Run Like A Ninja
A Guide to Silent Running and Mindful Listening
When I was in high school, I used to go on epic runs. These runs were partly to get out of my house and partly to build endurance for wrestling. There were some rarely used train tracks at the bottom of the hill and I would run on them for hours at a time.
Usually on these long runs, I would carry my Walkman and listen to the Rocky IV soundtrack. This is how I started running and for years running and listening to music went together like bread and butter.
Then for 10 years I almost never ran. When I finally started, again I was living at a Zen monastery where music was discouraged. So, I ran without any music.
It was challenging at first, but I got used to it. And eventually I started to see that there were real benefits to exercise without the tunes. I still use music from time to time, but I found that without headphones in my ears there is so much more I can pay attention to.
Four Things to Listen to While You Run or Walk (Besides Music)
Here are four things I’ve learned to listen to when I run without a headset:
1. Your Own Footsteps
This is the first thing you are likely to notice when you run or walk without headphones. Your feet create many sounds, from the soft pads of a trail, to the tapping rhythm of pavement, to the delicious crunch of a gravel path.
Listening to the texture of the sounds you make is a great practice all it’s own. What’s amazing is you can use this practice to improve your form and decrease your injuries.
The technique is simple. Listen as you run or walk, notice the sounds you make, and then try make them as quiet as possible. Basically you try to run like a ninja.
When you work to run more quietly several things happen. You shift your landing from your heel to your mid-foot. You increase your cadence because it’s easier to run or walk quietly if you take more steps. And your stride becomes more efficient, because you don’t raise your legs as high.
When I started trying to run more quietly I noticed more ease with every step. And after my runs, I noticed I was less fatigued and sore. In addition, by focusing on the sound of my footsteps I was able to turn my runs into a moving meditation.
Notes on Quiet Running and Walking:
Work to make your steps quieter gradually. Start with 1-3 mins at the beginning and end of your run and work up from there. Trying to change your form too quickly can lead to soreness and shin splints.
If you are practicing quiet walking, you’re still going to heel strike, which is normal. But by focusing on being quiet, you will reduce the impact of each step.
2. Your Breathing
Breathing properly during exercise is an essential skill to calm your mind and helps you walk or run more efficiently.
Here are three aspects of breath to listen for:
Breathing in time with your steps is the most important skill you can master as a runner or walker. Rhythmic breathing helps you enter the flow of movement and assures the flow of oxygen to your body is constant.
For running shoot for a 3:2 ratio: 3 steps for the in breath and 2 steps for the out breath. For walking, you can try 3:2 or the more meditative 2:4 ratio.
Deep even breaths –
When you breathe properly all the cavities in your torso expand not just your chest. By listening for a deep even breath, you can make sure to breathe with your whole body in unison.
If you notice your breath has become shallow, make sure you are breathing into your whole body including your abdomen. This will help your lungs expand more fully and make your breathing more efficient.
Mouth and nose Sounds –
Nose breaths have a sharp crisp sound. While mouth breaths tend to be, lower and sound a little like a sigh. Noticing these sounds can give you vital information about how you are breathing.
When walking it’s best to breathe in through your nose and out through you mouth. Your nose helps filter the air and encourages strong even inhales. Running demands more oxygen, which means you need to breathe through your mouth and nose at the same time.
If you hear yourself gulping air through your mouth, it may mean excess CO2 has built up in your lungs. To remedy this breathe in deeply and push all the air out of your lungs with force. At the same time relax your shoulders and shake out your arms. This will clear your lungs of CO2 and help you breathe more easily.
Connection to our natural environment is one of the most rewarding parts of exercise.
And every environment is filled with a rich texture of sounds.If you run in the city, you have the sound of distant traffic, the clatter of construction noise, and the soft patter of overheard conversation. If you run in the country, you have the twitter of birds and the sound of wind through the trees.
