Is Running a Kind of Meditation? (Part I)

“I’m a lover of reality. When I argue with What Is, I lose, but only 100% of the time.”

Byron Katie.

A good portion of my previous post dealt with my current relationship with running. Although I’m devoting less of my time to this particular hobby lately, I don’t see it as taking a back seat or being put on hold. Rather, running is converging into a bigger picture of health and balance that is more in-the-moment but maybe also more sustainable. This picture has been heavily anchored by mindfulness practices, which are beginning to permeate many areas of my life including running.

Both running and mindfulness meditation could be described as repetitive in nature, solitary in practice, and often challenging to perform and maintain. Running Meditators (and Meditating Runners) acknowledge the overlapping qualities of these activities to amplify the benefits inherent in both. It’s also possible (but not always the case, as you’ll read below) to meditate on the run.

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“While there’s much to gain from performing the physical activity, there’s a lot we’re missing out on when we slip into a semi-conscious state when doing the exercise. It’s pretty normal for the mind to wander when you’re running, regardless of whether the thoughts are related to the running itself, or something quite separate. But the only way to ensure that you’re performing to the very best of your ability, is to leave the thinking behind and allow the body and mind to work together with a combined physical and mental focus.”

Via The Huffington Post / Headspace App

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“Meditating before running could change the brain in ways that are more beneficial for mental health than practicing either of those activities alone…”

A study published in April 2016 found that depressed subjects who practiced meditation followed by a 30 minute run, showed a significant change in brain activity and a 40 percent reduction in symptoms after just 8 weeks.

Via The New York Times

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“Running and meditation are very personal activities. Therefore they are lonely. This loneliness is one of their best qualities because it strengthens our incentive to motivate ourselves.”

“If we do not push ourselves enough, we do not grow, but if we push ourselves too much, we regress. What is enough will change, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In that sense, the present moment is always some kind of beginning.”

From Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham

So we notice that running and meditation have lots of similarities and further, a symbiotic relationship. Meditation can help a runner’s performance, and physical activity can also have substantial benefit for a meditator. BUT – Is running meditation?

On a recent episode of the wonderful podcast “10% Happier with Dan Harris,” Dan and ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll discuss the difference between seated meditation and sports or other recreation:

Rich: “For many years as an ultra endurance athlete, like, I spent a lot of time in solitude training … and there’s certainly an active meditation component to that … and for many years I sort of said, well, that’s my meditation… but…

‘…There is something to a structured, formalized meditation practice that is qualitatively different from what you’re experiencing when you’re training.”

Dan: “One [of the reasons people give for not meditating] is: “‘Blank‘ is my meditation…. Running is my meditation. Gardening is my meditation. Petting my dog is my meditation.’ .. And my answer to that is: maybe. Depends on how you’re doing it. Like, if you run the way I run, which is that you’re rehearsing all the stuff you’re going to stay to your boss, or you’re listening to a podcast or listening to music, that is not meditation. If you are running and your headphones are out and you’re feeling your footfalls, you’re feeling the wind on your face, you’re feeling the motion of your body, and then every time you get distracted you start again – well then you’re meditating.”

How and why should we meditate while running? In part Part II of this post we’ll explore running meditation in practice and also look at the question “Should I meditate while running?”

 

 

 

“Don’t Dream it. Be it.”

Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

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I’ve been dreaming. Mostly I’m running. I dreamed I fell into the ocean off of Highway One while racing in Big Sur. I also dreamed that I completed the miraculous transition from Bakasana (Crow Pose) to Chaturanga, over and over and over.

The following morning, when Roy took requests at his 7:30am All Levels class, I asked for crow. And lo and behold, you know what happened? I floated from bakasana to chaturanga. And then I went home and did it again.

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Kathryn Budig says:

This is a transition that can be extremely mental for most of us. We get stuck in our heads or tell ourselves that we can’t do it. So, the first step is to tell yourself you can.

I admit, on first read this ”power of positive thinking” stuff can sound, to my ears, corny at best and pseudo-scientific at worst. But how can you possibly disassociate the body from the mind? I think about the times when I’m struggling to hold a challenging yoga pose, or in the last tough push of a race, and what forcing a big smile can do for a bit of pain relief. This New York Times article from February describes how Olympians use imagery as part of training.

