Patterns of Energy

Can anyone doubt that we are living at the start of a new age of energy? Nearly all the inventions we take for granted today – cars, computers, TVs, refrigerators, iPods – were invented since 1900, and they’re all based on energy. We’re increasingly finding ways to use energy to do work that was formerly accomplished mechanically.

Similarly, it seems very doubtful that exercise and sports training will continue to follow old, mechanical, grindingly physical models.

Bodybuilders proudly call themselves “iron gamers.” Nothing could be truer — they’re relics of a material-oriented Iron Age. Today, even in sports that we associate with sheer muscular power — like powerlifting — energy is emerging as the new core paradigm.

A good example is Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Russian special forces strength training coach who brought kettlebell training to the US. Pavel has developed a vast following among high school and college athletes, the military, and law enforcement personnel. Why? Because kettlebell training is much more concerned with energy than appearance.

In his book Power to the People, Pavel tells the amusing story of how the Russian army created a special unit of troops who trained the old, bodybuilder way, to impress visiting dignitaries from Moscow with big huge muscles. Meanwhile, the real Speznaz troops trained for functional strength – the kind of strength that isn’t manifested in an enormous, lobster-like body, but in lean, steel-cord muscles that enable a soldier to jump, climb, fight, crawl, move heavy objects, and endure.

On an Internet discussion forum for bodybuilders, I once read a post by someone who spoke disparagingly of Michael Jordan, saying that his physique wasn’t impressive. I could only shake my head. When I remarked that Jordan’s strength, endurance, and neuromuscular coordination placed him on a level of absolute genius relative to athletes in any sport, I was roundly scolded.

I’m mildly repulsed by the quintessential iron-game physique. From an anatomical chart, it’s quickly apparent that those impressive slabs of muscle are nothing more than a sheath of physical machinery layered over a much more important core. Sports physiologists in Russia who’ve studied bodybuilders, power lifters, and kettlebell athletes have shown that the best gains in strength are obtained not by only increasing muscle size, but by training the nervous system to channel large quantities of energy, and honing the mind and will to send energy where it’s needed to perform physical work.

Mary Ellen and I are blessed to live within a 10-minute drive of Foothill College, which has one of the most beautiful community college campuses in the country. Foothill has a great fitness center that costs a lot less than any commercial gym – just $30 a month for the two of us, including a parking sticker. We work out at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and for my warmup, I jog down to the track and run laps, or I’ll run around the campus on the 2-mile single-track fitness trail.

This morning, I went to the track. As I began my slow warmup, a young man passed at 7:30 or 8:00 pace. After one lap, he walked over to five low hurdles that he’d lined up about eight feet apart. Standing in front of the first hurdle, he got down on his hands and knees, kicked his legs back, did a push-up, then got up and hopped with both legs over the first hurdle, repeating the routine with the four remaining hurdles.

He then walked across the track to the football field and picked up a 48-pound Russian kettlebell with both hands and did 10 swings, grunting loudly with each swing. He then promptly set off on another 400-meter run.

He had started his workout before I arrived at the track, and he repeated the circuit five or six times while I was there. When he was done, he walked the length of the field carrying the kettlebell with arms stretched straight overhead, pausing to do a swing every 10 yards. He was a very fit young man.

As I circled the track, I couldn’t resist watching out of the corner of my eye. The guy was hammering his body — his movements were quick and compact, full of willingness and enthusiasm. On the later circuits, he seemed a bit slower but no less determined and “into it.”

As he ran past, I also couldn’t resist challenging myself to break out of my mental torpor and send him energy. It seemed the least I could do for a guy who was working so hard, with such positive attitude. “Yeah!” I cheered silently. “Give that guy energy and joy.” Soon I felt currents of energy streaming out from my heart to help him.

Spiritual transfer of energy is real. Occasionally in the past, I’ve turned enemies into friends by not responding in kind or defending myself, but treating them with respect while silently sending them positive thoughts until they “came around.” It was difficult to grind out prayers for someone who had behaved badly toward me. But people have a hard time remaining angry when they begin to feel that you’re on their side.

