After fracturing her leg while playing sport, Lara Mossman discovered mindful running and the benefits it offers during recovery. In this personal account she describes the technique, ways to vary it up and how it reshaped her notion of a fitness role-model. Here is her story...
About a year ago I fractured my leg playing futsal (indoor soccer). My knee, and as it turned out the top of my tibia, took the full brunt of an opponent’s kick. To be clear, I am far from an elite athlete, but nonetheless the injury caused me a considerable amount of angst. I’d never had such a serious injury before and I like to be active. Suddenly there was a huge question mark over my recovery. Would I still be able to run and play futsal after the bone had healed?
As a forty-something mother of three, whose social life revolved heavily around these activities, I couldn’t bare to contemplate not being able to continue. I’ll confess, too, that I’m not as mentally tough as I would like to be. I worried that when I did try to run, I’d give up at the slightest twinge in my leg or sign of being unfit.
As I approached the six-week mark, getting back to running became a reality. It was at that time I attended a group mindfulness class. Mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes mindfulness as:
‘the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment’.
Often this is done through formal mediation, but it turns out we can still engage with the present moment in an array of daily activities, such as mindful eating or colouring in. During the session, which was a blend of formal and informal mindfulness, I expressed my apprehension about returning to running. I was asked if I’d tried mindful running. I hadn’t.
The technique that was described to me involved placing leaves between my thumb and forefinger on each hand. The leaves act as an attentional anchor. In formal mediation we often use the breath or a particular body part as an anchor. With mindful running I was told to focus on keeping the leaves in tact. It entails a light touch, a relaxed hand. The theory is that the rest of the body follows suit and we run with our entire body relaxed. In the past I’d noticed I’d picked up minor injuries when I’d been tense, so the concept intrigued me.
"Do I look daft running with leaves in my hands?"
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but with this mental shift from worry to curiosity, I also found greater motivation to run. I wanted to try out this unique idea. Leaves in hand, my first run was a little over a one kilometre, a fraction of what I have done pre-injury. Instead of frustration at the end though, I felt a sense of achievement. My leaves were perfectly in tact. Negative thoughts had still tugged at my attention during the run, such as, ‘Is that twinge the fracture not yet healed?’ ‘Do I look daft running with leaves in my hands?’ ‘Am I too old for this?’ and ‘I’m never going to regain my fitness’. However, I was able to continuously unhook from those thoughts and bring my focus back to the leaves. Importantly, I had a renewed drive to keep going.
Over the following weeks I continued to use the technique. In came the negative thoughts, but back went my attention to the leaves. I learned to pick leaves with a scent, such as geranium or eucalyptus. The strong aroma made it easier to keep my attention on them. I even shared mindful runs with my sister, husband and friends. By the four-week mark I was back running distances between 8 and 10 kilometres. Instead of spending my rehabilitation period discouraged and anxious, my recovery had been novel and interesting.
"I see myself as a slightly eccentric octogenarian shuffling along, leaves lightly pressed between timeworn fingers."
It’s been over a year now since I first discovered mindful running. I’m still running and playing futsal alongside my friends. Occasionally I run with leaves, but mostly I just lightly touch my thumb and forefinger together out of habit. I’ve noticed that as soon as I do this, my shoulders drop and relax (even if I do it when I’m not running). I play around with my attentional anchor during runs, too. Sometimes I use my feet and focus on the contact they make with the ground. Other times I focus on the sounds I can hear around me, such as birds. The negative self-talk still accompanies me on most runs, but I avoid being sucked in; I return to my anchor.
I now visualise a long running future ahead of me. I see myself as a slightly eccentric octogenarian shuffling along, leaves lightly pressed between timeworn fingers. This image epitomises a fitness role model for me and excites me with possibilities of the long, mindful running road ahead.
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Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-156.