So I’m trying to carry through the experience of dreaming (ie – visualization and mental preparation) in the lead up to Sunday’s marathon in Big Sur. Not only to rehearse my plan and calm my nerves, but also to perform optimally. So I’ve been reading this great course description from the Clif Bar Pace Team blog, and trying to internalize the terrain, scenery, and recommended strategies. I’m beginning to meditate on how I’ll feel, what I’ll do, and ways I’ll focus.

I’m becoming a little obsessive about everything but I suppose it’s natural at this stage in the game. While the nerves are prevalent, the excitement is also kicking in. I’m reminding myself to focus, relax, and enjoy the build up. It’ll be over before I know it.

“The first and great commandment is: Don’t let them scare you.”

Elmer Davis.

So I’m convinced. I’ve read every Big Sur Intl Marathon race recap on the internet. Every. Single. One. The ultrarunners bouncing up Hurricane Point. The Boston 2 Big Sur badasses taking it easy with an 8 min/mile pace. The first timers who, saved by magical mile 23 strawberries, triumph in the face of injury, headwinds, and the wall. Runners who inexplicably PR. Runners who run their slowest race ever. Runners breathless from the breathtaking Northern California coast.

As a result I am highly educated, mad with denial, and/or completely freaked out. Donno. I feel at once cautiously confident and lost in the wilderness, relaxed and petrified. But maybe this is just the nature of marathoning.

Here’s the freak out part: Because I went into training a bit late I don’t have a “plan” so to speak, but rather a somewhat haphazard schedule of weekend long runs that take me through to marathon day. The LSD increase really only began in early February and as such I’m just squeezing in a 20 miler before the taper.

This is what it is, and I’m just moving forward. Beyond the numbers, my strategy is more about listening to my body. My shins have threatened splits but although some tenderness lingers, I believe my respectful weekly mileage (some would say “shockingly low”) has kept this at bay. I’m pushing myself when it feels right, and it has, but at the first sign of injury or overtraining…Bam. I back away. Given the potential for a classic “too much too soon” kind of meltdown, my suspicion is that this approach is probably my only option.

As for the rest of the week, I’m really just making it up as I go along. And kind of to my delight, for better or worse. Again, while I’m staying conservative on mileage and run days per week, I do my cross training (yoga and strength and a little casual bike riding), and try to make every run count. I usually just rely on instinct in assessing what exactly that means.

“I feel like running a little faster today. I’ll average a half-marathon pace, or a couple of miles at 10k pace.”

“Hmm. Last time I ran a bit faster than I intended. Better take it easy, practice breathing evenly and finishing strong.”

“I want to run home from work today. But ugh I should probably do some hills. I’ll take a different turn at mile 3 and suffer over Potrero Hill.”

Fairly casual. The hope is that as long as I can complete the long runs with a disturbing smile on my face, my base fitness will pull me through. At the same time, I’m trying to let go of any time goal for Big Sur and just focus on having a smooth, relatively comfortable race that I can freaking finish without disaster. Call me Lady Denial, but I think that if I can arrive at the starting line injury-free — I’ll make it the 26.2 miles to Carmel. Seems like my best chance.

All training plans include a level of intensity of course, and this makeshift, slapdash one is no different. But what I’m learning is that intensity comes not just from mileage building and quality workouts but the effort that it takes to honestly respect how the body and mind respond. If I fail and don’t finish or don’t even start — then at least I’ve gained some valuable new insights (at least I hope I can muster that kind of mature attitude, if it comes down to it). It’s certainly an experiment, given that for Portland I stuck to a Hal Higdon plan pretty religiously (Novice 2). But this wasn’t a perfect training experience either. Weeks before the race my quads we’re shot and my calves were bricks. By the end of my taper I felt almost good as new, and at no point during the race did things fall apart. But the regimen did leave me feeling a bit fried. So I’m curious to see how this new approach works out. Even if it does bite me in the end.

Again, maybe this is just the nature of marathoning? And doing my first marathons so close together. Given that registration sold out in 59 minutes (!), I obviously feel lucky to have a spot at Big Sur and the opportunity to run what’s become an iconic course.