In that young man at the Foothill track, I saw myself, 40 years ago. I experienced a momentary sadness, as I remembered how strongly my juices flowed when I was in my late twenties. I thought, “What happened? Am I clinically depressed, that I can no longer run with such bright energy and enthusiasm?” An older couple passed at a sprightly clip, looking light on their feet, as if to drive home the cosmic dig.

I thought of an old friend who passed through town last year. We ran together for an hour at the Palo Alto Baylands, a wonderful wildlife refuge on San Francisco Bay. I expected we would start at a slow pace and warm up for 30 minutes — but no such luck. He jogged for 10 seconds than accelerated to a pace that raised my heart to 75% of maximum.

When I checked my heart monitor, he said, “Oh, you’ve got one of those? I have one, but I never use it anymore – I run for enjoyment.” This, uttered with barely concealed scorn.

After an hour, we said our farewells and I continued for another 2½ hours at the same pace. (I was training for a 50K solo run from the ocean to the Bay as a school fundraiser.)

I did find that 3½-hour run more enjoyable than if I’d slogged through it at my then-usual 65-70% long-run heart rate. Ever since, I’ve done a good portion of most long runs at the faster 75-79% pace. My friend’s comment was timely. For months, I had spent too much time warming up, and not enough cranking up my energy. As a result, my running had become stagnant, boring, mentally and emotionally deadening.

Yet that run with my friend wasn’t very enjoyable. I enjoyed the energy, but I couldn’t focus my mind or harmonize my heart. I wasn’t able to get down into the core of the run.

I eventually settled on a compromise: a slow warmup (longer or shorter based on how I feel), followed by an hour or two at 78-79% MHR, and some fast running if the body can handle it.

These experiences deepened my awareness that energy is the key to training. We train our bodies to channel more energy. When we “play the edges” and make the body put out a bit more energy, it adapts and becomes capable of cranking out more energy with ease.

Energy is the start of good feelings. Energy is a potently expansive factor in our lives – it’s the foundation for health, happiness, strength, and mental health. So it’s important to attend to the factors that support energy and enthusiasm, including sleep, diet, good company, lots of smiles and laughter, and training at the right pace, distance, and frequency.

Energy and feeling are a key part of the motivation to run. Some may claim their running is all about hardnosed will power and achieving goals. But the core of will is enthusiasm, interest, desire – a forward-leaping engagement of the heart.

I described recently how I’ve started doing 1-minute repeats at the end of my easy weekday runs. Since I started doing that, my resting pulse has fallen five beats, and I feel more energized at work — I’m channeling more energy through the system, and it feels good.

This morning, as I warmed up on the Foothill College track and my energy began to flow, my low spirits faded and I felt increasingly enthusiastic. Positive thoughts and feelings came along naturally with the flow of energy as my body got warmed up. In turn, the good feelings made it easy to run fast toward the end of the run. (Research that I mention in my book shows that positive feelings make the heart work more efficiently at all speeds.)

The three fast repeats at 7:00, 6:30, and 6:00 pace went well – I was thoroughly warmed up and didn’t have to fight my body to run hard. The feeling in my heart was harmonious and smooth – my heart didn’t feel bruised and battered, as it usually does if I try to run hard when I’m overtrained, or before I’m adequately warmed up.

I’m careful about the warmup. If I run too much energy through the system before my body is ready, it feels like I’m burning out a fuse. The warmup always pays off, because I can challenge my body to become a channel for more energy.  And that’s fun.

Training takes three kinds of energy: rest (low energy), slow running (medium energy), and energy-challenges (high energy). Each has its purpose. When we handle the three dimensions of energy well, our bodies and minds and hearts respond with gratitude, with joy.

The young kettlebell guy is finding energy and joy in his own, mid-twenties way. I’m finding my 66-year-old-putz way. They look like quite different, but the patterns are basically the same: Warm up. Crank up the energy. Find enthusiasm.

If running fast didn’t feel good, I wouldn’t bother. Cold, dutiful running, in pursuit of some future goal, isn’t for me. As I crank up the energy in my training, my enthusiasm gets stronger.

I was jogging through my warmup in a local park where a group of over-forty guys were playing soccer, and when I launched into a fast repeat one of the guys yelled, “Hey, now you’re running like a young runner!”

I feel younger. Not as young as the kettlebell-swinging young guy at the track this morning — but maybe twenty years younger in body and forty years younger in mind.

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