Sports Training Is Very Simple — But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

Photo: Abebe Bikila triumphant after the 1960 Rome Olympics where he won the marathon barefoot. Photographer: Sergio del Grande, Mondadori Portfolio.

When I was a young lad of twenty-four, I met a man named Gene Benvau who was a direct disciple of the great yogi Paramhansa Yogananda. He’d spent his early years living with his mother at the Guru’s headquarters on Mt. Washington in LA. As a toddler, Gene would follow Yogananda on his rounds of the offices, waiting patiently by the door until the Master emerged, and trailing along behind him to the next door.

Gene grew up to be a burly, hearty guy who ran a trucking company and was deeply devoted to the spiritual life. In his talks he would often say, “The spiritual path is veeeeery simple!” He would then pause and chuckle, ”But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Yogananda picked a wife for Gene, telling him that his life would not be that of a monastic. They were very happy together until Gene left this earthly plane in 1971.

I remember him telling us, “At work the other day, someone said to me, ‘Gene, you’re the happiest man I know. How come you’re so happy?’ Gene said, “I told him, ‘It’s because I have such great love for God in my heart.’”

Looking back at my checkered career as an amateur athlete, and my long years of reading and writing about people more wise and talented than I, the thought occurs that the path of sports training is the same. It’s stunningly simple, but it ain’t easy.

Training Principle Number One: “What all people have been seeking since the dawn of time is to experience greater happiness and to avoid suffering.”

Sounds kinda simple, doesn’t it? And yet it holds tremendous wisdom. Simply stated, it’s only the details that can seem complex.

Training Principle Number Two: How can we find happiness and success in our training? Again, it’s simple. It’s only the details that aren’t always easy. All we have to do to stay happy is just do whatever expands the strength and range of the five instruments with which we train: the health and energy of the body; the love and kindness of the heart; the strength and high purpose of the will; the clarity and cheerful concentration of the mind; and do nothing the will risk closing us off from the joyful rays of the soul.

Training Principle Number Three: How can we truly know what will expand the power and range of these five instruments with which we interact in our training?

This is the difficult part. It’s not complicated, it just requires a lot of focused attention and disciplined application.

Our guiding principle in all training should be: Has it worked for others? And how does it work for me? Every athlete is unique. The same principles of good training apply to all of us without exception, but the details will be very different from one person to the next.

How can we tell what’s right for us, in our cussed uniqueness? The answer, again, is very simple: by how it makes us feel. Does reeling off 20 fast 400’s on the track with a one-lap jog between leave us feeling pleasantly and calmly happy? Or are we feeling emotionally over-stimulated and foolishly giddy and bound for a physical and emotional crash? Have we pushed the body into a revved-up survival emergency hyperdrive state of accelerated metabolism? Or are we “pleasantly stimulated,” to use Arthur Lydiard’s term?

A well-tempered, well-paced workout of just the right duration will have happy results. We’ll feel happy and the body will recover quickly, without risk of an over-long downtime or illness that will set our training back.

I needn’t go on. Diet? Sleep? Work stress? The same simple principles apply. And as I confidently assert in The Joyful Athlete, our heart’s feelings are a wonderful barometer for what’s working in our training. It takes great discipline to listen attentively for those heart-signals, and even more discipline to follow their wise counsel. But the results are richly rewarding.

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