Whole-Hearted Runner

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands

My training’s working.

How do I know? Because the same effort now takes me farther or faster.

Part of the reason is that I switched to a “very” hard, “very” easy schedule. I’m running hard, but I’m giving my body massive amounts of rest, and it’s working well.

Research shows that it takes the body at least two weeks to recover fully from a very hard run. That’s how long it takes the body to resynthesize proteins and repair the damaged muscle tissue.

My body is happy to go along with the program and run very hard every other week, with moderate runs on the weekends in between.

The weekend before last, I drove to San Francisco and ran across the Golden Gate Bridge, then onto the trails of the Marin Headlands. Coming back over the bridge, I pulled out the stops.

The bridge is a wonderful place to run – the wind is always blowing fresh off the Pacific, the scenery is amazing, and running high above the water gives a feeling of freedom from ordinary life.

I ran for an hour and a half, then pressed the pedal to the medal and ran 21 minutes at tempo pace – 91% to 95% of max heart rate, briefly to 97-98%.

On the final stretch of trail before I came back onto the bridge, I prayed not to run for self-will, but only do what was right. I didn’t want to run for ego, etc., but to feel a harmony and rightness in my heart.

Still, I’d been longing to be able to do a hard tempo run. I’ve come back to running after two months of illness and fasting, and I yearned for the experience of running for a long time at a fast clip.

In Fitness Intuition, I talk about the “harmony zone” – a unique feeling that comes into the heart when the body wants to let us know that it’s happy with how we’re running. If you watch your feelings closely, you can find the harmony zone on any run – it’s a distinct, enjoyable but subtle feeling of “rightness.” If you go too fast or too far, it disappears, replaced by a nervous, edgy, almost guilty feeling of “wrongness.”

As I picked up the pace, I continued to watch the feeling in my heart, but all the signals seemed to be giving the okay to put the hammer down.

I noticed that the harmony zone was there in my heart even at a very high heart rate, up to 92%, but that it faded when I let my pace and heart rate rise above that pace. I thought, “That’s interesting – books by well-known coaches say that ‘tempo pace’ is roughly 85% to 92%.” When I ran faster, there was a disharmonious feeling- not a “dangerous pain,” but the heart did let me know that it wasn’t pleased.

I really felt good. And the feeling continued when I slowed and jogged the 30 minutes back to the car. In fact, I felt very strong during the long warm-down. Of course, the “harmony zone” had shifted – it was much slower after the hard running. That lovely feeling of “rightness” came at under 79% MHR, and vanished when I experimentally edged above 80%.

It was a very hard, pull-out-the-stops, barn-burner run, and as I motored along, feeling exhilarated, I thought, “Boy, next week is going to be for slow running, and next weekend we’re going to train very slowly, and only as the body gives its okay.”

This Saturday, Mary Ellen was flying in from Pittsburgh in the afternoon, and I headed out early and drove to the City to run across the bridge. (I do love that route.) I was, once again, praying to do the right, harmonious thing, and not “run stupid” and overdo it.

When I reached the north end of the bridge and popped onto the Coastal Trail, I glanced at my watch and saw that it was much later than I’d assumed, so I turned back, and it was only when I was halfway back across the bridge, southbound and headed for San Francisco, that I noticed I’d mis-read my watch and it was actually still quite early. But my body was explicitly tired, and I knew that I was very luck I hadn’t decided to run longer.

I wondered if I could “get away with” doing some short, hard bursts. But when I ventured to pick up the pace, my heart responded with an unmistakable “No.” It just didn’t feel right. So I jogged slowly back to the car.

On the bridge, I realized something important about training. It was while I was debating whether to try some fast bursts. I thought, “No, probably not a good idea. Because, what will happen if I run hard? It won’t feel right, and I’ll feel conflicted, with a guilty conscience, wanting to run hard but feeling wrong about it.”

I realized that if I ran hard today, I would experience exactly the same thing next weekend – I would not be able to run with a whole and happy heart. I’d be crippled, un-recovered, half-hearted.

That’s when I realized how much it means to me, to be able to run “whole-hearted.” The reason my training is working well is that I’m giving my body sufficient rest so that when I run I can put my whole heart into it. There are no doubts – I know I’m doing the right thing, so there’s no guilt – “Oh, gosh, I really shouldn’t, but…I want to.”

It’s a lovely way to train – on my hard runs, I don’t need to pull in the reins. I’m recovered fully, so I’m able to “run fully.” It does mean, however, that I must pay a price for the hard training that I do. The price is that I end up spending a lot of time running very slowly on weekdays and on the “off” weekends. But, guess what? When I run the way that allows my body to thrive, even if it’s only a shuffling jog, my body rewards me, speaking through the feelings of my heart, with those same, wonderful feelings of rightness.

Wholehearted running doesn’t have to be fast – because it isn’t about heart rate. It’s about running appropriately, listening to Mother Nature and doing what’s right, and finding out just how blissful that can be.

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