Running and Mind Games...

I've been exercising pretty faithfully for about a month now.  This is about 26 days longer than I've excersized in the last 20 years.  The first week was hell minus the fire.  The second week was Sheol. The third week was Purgatory whatever that made up place is like.  And this last week was Abraham's bossom...the odd and mysterious place in between, neither heaven and nor hell.  All I know is that something was shifting in my spirit toward it.

I noticed when I was running on the treadmill I had more endurance at a faster pace.  My joints didn't feel like they were going to pop out of place, my muscles were fatigued but not cramping, my breathing was heavy but not hyperventilative (word?).  I didn't feel like I looked like a desperate man flopping toward the finish line...my form was tighter and my body more coordinated.

Still, I find that beyond the physical obstacles I'm challenged by that seek to deter me from my goal, the mental opposition is the most challenging foe.  I will be running and my mind will begin to speak to me little daggers of dark speech:

"Do you see how hard this is?"
"Don't you feel like you should slow down a little?"
"Your knee is hurting, you should stop."
"I think your back is going to give out...you don't want that, do you?"
"I dare you to try to go twice as fast and see how long you will last?"
"The woman next to you is running faster than you...you're a wuss."
"You don't belong here with all these fit people...if you could only see yourself."
"Is that asthma...do you have asthma?  I'm almost sure you have developed asthma."
"Your hamstring is tightening up on the right side...why don't you just walk."
"You're not overweight, why are you doing this?  What are you trying to prove?"
"You arch is aching...I think you have plantar fasciitis.  In fact, I'm sure you do."
"The pounding on your heels is giving you shin splints...you should just hit the hot tub."
"You exercise enough just doing yard work.  Remember you were sweating just yesterday."

I'm not lying...my brain just harrasses me like a seagull at Ocean City, NJ.  Dive bombing me like a kamikaze killer bent on my destruction.  It's relentless.  I talk back to myself and defend myself from the accusations myself is telling myself. (The last sentence should confuse you...and make some sort of warped sense if you're human.)  So much of life is me vs. me.  It's not God, Satan, or other people...it's what I'm making up in my own head.  And it's powerful.  I hope you don't think I'm patronizing or minimizing it...it is more powerful than the criticism of people and the wiles of the devil himself.  

One time I heard myself say, "I think your heart is racing...you're going to have a heart attack" and I literally hopped off the treadmill by doing a split while the conveyer belt was still going (no kidding)...I didn't even take time to slow it down manually or hit the STOP button that is BIG, RED, and CENTERED right in front on my face.  I just hopped off at full speed thankfully landing with both feet on either side of the "treadmill belt of death".  It could have been ugly if even one of my feet didn't land on the stationary edge. I would have been flying backwards into the guy flexing his adnoids (is that a muscle?) behind me. (I'm not sure what these muscles are that people are flexing all over the place...I just know I don't have them.)

But this last week, instead of letting my thoughts besiege me, I ran a test while I was running.  I decided to see what would happen to my body when I would look at different things or think about different things.  You can't believe how the two are braided together...completely interconnected.

I learned that three things would literally cripple my body in seconds if I would fix my mind on them:

1. The numbers - All the flashing changing numbers on the dashboard in front of me aren't helpful.  I will see how many many miles I've run and the more I fixate on the distance number, the slower it changes.  It's like watching paint dry or water boil.  Each tenth takes an eternity...and my body begins the falter, feeling or feigning fatigue, I can't tell.  Or I'll see watch how many calories I'm burning.  Based on how much I'm sweating I would think that I could eat whatever I want for the rest of the week simply because I'm burning calories like a killer...but when I add up the calories in my mind, it doesn't take me long to realize that I still can't have two Chicken McNuggets from McDonald's without neutralizing how many calories I burnt running in place for 20 minutes.  Dang!  My body will start to wane, weary of doing so much and realizing that it's still not that much.  Or I'll look at the pace and see how long it takes me to run a mile...this one just slays me.  I will think about the Olympics and all the marathon runners running a 4:30 mile or whatever and I'll see that I'm running a 9 minute mile and about ready to ralph all over the YMCA equipment.  I'll notch it up to see if I could run a 6 minute mile even to just salvage some masculine dignity.  Boom.  It takes about 10 seconds of sprinting at full speed to realize that I'm about ready to be catapulted backwards if I don't take it back up to 10 minutes and quick.  My mind says...you're a loser.  Look at your numbers....they all are mocking you.  Every. Single. One.  