Here are two techniques for listening to your environment:
Focused Listening –
Pick one sound and focus on it. It could be a constant sound like the hum of traffic or intermittent like birds chirping. Listen for just that sound and try to notice its texture in as much detail as you can. If that sound stops pick a new one.
Wide Listening –
Instead of picking one sound open up your ears. How many sounds can you hear? What’s the farthest sound you can hear? What sounds are the closest?
Doing this will help you notice sounds you weren’t aware of and will also help calm your mind.
4. Your Mind
It doesn’t matter if I listen to music or nature as I run or walk, my mind can drown out both. Our thoughts are pervasive and enduring. But bringing attention to your mind as you walk or run brings more clarity and peace to your day.
Here are three techniques I use:
Directed Thinking –
Pick a project you are working on and use your run or walk to brainstorm different approaches to it. I often use runs to brainstorm post ideas or even pre-write whole posts in my head.
The goal when I engage in observation while running is just to notice what thoughts arise. There are no right or wrong thoughts. I just let my mind run wild, but I do so with attention.
Often this practice can reveal hidden anxieties, secret guilt, and forgotten memories. When I bring these things into awareness, I give myself time and space to process and address them.
In this practice I focus my thoughts onto one area or sensation.
You can pick any of the previous listening subjects to focus on or some other sensation. Like the sensation of my swinging arms, or the swivel of my hips as I move.
Whatever I pick I do my best to focus on it. When I notice my mind has wandered I don’t get mad at myself I just notice it and return to my object of concentration.
A Final Note on Listening and Safety
While I still sometimes listen to music when I run, I’ve found I get more out of my headphoneless runs. But using headphones isn’t just about awareness it’s also about safety.
If you’ve ever tried to pass an erratic runner wearing headphones, you know it’s a dicey proposition. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, they have no idea you are behind them. This can not only be annoying it can be dangerous.
If you are running in the city, you need your ears for listening for cars. And on the trails, it’s important to know when someone is approaching so you can avoid a collision. Listening for traffic is not only a good idea it’s your responsibility as a member of the exercise community.
If you must wear headphones when you run, walk, or cycle please try to follow these three simple mindful headphone tips:
1. When running or walking in high traffic areas remove the headphone from your left ear. Most people pass on the left and this way you can hear them approaching.
2. If you are wearing both headphones, keep your player at a reasonable volume. This will help you hear any warning noises. It will also save your hearing for years to come.
3. Be attentive. If you are wearing headphones, remember that you’ve eliminated or decreased an important safety sense. Keep your head on a swivel and look back before you suddenly shift lanes or change directions.
Better yet, take your headphones out entirely. The world offers us a symphony of sounds to enjoy. Learning to pay attention to these sounds increases our appreciation of them. And helps us gain a larger perspective on our lives.
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6 thoughts on “Run Like A Ninja – A Guide to Silent Running and Mindful Listening”
This is really helpful tips! I just started running again and can’t get myself to do it without my iPod. It’s what makes it more fun. But maybe when I’m more in my routine of running I’ll try without to see. One way to be mindful while running is to notice colors, people, own breath as you suggested. I’m quite sure I look like a running elephant, so I’ll follow your advice to listen or watch my footsteps. Don’t want any injuries. 😀 Thanks Toku!
It can be hard when you get started to go without the Ipod. You could try ending your runs without your tunes. One way to do this is to decide how long you want to run and make your play list slightly shorter then your run. That way your play list will stop and all you have to do is not mess with your ipod until you get home. Hope that helps!
Thanks for reading!
That’s such a great idea! Thanks Toku. 🙂
It is been short time since I follow you, but I do really appreciate your posts. I am just 2 hours left from running my first marathon, and also trying to avoid training with my music. I have created such a strong dependence on it that at some point is driving me crazy … Tx
I liked all of that. I started trying to run silently (fore-foot, if you like) after reading ‘Born to Run’ and after deciding that the gait analyst who told me that bio-mechanics are fixed and no one change their running style was wrong.
My calves burned the first few times but after that it felt much more joyous. I am more kung fu panda than ninja but its fun
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