How can this be? Zen is not just about sitting and meditating; seated meditation is the core practice, but the lessons learned during meditation extend to all aspects of life. In short, it's about being present and giving yourself fully to what you're doing at every moment. With Zen you learn to control your mind (consciously thinking, rather than letting thoughts simply occur wildly) and enjoy every moment. When it comes to running, Zen practice has improved my breathing, my mental strength and my joy.
BreathingWhen we sit in meditation, we breathe, and the focus is on the breath. This is because we are always breathing, and by focusing on our breath we necessarily focus on the present moment; we clear our minds of past and future worries.
Obviously, breath is vital to running. We bring energy to our cells and dispel waste through our breath. Despite its importance, runners seem to rarely focus on their breath, let alone consciously modulate it.
Zen teaches you to notice your breath throughout your life, which also includes running. And when you focus on your breath during running, you can modulate your perceived effort, heart rate and outlook. I've written about this with regard to my PR marathon performance in October.
Mental StrengthMeditation is not easy. When you first sit—even if you're an experienced practitioner—it can be difficult to quiet the mental chatter. It takes continual effort to maintain focus—it's a workout for your mind. With practice, it becomes easier, and the improved mental strength from meditation extends to other aspects of life: running, for example.
When I tell people I run long distances, often the first thing they say is how they could never do that because they get too bored when they run. I think this type of boredom comes from distracting yourself from the act at hand (running) by thinking of all the things you could or should be doing instead. No wonder running would seem boring if you teach yourself to disconnect when you're doing it!
Zen meditation helps in this regard because engaging with the present moment is at the core of Zen practice. If you practice Zen as a runner, you may find that you no longer need music to keep you occupied, and that you can focus more on the phenomenon of your body clipping through space. Oh, and you'll likely find that you enjoy it more, which brings me to my next point.
JoyWhy do we run? Especially in the 80's and 90's, but even today to a large extent, people ran to control their weight. But it's clear today that "chronic cardio" is not the most effective form of exercise for weight management—it may even be extremely hazardous. Still, distance running is growing in popularity. There are many reasons for this; for example, completing a marathon is a tremendous feat, and it's a bucket list item for many. But I think the people who continue to run (and progress to longer and longer distances) do it because the activity is joyous. There's the mythical "runner's high" that we often talk about, beautiful scenery, the company of other runners, the opportunity for self-experimentation, and the joy that accompanies outdoing your previous best.
I've found that Zen meditation has enhanced the joy I get out of every activity in my life, because it helped me find joy in what for many people is the missing link: the joy of the physical act of running—besides all that other stuff. Sure, trees and trails are beautiful and it's fun to buy new gadgets, but if you can extract joy from the motion of your own body, everything else becomes far secondary. (With the added benefit that you don't need all those kajiggers to be a happy runner.)
Don't Take My Word for ItFeel free to try Zen for yourself. Here is an introduction to Zen, which answers questions like, "Isn't Zen a religion, and if I already have a religion, can I practice?" You should also check out the Victoria Zen Center (Zenwest), which offers a wonderful, free online course in Zen practice. Fair warning, though: As I mentioned before, it isn't easy. Moreover, you'll likely only see effects with consistent practice, so I recommend committing to daily Zen practice for a month or so before judging whether it's for you or not.
You may also be interested in the book Running with the Mind of Meditation, which offers an introduction to meditation from a runner's perspective and offers numerous mind exercises to improve your running experience.