So the next time, I put a towel over them.  I saw someone do that and at first I wondered why they would cover up all those sweet features that monitored their every movement...now I know.  When I couldn't see how far I was going or how fast I was going or how much fat I was burning, I felt more energy and less lethargy.  Had I run 20 minutes...30...who knows, who cares?  I was just running for the simple purpose of helping my body get healthy.  I don't need to tell you that I ran faster, farther, longer, and stronger than I had run on any day in that last month.  It was ridiculous.

2. The second thing that will kill me if I focus on it is what people are doing around me.  What their physique looks like, what their form looks like, what their speed is, etc.  When I am looking around me while I'm running or, worst of all, thinking about how fast the girl next to me is running, the comparison begins to eat away my psyche.  My body will feel pressure to perform differently and what can only be described as demoralization sets in.  There is nothing like going to the gym and sizing up the people around you...I literally want to waddle into the bathroom and hide in a family locker in the fetal position.  When I'm running, if I look side to side, not only do I feel like my equalibrium is going to make me loose my balance, but I feel my body beginning to seize up for some reason.  It will contract and constrict in rebellion...wanting to stop.  It's like my body knows that if it quits at least it won't fail.  Crazy, I know.  But the day I covered the numbers with a blanket, I also didn't look at anyone else.  I just looked forward out the window and focused on the sunshine and the beauty of the morning.  I'm serious, it was the first day I ran the whole time and didn't feel any searing pain in my legs anywhere.  I felt appropriately tired, but not blitzed.  It just blew me away that as I focused on my own presonal progress, I actaully made more progress.  Comparison kills.  

3. Which leads me to the final death knell...focusing on myself. This is less obvious and harder to quantify, but I couldn't deny the results.  If I was too "in my own head", I would feel my body start to tire, ache, or tighten.  I don't know if it's self-fulfilled prophecy, but if I would begin to think about the outside of my knee hurting a little, it would begin to hurt a lot.  If I felt a twinge of pain in my foot, within about ten seconds I felt like little bones were breaking in my foot as I crunched down on it with every pounding step.  All complete mind games, but these aren't games it turns out, 'cause your mind isn't playing around.  It wants to stop you and will employ any tactic necessary to conquer your will.  My mind would think "I want to stop" and my body would being the 'stopping process" which starts with a "slowing process".  I would entertain a thought like "You have time, you don't need to do it all today." and within seconds I would begin to change my goal of 3 miles to 2 miles and my time from 20 minutes to 13 mintues.  Stuff like that.  Little adjustments to compromise my will and give into the lizard brain.  Like I said, it didn't always want me to outright stop, just slow down.  It didn't want me to quit now, just earlier than planned.  Anything that would break down my resolve.  I'm not joking, when I would think about myself specifically, I would begin to break myself down bit by bit until I wanted to quit.  You could say it like this..."You quit bit by bit, not all at once." 

BUT...here's the thing, when I would concentrate on something I needed to get done that afternoon at home, I would lose consciousness of the fact that I was running and, in turn, run unhindered by my own scrutiny.  I would run further faster with less fatigue.  It would be like I would snap back into reality and realize that I had been running for 5 minutes without thinking about it.  Ironically with less pain and less strain.  When my mind was fixed on things I needed to get done, things I loved, things I was looking forward to, my kid's lives, visionary ideas about the future, projects at the house that I needed to complete, etc....running just happened and instead of me making it happen.  When I discovered this...I tested it out.  I would think about running and feel my body languish.  I would then think about something else that I wanted to think through and my body went on autopilot...almost autocorrecting itself while I let it run free.  Once I got out of the way of my body, it just ran.  When my mind wanted to offer opinions and suggestions...the power of suggestion weighted down my body until my body gave in and gave out.  I'm not even kidding.

I know this is long...but I feel like the principles in the metaphor of running and the mind crossover into all areas of life.  The mind is powerful and I'm not saying it's the enemy.  But it must be mastered and brought into compliance with your will.  Will power must trump Mind power.  "I will" cannot be comprimised by "I might".  "I will" cannot be talked out of it's mission by "I think".   Resolutions are less about lists and more about beliefs and actionable steps of how to channel the mind to comply with the creeds...the felt needs bow to the known creeds.  The creeds I shared could look something like this generally speaking:

1. Don't think about "how many" or "how much".  The less you focus on the numbers the better chance you have of hitting them.
2. Don't compare yourself to the people around you.  The less you focus on the progress of others the more you will begin to see progress in yourself.
3. Don't nitpick at yourself while you're trying to move forward.  The less you focus on yourself the better chance you have of being your 'best self'.

And that, my friends, is 'Chicken Soup for the Runner's Soul'.  This is not the gospel...it's just my mere, measley, meager thoughts this morning.  Stay thirsty, my friends.

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