A top ultrarunner explains how meditation helps you fulfill your running potential.
Pro ultrarunner Timothy Olson was nearing mile 70 of the 2012 Western States 100 when he lost his mojo. “The burning in my lungs and legs was at a 10, and each downhill stomp sent stabbing pain into my quads,” says Olson, who watched as another competitor took over his lead.
Olson might have reacted with panic and alarm. But he had recently taken up meditation, and the practice helped him focus on his breath, acknowledge his worries, and feel a powerful sense of calm. By dialing down the emotional racket, he was able to hear what his body needed—a little fuel and a few minutes of slow, recuperative running.
Tuning into his body and tuning out negative thinking enabled him to react in a smart, strategic way. A few miles later, rested and refueled, Olson surged ahead, winning the race and setting the course record. “That’s when my meditation practice really clicked for me,” Olson says. “That proved it wasn’t just some fad, but that there were actual results.”
Of course, you don’t have to be an ultrarunner slugging it out for a win to benefit from meditation, says Olson, 32. He believes a daily dose can calm your mind, improve your health, and help you find more joy in the sport—and in your life.
So convinced of meditation’s positive powers, Olson started offering three- and four-day Run Mindful Retreats in Colorado and California in 2015. You won’t find work- shops on running form or speed training on his agenda. Instead, Olson’s long weekends revolve around guided meditation sessions and group runs that focus on helping retreaters discover (or rediscover) running as a peaceful and fun activity, not something riddled with angst, doubt, or discomfort.
That sounded like my kind of nirvana. Running has rarely felt effortless to me; I struggle with incessant internal commentary—which tends to be hypervigilant about lackluster legs and unseemly jiggles. I hoped meditating would help me muzzle those critical voices.
So one Saturday morning last August, I found myself sitting cross-legged in Boulder, Colorado, on the grass with 20 other runners, a mix of ages and abilities, all of whom were hoping Olson’s coaching would help them derive greater enjoyment from their running. Over the course of the retreat, we would go on several group trail runs, each one preceded by a seated 10-minute meditation session. Olson recommends practicing meditation when you aren’t running, in order to build a base of mental fitness that you can tap into during workouts (when you may be too tired, discouraged, or distracted to try some- thing new, like quieting your mind). As I sat, I took stock of my mental state and worked on suspending judgment (see “Try It,” far right). “Swirling thoughts are okay,” Olson says. “Just wait for them to clear.”
Meditation, I learned, is the practice of observing without reacting. Applying that mindset to running produces a host of benefits (see “Sit Down for This,” right). When my calf tightened up during one run, I checked my customary worry and shifted into nonalarmist assessment: Turns out, I was able to adapt my pace until my cranky muscle recovered. I didn’t have a competitor to catch or a race to win, but maintaining my positivity felt like a huge victory. Instead of feeling defeated, I felt acceptance—and happiness.
Here’s what you can learn from my experience.