To celebrate World Mental Health Day, we sat down with Samantha Gash - endurance athlete, speaker, podcast host and lululemon Global Run Ambassador.
Taking up running in 2008 as a break from studying law, Samantha has since run over 20,000km in every continent on the planet – raising over £1 million for charity in the process.
Here, we talk about Sam she uses 'mindful running' to help her mental health, and how all runners can do the same.
What does ‘mindful running’ mean to you?
The concept of mindfulness is to bring ourselves into the present. To be mentally connected to the moment and remove distractions that may enter our mind about the past or future.
Therefore, when we think of mindful running, we are allowing ourselves to be mentally connected to the movement we are in. On some runs this can happen effortlessly – we may naturally zone into our breath, the direction our arms are swinging, the comfortable placement of our head and relaxed positioning of our shoulders. Other times it takes conscious effort, particularly if our minds are feeling overwhelmed before we start the run or the exercise itself induces stress. One of the most important things for me about mindful running is releasing ourselves of judgment or expectation on how the run is meant to look or feel.
How can we all practice mindful running?
The first thing to be aware of is mindful running is a practice and, just like any practice, it requires patience and grace with oneself. I find it helpful to remember that practice does not always make perfect, but consistency in effort will bring you closer.
In our hyperconnected world where we default to being ‘busy’ and multitasking as a means of being productive, it can be a challenge to seamlessly slip into a present state.
If I intend to go on a mindful run, which I do at least once a week, I leave my watch and phone behind. Pace is not the focus nor is time. All of these can create a distraction and take me away from the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other.
The foundation for mindful running is concentrating on your breath. Allow it to settle into a comfortable rhythm. Breathe lightly and calmly in and out of your nose. We typically breathe through our mouth when we are unfit or feeling stressed, so reduce your pace if you are finding this hard. Nose breathing over mouth breathing helps our bodies achieve an appropriate level of carbon dioxide in the blood, which supports both our brain and body to perform.
Once this feels comfortable focus on your body from head to toe – thinking of its positioning and whether it is holding unnecessary tension.
On World Mental Health Day, are you happy to talk about how has running helped your mental health?
Running has taught me there are many different ways we can slow down our mind, connect to gratitude and stabilise our emotions. Running is an arena for me to ‘disconnect to connect’ to what is important yet sometimes overlooked – the care for myself in the environment we live in. It is true that we rarely, if ever, regret going for a run. Sometimes the harder it is to get out the door the better we feel during and afterwards.
What does running as a form of meditation look like? Do you listen to music or podcasts when you run?
What I’ve discovered about meditation over the years is that we can practice it in many different ways and it is very individual to the person. When I meditate through running, I typically will do it without music, on the trails and when I am not constrained by a set time. I also find reading a book, hiking on the trails and my morning cup of tea on the porch other means of meditative practices.
Has the meaning of running changed for you during the past six months navigating the pandemic?
The extraordinary circumstances of 2020 have impacted each of us in unique and profound ways. For the majority of 2020 I have been limited to movement in a 5km radius of my house and have had a time limit of 1 – 2 hours where I am allowed to exercise outdoors. As an endurance athlete that has had its challenges, but it has also enhanced my gratefulness for movement. Running has become more about connection and purpose, rather than speed and an activity that is directed towards an upcoming race.
I am also delighted that more people have taken up running than ever before. It is one of the most accessible and affordable ways for people to practice self-care, resilience and connection.
How do you stay motivated?
I remember that enjoyment and growth are found in the everyday, the mundane and the moments on the way to the bigger goals. This allows me to feel connected, motivated and removes a fixation from the end state.
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