How to enjoy treadmill running: treat it as a meditative practice
I don’t much like treadmills, so why did I deliberately plan to run on one?
In a blog post two months ago, I was critical of the idea of slogging through a treadmill workout as an unpleasant, mindless chore and mentioned some ways that I have tried in the past to make the most of treadmill running. I think the last time I ran on a treadmill may well have been two years ago (unfortunately, for the past decade I have kept a paper notebook exercise log, and still have not converted to a searchable digital one, which I perhaps should). So I wanted to try it again, as a meditative practice.
I was “surprised” to find that the treadmills in the gym are now equipped with what seems to be a TV screen attached just above the usual display (of pace, calories, incline, etc.) and a headphone jack so that you can watch and listen to TV by bringing in your own headphones.
I was at first rather annoyed that the addition of the display on top meant that it was no longer the case that I could look out the window that the treadmill was placed in front of. In past years when I used treadmills more often, I liked to pick the one in this particular spot precisely because it had the best view out the window. Depending on the time and season, you can see people walking outside, and running around the track, or some sports game happening. Not that I ever paid much attention, but it was something going on to look at.
Then I realized that in fact, how is that much different from watching TV? It is different because TV programs have some kind of constructed narrative for you to attend to, while observing action outside the window is looser and not as distracting. But in a way, occasionally having my mind wander by checking out what people are doing outside goes against the “mindfulness” I have advocated.
Therefore, I decided to consider the blank TV screen blocking my view a fortuitous opportunity to make my treadmill running more meditative. I chuckled to myself as I thought of how I do meditation facing a blank wall anyway.
If you run on a treadmill and usually distract yourself by looking at other people in the gym, or listen to music, or watch TV, or read a newspaper or book, you might want to try, for the sake of curiosity, a short meditative workout, similar to the one I describe. You only need 15-20 minutes.
To me, running on a treadmill is not much like sitting meditation, but it is similar to walking meditation, which I was introduced to only less than a year ago. Because I am in a dynamic state of movement when either walking or running, my thoughts revolve around my body, my balance, my form.
My goal is to maintain good form, stay relaxed, and just experience my body in a deep way. And one thing nice about the treadmill, I have to say, is that the monotony enables me to pick up on sensations gradually, as they repeat themselves with every pair of strides. In running outside on uneven surfaces and paths, we don’t always notice what we are doing at a given moment, and then the moment passes. It is easier to notice yourself deeply when in a controlled environment such as a treadmill.
The absolute flatness of the landing surface means that I better notice asymmetries in my stride. I know my left side is weaker and tighter than my right side (and I have been gradually correcting this asymmetry over the years in various ways). So I focus on whether I’m letting my left hip release equally to my right, and where on my left foot I’m landing and where the weight transfer happens. Landing well is quite important because it is improper landing that causes knee pain, ankle pain, shin splints, the works. (From personal experience in over a decade of running, and overcoming injury, I strongly advocate a midfoot strike and avoiding a heel strike.)
The monotony and consistency of running on a treadmill makes it easy and even pleasant to spend some time paying attention to some particular aspect of the body movement, then moving on to another, and then maybe attempting to gain an integrated awareness. Here are some areas I focus on:
- foot strike
- foot placement relative to hips
- foot distance from center line bisecting left and right
- hip tightness and release
- rolling of ankles
- feeling of impact: knees bad, glutes good
- calves, hamstrings, quads: what’s being worked when?
- core trunk engaged and flexible
- chest open and free
- shoulders down
- arm swings symmetric
- breathing in regular pattern
- feel of breath at nostrils, lips
- head up, balanced
- efficient stride rate
Don’t beat yourself up with some visualization of what the “perfect” form is (whether something you learned from a book). I find it more useful and meditative to observe, and then slowly “correct” if desired, basically experimenting with adjustments and really feeling what the results are. Our bodies are all different, and frankly, we all have some fundamental asymmetries that we need to work around and accept rather than try to eradicate by force.
Attending to all these body areas and motions briefly, bit by bit, the time does not pass quite as slowly for me as when just letting my thoughts roam about.
I like to start out on a treadmill by walking slowly, to warm up, and gradually increasing the pace until I am jogging. Then I continue gradually increasing the pace until I get into an easy aerobic zone. Depending on my goals and length of the workout, I may just stay there or crank things up more and more.
I happen not to like going very fast (say, mile race pace or faster) on a treadmill. The unnaturalness of the environment seems to cause me to feel awkward and in danger of injury. I don’t have these problems when running comparably fast on the track outside. I think the forces generated are very different.
I feel mostly OK going steadily at my lactate threshold pace on a treadmill.
Aside from the body mechanics of going faster, I find that my thoughts get more frantic, as I start worrying about things that never occur to me when I’m running somewhere rather than going nowhere. For example, I happen to worry about slipping further back on the belt and maybe tripping off the end. This has happened to me in the past on longer treadmill runs where I have zoned out; zoning out is definitely not “mindful”.
I don’t enjoy the coercive sensation of being forced physically to keep exactly a certain pace “or else”. That plus the fragmentation of my attention toward my body results in a challenge to my meditative state. Obviously, the challenge can be considered an opportunity as well, but it’s not one I’m taking up right now anyway while I’m just doing some easy running.
In the gym, people are always coming and going. Sometimes they grunt or drop weights. Sometimes there are lines for the treadmills. There are often people on neighboring treadmills. It is easy to be self-conscious in a gym and think silly thoughts such as, do I look like a loser with my bad form or slow speed setting or wimpy set of weights. These distractions are also an opportunity, to find acceptance of self and others, and realize that we’re all here together, with our own shapes and sizes, taking a break from the computer and the couch, using our bodies.
The muzak is constant. Luckily, it’s not too loud. Still, it’s distracting when the muzak at some point is going at a steady beat that is different from my stride rate. Should I match it? Sometimes I do for a while, if I feel I’m plodding and the muzak is faster. But that’s a kind of distraction. Generally I do not let the muzak get to me.
My brief treadmill run today, facing a blank TV screen, went OK. I will probably be doing more and perhaps longer treadmill runs once every couple of days this winter, although I plan to try an extended outdoors run this weekend. And I will continue to stare at the blank screen and try to make the most of my runs as meditative experiences.comments powered by Disqus