Finally, extra credit if you noticed that on my little schedule above I have a half marathon coming up on March 23. Truth? I really want to hit it in under 2:00. I came so damn close last August, and right now I feel really strong and my pace is on target. At this point, I really don’t think it’s an overly ambitious goal. But I hope that this confidence isn’t unfounded, and that the pace won’t leave me too ragged to complete my final long runs before BSIM. Again, the strategy is self-respect and trust, to listen to my body and if anything feels wrong — back. off. I’ve got other halfs to kill later this year…

“Do not try to make exercise enjoyable.”

Ken Hutchins.

On Tuesdays, I wake up early, have breakfast and tea, and ride my bicycle along the Embarcadero before work.  From my apartment on the south/east side of the Mission District, I ride the down the hill through Potrero, hang a left on 3rd Street, smile at the pups playing in the dog park before zagging between tree-lined tennis and basketball courts opening to Mission Creek, where it’s a quick straight ahead until AT&T Park and finally the Embarcadero.  I make a conscious decision to take things slow and enjoy this weekly ride, this quiet moment of my day.  Hipster cyclists with Timbuk2 bags perched high on their backs race by me.  I observe the morning joggers, weary car commuters, peek into the fire station #35, garage, imagine oysters at “Waterbar,” gawk at the bay bridge.  As I approach the farmer’s market at the Ferry Building, I look to the clock tower and know that I have 5 more minutes to enjoy being on the bike.  If I find that I’m running a few minutes late, I try and avoid the urge to speed up (I hate being late).  I’ve made the decision to enjoy myself, after all.  I make my turn onto Lombard street.

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I’ve arrived at Desisto Strength Training, and for the next 20 minutes I am consumed by pain and intense focus.  

Most of what I know about SuperSlow (now RenEx), I’ve learned from 30 years of peripheral absorption… ie – my dad has been a trainer for many years. The “protocol,” as they refer to it, was progressive when he started, and it remains so today.  Without getting technical, here is essentially how it goes down:

1) 4-6 exercises, completed using specialized machines engineered for “no-momentum” training.

2) Heavy weights, executed to muscular failure (So when you’re pushing your hardest, and the machine isn’t moving – your trainer counts down from 10 and then the exercise is over. It’s kind of a scary feeling. You’re essentially pushing beyond your comfort zone, or at least trying to).

3) Reaching failure takes 2-3 minutes, and the complete workout lasts just about 20 minutes start to finish.

4) Although extremely intense, safety and proper form are crucial, integral parts of the workout.

Beyond the basics are a multitude of other specifics and philosophies, the most controversial of which is the attitude towards “cardio” activities. According to Ken Hutchins, Founder of SuperSlow and subsequently RenEx, aerobics are AT BEST INEFFICIENT AND AT WORST DANGEROUS AND COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE TO OVERALL FITNESS.

The below quote is maybe the “at best” scenario.  

“We accept that both exercise and recreation are important in the overall scheme of fitness, and they overlap to a great degree.  But to reap maximum benefits of both or either they must first be well-defined and then be segregated in practice.”

Still, pretty progressive stuff at its core.  Make no mistake – when Hutchins talks about “exercise,” he refers to SuperSlow and SuperSlow alone. Now, I’m not a SuperSlow authority by any means, so I’ll stop here before I find myself in over my head.  Let’s get back to mindfulness.

Enjoyable or not (emphasis on the not), it would seem as though SuperSlow/RenEx is a more mindful approach to lifting than any alternative out there.  The protocol in fact fosters mindfulness by asking trainers to enforce no music, no mirrors, and no distractions in their studios.  When we train, we focus on proper form, the muscles engaged in the exercise, and efficient breathing. None of this screaming and yelling, slamming weights on the floor, passing out, puke bucket stuff.  All in all we’re talking about a pretty low ego, self-serious take on fitness.  Perhaps this is part of what’s kept it fairly under the radar in terms of popularity.  There’s no funny business, and it’s not a heck of a lot of fun either. “Do not try to make exercise enjoyable,” Remember?  

I myself have been regularly working with my SuperSlow trainer since 2011.  It was around the time that I started increasing my running mileage, training for longer races and aiming to improve some of my finish times.  The idea was that lifting weights might be a good way to avoid getting hurt.  Though I do experience injuries from time to time, my overall stamina and power have improved.  Even more apparently, strength training has made a huge impact on my abilities and confidence in yoga, especially arm balances, chaturangas, and other poses requiring upper-body strength.

My slow workout is nowhere near as enjoyable as the ride I take to get there, but it’s certainly one of the most meaningful parts of my week.