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4 Simple Steps to Supercharge Your Runs and Your Brain With Mindfulness

03/31/2015 01:53 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015

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Photo Credit: Kennan Harvey, www.kennanharvey.com

It seems mindfulness is all over the news these days, whether here on HuffPost, on 60 Minutes, or on the cover of your favorite magazine. It's an ancient technique with modern adaptations, backed by science, to help you de-stress and rewire the mind, literally changing the brain, for greater success and happiness, and there's almost no end to the benefits of being more present and aware.

Like the old expression to kill two birds with one stone (sorry birds), adding mindfulness to exercise helps you boost both your mental and physical fitness at the same time. And exercising mindfully helps you get in the zone, making exercise easier, more enjoyable and energizing. Instead of feeling exhausted after a workout, you finish feeling exhilarated, revitalized, and ready to go. Mindful running recharges body, mind and soul. At MindfulRunning.org we have a whole program on it.

Running mindfully is also in many ways like yoga. It helps you gain awareness of your body while reducing stress and shutting off the mental chatter. At the same time there's the added cardiovascular, weight loss, and strength-gaining benefits of forward motion. And if you're outdoors, you also get the mental massage and brain-boosting benefits of changing scenery. Running or walking outdoors, particularly through a park, forest, or along the water's edge, can calm, quiet, and recharge the mind, helping you think and move at your best again.

Here are four simple steps to incorporate mindfulness into your workouts whether you are indoors or out.

Step 1: Focus on your breath.

This is the simplest way to quiet the mind and give it some much-needed rest.

It's also the No. 1 thing you can do to access that elusive zone or where runners experience the runner's high feeling. While it's typically associated with running outdoors, you can get it on a treadmill too. And it has other massive benefits for your body as well, particularly if you practice deep, diaphragmatic, nasal breathing -- a fancy way of saying, Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose down to your belly.

Breathing deeply and slowly through the nose triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the "rest and relax" response. This keeps stress hormones at bay, reduces inflammation, relaxes muscles, increases available oxygen and gives you greater endurance. It can also help lower your heart rate and blood pressure, both during and after workouts.

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Conversely, breathing fast through the mouth (aka gasping for air) triggers the sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight-or-flight response. Ironically, this can reduce available oxygen, constrict blood vessels, tighten muscles, raise your heart rate and blood pressure, and raise your dreaded cortisol or stress hormones levels, thereby increasing inflammation.

Step 2:
Focus on your form.

This helps rewire and strengthen the mind to keep you in the present moment.

Pay particular attention to your leg speed, lightness and symmetry. Ask yourself:

1. Am I taking short, quick, quiet strides? Listen or watch in a mirror to see. The shorter and faster you step, the less bouncing and impact.

2. Are my arms and legs moving forward, or swinging in or out? The more they're pointed and moving forward, the less stress and strain on your joints, back and neck.

3. Am I moving symmetrically? Watch for one arm lower than the other, one leg's that's turned out (neither should be), landing differently with each leg, or carrying something in only one hand. If you spot this, then you're running inefficiently and potentially creating future injuries. Work to run balanced, smooth and even.

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Step 3:
Work to bring your breath and movement into sync.

This dramatically calms the body and is a great way to get you in the zone.

When you're focused on these two things in tandem, there's little room left for extraneous thoughts. Start by counting your footsteps, then timing them with your breath. For example, you might take three steps for every inhale and three for every exhale. Where you start isn't important, but work to take more steps per breath, which gradually relaxes the mind and body. Can you take four steps for each inhale and each exhale, or even five? Extending the breath makes you more efficient at using air. This lowers your heart rate and helps quiet your mind. While it takes time to adapt, it dramatically improves fitness. By springtime, you'll find yourself running faster while breathing lighter!

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Step 4:
Focus on dropping your thoughts.

This gives us many of the great benefits of meditation, particularly for the mind.

In general, it's only brief snippets in life where our minds aren't racing and we're truly present in the moment. But by dropping our thoughts as we run, we gain access to many of meditation's great benefits. Imagine greater patience, compassion, creativity, focus, and clearer thinking, all coming from your runs! You'll begin to experience this, plus more relaxed running, reduced tension, and a better ability to see obstacles on your path before you step on them. And ironically, after dropping your thoughts, often your most earth-shattering, million-dollar making, dramatically-improve-your-life ideas come to you just after you've finished your run -- so keep a notebook handy!

If you've studiously gone through steps 1, 2 and 3, then by now, there shouldn't be too many thoughts to drop. If a thought does sneak up, practice catching it, letting it go, then going back to your breath. Think of a thought as an unwanted ball lobbed your way. Don't worry about the ball, dwell on it, or hold onto it. Just catch, release, and breathe.

And don't worry about how many thoughts come up. Simply use each thought to strengthen your mental muscles. So make it a game. Work to see how long you can go between lobs. In the beginning perhaps it's only a few steps between thoughts, but with practice, it may become a minute, a mile or more! This relaxes mind, body and soul, giving you more patience, calmness and clarity of mind for everything in your day.

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When this clicks, running and exercise become doubly precious. Because now you're literally entering the meditation zone, getting all the great benefits of quieting your mind as you run, walk or workout. This means a healthier you from the inside out, and a more resilient you, one that's capable of handling more stress or challenges ahead, and one that helps you be less judgmental of anything that comes your way. In essence, you're putting fuel back in your tank and having it on reserve for when you need it.

Meditating while you move also gives you greater satisfaction and joy from your workouts. This boosts your motivation, making it easier to run and fit your exercise in. And just think of how great you'll feel as you fly along in the zone, with smoother form, greater fitness, and a stronger, healthier, happier mind. Then when you're back at home or at work, you'll feel more refreshed, clearer of mind, and more productive too!

So give it a try today and check out mindfulrunning.org for more mindful running tips and videos.

Be mindful, have fun, and run free!

Best-selling author Michael Sandler has been a professional athlete and coach for over 25 years, most recently developing and spearheading the Mindful Running Movement through MindfulRunning.org and RunBare.com. Having survived and thrived after two near-death accidents left him with twin titanium hips and femurs, he has a contagious positive can-do attitude and is passionate about helping others discover their true-nature, tap into their inner wisdom, heal, and run like they've never run before! Together with his wife Jessica Lee, they've created the Mindful Running Training Program, and travel the world coaching, teaching, and cultivating mindfulness. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.