‘I swapped my high intensity workouts for mindful training, and now feel calmer’

Journalist and stress head Juna Xu, swapped her high intensity workouts for a week of mindful training. The results? Her mental health improved immensely and she learnt to love to run again.

Hi, my name’s Juna and I’m a fitness-holic.

No, like, really. The thought of going a day without doing an intense workout stresses me out. If I haven’t hit at least 15,000 steps a day I get a little stressed. And if those three rings on my Apple Watch aren’t closed by the end of the day, oh hoo boy, you guessed it – I am stressed out.

But then 2020 hit and that stress blew up faster than COVID spreads. Sorry, unfortunate metaphor, but it is what it is.

My approach to running and exercise in general, changed from working out for fun to desperately trying to keep the COVID kilos off, make up for all the sitting I was doing whilst working from home and distracting myself from the chaos that was occurring in the world.

I’m in no means a professional athlete – ha, a professional athlete in my dreams – but I sure was training as though I needed to enter the Olympics.

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Naturally, by the time November rolled around I was exhausted. I was constantly tired, I’d wake up with sore muscles and the thought of having to exercise or go for another run became a chore. It had indeed left me stressed, both mentally and physically, and as a result was slowing down my fitness progress.

Which is when Nike Pacific Run Coach Lydia O’Donnell, reached out and asked me to try a week of mindful training.

My first reaction? Pfft, mindful? As in my runs need to turn into slow strolls? As in doing yoga instead of HIIT? As in m-m-me-ditation????

Yes, I was extremely sceptical; but at that point in time, I knew I needed some sort of change and my horoscope said I should be expecting a lightbulb moment so, you know!

Plus, O’Donnell explained there’s actually a plethora of health benefits associated with mindful running.

“Mindful running can provide you with a sense of purpose and satisfaction that can create self-confidence to be proud of who you are. Through the movement of running, we are able to reconnect with ourselves. Allowing yourself this time each day or week to head outside and move can be one of the best things we can do for our mental health,” she explained.

“Running for your mind can remove the expectations and pressures we may feel to run a certain pace or distance. Mindful running is not about how far or how fast you can run, but more about how you feel once you’re done.”

O’Donnell then created a personalised 7-day mindful training program for me using both the Nike Run Club app (NRC) and Nike Training Club app (NTC).

The plan was structured so I’d do alternating days of running and gym workouts, starting with a run.

My 7-day mindful raining program

Here’s my complete 7-day mindful training program. (Note: this plan was made specifically for me. Your week of mindful training will look different depending on your fitness levels and goals)

  • Day 1: NRC Morning Run with Headspace (30 min)
  • Day 2: NTC Active Warm-Up Flow (11 min) + NTC Ascend and Descend (15 min)
  • Day 3: NRC Tough day Easy Run (20 min)
  • Day 4: NTC Lunges and Length Workout (30 min)
  • Day 5: NRC Stress Free Run (25 min)
  • Day 6: NTC Runner Stability (20 min)
  • Day 7: NRC A Whole Run (45 min)

The 7-days of mindful training…

Day 1 came and it was time to say goodbye to my old exercise habits.

I have to admit, I’ve tried countless of times to get into the habit of meditation. But my problem has been that I just cannot sit still and it will take approximately 0.0003 seconds before my mind is off thinking about the million other things I need to get done.

However, slipping into my Nike Air Zoom Tempo NEXT% trainers and heading out for my first day of mindful training – a 30-minute audio guided run with co-founder of Headspace Andy Puddicombe and Nike Head Coach Chris Bennett – was enlightening, to say the least.

Instead of focusing on my distance or speed, my mind was focused on Puddicombe and Coach Bennett’s voices who were guiding me to clear my mind.

Before 7.30am, I had complete a run, ticked off a considerable amount of my daily step count and my mind was surprisingly calmer and clearer.

Day two didn’t involve a run; instead, it was a short warm-up flow followed by an endurance-based gym workout. Interestingly, just doing a guided mindful warm-up before diving straight into more intense moves helped me become more in tune with what my body was doing (as opposed to how many calories I had burnt, how far along into the workout I was or… what I was having for lunch).

I then accompanied this workout with an awe walk later that day, which helped me recollect my thoughts again and focus on my breath.

Day three came and I was back outside for another run.

O’Donnell gave me the following advice: “Running brings a sense of purpose and accomplishment. No matter what else is going on in your life, running can be a time for you to feel good, or slightly better, or even your best. Give yourself this time.” And I ran with this.

I slowly became more accustomed to the concept of mindful training over the next few days. I wasn’t so much focused on trying to eliminate all other thoughts from my head and solely focus on the guided audio. It just came naturally.

While it was probably a matter of ‘practice makes progress’, I was actually the most mentally calm I had been all year – and that shifted my mind to automatically relax and enjoy being in the moment.

Day seven was the day I was dreading. I mean, a 45-minute run? It also didn’t help that it reached 38 degrees. Honestly, just my luck.

But to my surprise, it flew by quicker than all my other runs that week because running had no longer become tiring or difficult. From the get-go, I was mentally fist pumping as Puddicombe and Coach Bennett were motivating me to reach that finish line.

Trust me, I was someone who used to despise running. It was only recently that I developed a love for the exercise – and I’ve got to admit that those few mindful runs made it a lot easier.

As O’Donnell puts it: “The best way to start running is to focus on the benefits for your mind over anything else. If you can focus on how you mentally feel, it is the fastest way to see and feel progress as a runner.

“Rather than spending weight weeks building up your conditioning to distance or speed, if you run for your mind, you will eliminate any pressure on yourself and will notice how good running can make you feel.”

And if you’re a regular or professional runner, firstly, you go Glen Coco! And secondly, please try a mindful run on your recovery days.

“Runners who run more regularly should use mindful running as their way to take easy days and focus on recovery. Recovery runs are just as important as the hard runs,” O’Donnell explains. “Those who run every day, mindful running is a great way to force themselves to go a little slower and to run for a different reason other than for hitting certain splits or running certain distances.”

How many times per week should you do a mindful run?

“Both beginners and pros would benefit from at least two mindful runs a week,” O’Donnell says.

“Whether you’re just starting out or you have been running for a long time, using running regularly as a tool for your mind is a great way to check in with yourself and your mental health.” Agreed.

How mindful training has changed my approach to fitness

Just a week of mindful training forced me to put aside all my worries and stress, and just be in the moment. It forced me to focus on my breath and actually enjoy the scenery around me. It took the hard work out of running as my mind wasn’t focused on how fatigued my legs felt.

But most importantly? It placed me in a headspace where I now no longer see 2020 as a year tainted by a global pandemic. Instead, it’s one where I’ve become more grateful than ever for everything I already have such as a body that can push through a workout and legs that can take me on a run.

Growth isn’t always visible and even though I was working out less throughout those seven days, I know I grew mentally stronger. And that, my friends, is exactly what exercise should be about.

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