and endurance for running! You could even take swimming lessons. Credit: ferrantraite.
Find a pool near you to improve your breath control and endurance for running! You could even take swimming lessons. Credit: ferrantraite.

Step 1: Start swimming!

Swimming is essential to building your base cardiovascular fitness. Find yourself a public pool and dive in!

But what if I hate swimming and am really bad at it?” Like anything, once you start swimming you’ll improve. It’s almost guaranteed that the first time you go swimming, you’ll feel like a beached whale flailing in the surf. But it’s only expected that you’ll feel awkward trying to move in another medium after years of walking on land. And you’ll soon find a rhythm.

But what if I don’t like getting cold and wet?” The feeling of shock after jumping in cold water lasts all but one lap. If this is a major barrier for you, consider how much better your life could be if you stuck to this resolution and re-evaluate exactly how much weight this barrier holds against your success.

The beauty of swimming is that it forces you to focus on your breath and establish a regular breathing pattern, especially when the consequence of breaking rhythm is a lung full of water! It is the perfect framework in which to build the foundations of controlled breathing, a skill that will prove crucial later when running.

Moreover, swimming is an activity that lets your thoughts themselves swim in your mind. It’s interesting to see where your thoughts go when released from the shackles of daily activity. But when this mental freedom leads to doubt and insecurity, you have entered the realm of the second step.

Grab a 5-minute focused breathing meditation when you wake up in the morning. Credit: mapodile.
Grab a 5-minute focused breathing meditation when you wake up in the morning. Credit: mapodile.

Step 2: Start meditating!

In the same way that physical exercise strengthens the body, mental exercise can strengthen the mind. This strength comes in the form of mental toughness, resilience or fortitude. Mental toughness is a hallmark of long distance running.

“In long distance running, the only opponent you have to beat is yourself.” – Haruki Murakami

Meditation classically involves focusing on your breath while letting your thoughts flow past you without judgement. There are a few techniques that can be directly transferred from meditation to running that can help you face the mental challenge of exercise. Control of breath, initially developed through swimming, is the focal point of meditation. It’s a great tool to foster self-awareness and can be used to establish rhythm during exercise. And rhythm is the key to running!

Beside breath control, meditation can help shift the focus of your mind when you’re lost in thought, which is especially useful when doubts crop up during exercise. Dissociating your thoughts from the doubt or discomfort you’re experiencing, through the use of distraction or external stimuli, can significantly lessen the effects of these negative thoughts and feelings. This can involve recounting past events, planning for the future, absorbing yourself in your surrounding environment or immersing yourself in music or just the sound of your breath. Dissociation can even extend to lulling yourself into a semi-meditative state while running! In these ways, meditation is excellent for the development of cognitive strategies that can enhance your performance!

Check out these free guided meditations from the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center to get started.

Apply the breath and focus you learn swimming and meditating to running! Young girl running outside. Credit: praetorianphoto.
Apply the breath and focus you learn swimming and meditating to running! Credit: praetorianphoto.

Step 3: Integrate these skills into running!

In the context of running, meditation-related skills are classified as associative and dissociative strategies, which have been shown to enhance performance during long-distance events. Associative strategies such as the breathing control archetype described earlier involve being mindful of your body’s status during exercise. This builds off of the meditative adage of self-awareness and includes monitoring running pace, posture, arm movement, foot-strike and stride length. Elite runners are so in tune with their bodies that they can adjust their style on the fly; but they also have the ability to dissociate their thoughts away from themselves.  

The best performing runners exhibit a composite strategy of shifting between associative and dissociative states throughout a race, while primarily using dissociation towards the end of the race when the pain is most intense. But in the early stages of a race, associative strategies such as positive self-talk have been found most effective. Self-talk ensures you maintain a positive mindset while helping you overcome challenges such as hills and the infamous ‘wall’. Mantras I find effective include repeating “I am strong” while running up a hill, or focusing on a point in the distance to reach.

Integrating these skills into running will begin to hone your cardiovascular fitness, mental toughness and muscular endurance, which will go a long way towards improving your performance and helping you find enjoyment in exercise in the new year!

Still looking for running health tips? Learn about about intermittent fasting for runners with LifeOmic’s own mountain ultra runner here!