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Mindful Miles: Applying an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) technique to running

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

“I’m a runner now!” My fiancée proudly proclaimed recently after running two miles outside for the first time. It may or may not have been the first time I have ever seen her run but who am I to argue? I am just here to offer support right? And in this role it would only make sense for me to provide my unsolicited advice for mastering the mental game while running.

Now, before I go any farther (or is it further?), I must admit that I am not immune to the struggles of running or writing with proper grammar. Yesterday, I went for a run and literally during the first minute the thought stream went a little something like this - “Why am I still doing this? It’s so hot out. I’m getting married, isn’t it time to develop dad bod?”

Years ago I may have fought or struggled with these thoughts. Or perhaps I would have tried to think positive or fix them. However, through studying the science of performance I have come to understand that such techniques do not necessarily work and worse yet can make running miserable. After all, it is pretty unenjoyable and potentially difficult to maximize your run when “I cannot wait until I stop.” “Running is terrible,” “How much longer do I have,” are playing in full blast in your field of awareness throughout a run and your way or dealing with them is to play tug of war with them or swat at them like annoying gnats that must go away.

Fortunately, there is an alternative approach that comes to us from the mindfulness- and acceptance- based therapies, particularly acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT, said as one word “act”). ACT offers a perspective on enhancing human performance that differs from traditional approaches. ACT contends that the path to achieving optimal performance is not by controlling our internal experiences (thoughts or emotions), but by transforming your relationship with them to be more open, accepting, and allowing. This is achieved by learning and using the six interrelated core processes which can be found here…

For the purposes of brevity, today I will focus on just one of those processes – Cognitive Defusion.

COGNITIVE DEFUSION: A core process targeted in ACT is cognitive fusion. Fusion occurs when all our attention is turned towards the thoughts in our mind. You can think of being fused with thoughts as similar to having your hands right in front of your face – it becomes too difficult to see and move around. When these thoughts are considered unhelpful or unwanted, often a struggle emerges to eliminate, fix, and/or control these thoughts. Problem is trying to control and/or eliminate your thoughts while running can be mentally exhausting and take away from connecting to the enjoyment of running (yes, that exists). In addition, fighting with thoughts takes cognitive effort, and mental fatigue can impair physical performance (e.g. trying to think a certain way can slow you down). So don’t burn your fuse, defuse by using these strategies.

1. Put the following words in front of your thought – “My mind is telling me that…..” “I notice my mind is having the thought that….”:

Doing this type of exercise creates distance between yourself and thoughts. Try it out “My mind is telling me that I am never going to be able to run two miles without stopping” versus “I am never going to be able to run two miles without stopping.”

First one sounds a lot better and helps you realize that a thought is just a thought, not the literal truth. This can seem unnatural at first so practice it a bunch. And remember when you think “this technique doesn’t work for me,” you really should be rephrasing that as “my mind is telling me this technique doesn’t work for me.”

2. Sing your thoughts to a popular tune or say them in a funny voice (not aloud):

You start to become less fused when you say something like “Running is miserable” in the voice of Stewie from Family Guy. Or sing that phrase to the tune of Happy Birthday. Again this can be done in your mind. You do not need to impress other nearby runners with your wonderful impressions or singing voice.

3. Be Aware, Acknowledge, and do an Attentional Shift:

The idea here is to first notice (awareness) when you are fused with a particular thought or thoughts. In doing so you step out of automatic pilot and can acknowledge that for the last five minutes of your run all you’ve been doing is thinking about when it is going to be over. When you notice and acknowledge you are doing that or caught up in another form of unhelpful thinking, you can then use your senses to shift your attention back into the present moment. A great way to do that is to check in with all your senses. Notice one thing you see. Notice one thing you feel. Notice one thing you smell. Noticing one thing you hear. Again, the whole idea is to notice when you are caught up in unhelpful thinking, acknowledge it, and gently shift your attention back into the present moment. You may need to do this over and over and over again but consider it weight-training for the mind. Believe me it’s far less heavy lifting than fighting with your thoughts.

4: Remind yourself that thoughts do not guide behavior

A quick exercise I occasionally do with athletes is to have them think in silence the thought “I can’t raise my hand, I can’t raise my hand,” over and over again. And then I ask them to raise their hand. This highlights the point that even though your mind is saying something that does not mean it is true or that you have to obey its direction. Problem is we often reinforce thoughts when we buy into them and let them guide our behavior. For example, it is quite common to get home from work or wake up in the morning and the mind to say something like “I cannot run today. I am just too tired. I just do not feel like it.” When you listen to those thoughts and do not go run then those types of thoughts only grow stronger and will take more control over your behavior. Remember you control your behavior, not the words of your mind. The same approach can be taken to when your mind says during a run “I need to stop,” or “I cannot go any faster.” If you respond to those thoughts by slowing down and/or stopping you only reinforce those thoughts. Next time a thought like that comes up, just see if only for a few seconds or maybe longer if you can run faster. This type of behavioral contrast to the thought helps quiet those thoughts into a mere whisper and puts you in the driver’s seat, not your thoughts.

It is not easy but with commitment mindful running can lead to greater enjoyment and many benefits for your overall well-being. If all else fails remember to be kind, compassionate, and loving towards yourself along your mindful running journey. With that said I am going to be kind and loving towards my fiancée by acknowledging that although I poked fun at her at the beginning of this blog she just completed her first 5K. Great job! I guess those defusion techniques really helped!

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