The last short article ripped from the pages of a much longer piece I inadvisedly posted last week.
Over the years I’ve realized that one factor is consistently present during my best runs.
I’m talking about energy. Energy is the sine qua non of great runs.
Now, then, I’m 67, not fast, and have less energy than when I was 30. Does this mean I haven’t got the energy it takes to create high-quality runs?
If you listen to Susan Jackson and Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi, co-authors of Flow in Sports, it takes Michael Jordan-level energy and talent to experience the famous sports “zone.”
With all due respect, I disagree.
I’ve experienced the zone many times. And what I find is that those wonderful experiences start with a strong flow of energy at my own level.
The individual is what counts. What’s expansive for the individual, on a given run, is what creates those sensations of joy and flow.
The highest types of zone experiences are where all the tools of expansion come together – body, heart, will, mind, soul.
Lesser zone experiences happen when we go part of the way.
Here’s an example.
I had a great run today. I didn’t go fast, yet I experienced wonderful feelings of “rightness” – a deep inner sense of harmony that comes when I run, mile after mile, at exactly the right pace. My heart was open, and I experienced touches of God’s love and joy.
The physical symptoms of strong energy are unmistakable: our legs feel light, we feel as if we could run endlessly, and our mood is “up.” That’s how I felt today.
In all languages, the words that describe states of positive energy are directional. In English, we say we feel “buoyant,” “uplifted,” “soaring,” “on a cloud,” “high as a kite,” etc.
These expressions reflect a deep truth about energy.
In yoga, it’s said that states of consciousness reflect the directional flow and position of energy in the spine.
The yoga teachings on diet and exercise aim to create energy; while the yoga postures aim at harmonizing the flow of energy in the body and removing any blockages to its upward flow. And the yoga meditative practices aim to raise energy to levels of higher, more fulfilling awareness in the spine, using breathing exercises, etc.
A basic principle of yoga says that when we succeed in raising our energy, our awareness changes. For example, if you can raise energy into the heart, you’ll feel more loving and kind almost automatically.
It’s easy to see how this works in the world of a runner.
Eat a crappy diet and you’ll experience low energy in your running – and your mood will become more contractive as well. You’ll have less enthusiasm, and you’ll probably feel crabbier.
Start eating close to nature again, and as your energy returns your mood will lift. Energy and mood are linked together.
That’s the positive side of “making energy.” Another important part is removing blockages that prevent our energy from flowing freely.
To accomplish this, I can think of few things more helpful than good posture.
It’s not easy to bring your awareness into the higher levels of the spine, where states of love, concentration, and will power exist, if your energy is blocked by crummy posture.
Most of us have found ourselves, late in a long run, plodding along with less than perfect posture: chest collapsed, neck forward, butt sticking out, feet pushing the ground. These things work against a strong flow of energy.
You’ve probably experienced the profound difference a simple change in your posture can make in how you feel.
Try this. Before the start of a run, or during the warmup, deliberately straighten your upper spine, from about mid-chest to the forehead. Grasp your hands behind your back and expand and stretch your chest, as you bend backward and straighten your spine.
Bend your neck forward, then back, lengthening and straightening it. (Don’t force anything to the point of pain.)
Notice the effect on your consciousness, as your neck and upper spine become straighter.
If you want to know why the great runners look so poised, try this simple stretching routine, and I think you’ll find that it’s because they couldn’t possibly run as fast and far as they do if their energy was blocked by a slumped spine. And who could bear to run 100 miles a week with crappy posture?
Straightening your spine won’t make you a great marathoner, but it’ll help you get the best out your runs.
I make a game of it. During the warmup, I do my spine-straightening practices, bending and twisting and straightening, until I feel that I’m running upright, feet padding lightly over the ground.
The effect on my mood is striking. With good posture I find I’m able to run with inner confidence and poise, like an elite – just five to seven minutes per mile slower.
I know it’s silly to be running with visions of Haile Gebrselassie in my head, but by golly, it works. I may not be running with the energy of a 2:04 marathoner, but I’m running with the same poise, and with an open inner passage for energy to rise in my spine. And it feels great.
Another thing that helps generate quality runs is proper breathing.
Earlier, I referred to the basic teaching of yoga that says, in effect – “At the start of a meditation, don’t worry if you’re troubled by negative thoughts and feelings. Do your breathing exercises, and as the energy gathers at the level of the heart, you’ll feel like a different person.”
I can’t tell you how often I’ve experienced this – perhaps thousands of times, over the 42 years I’ve been meditating. It just works. And I find that it works equally well on the run.
Try this. On a slow to medium-paced run, breathe deeply, in a completely relaxed way. Don’t force it. Just breathe comfortably, as deeply as your pace permits. Breathe especially into the upper chest, as your pace allows, then hold the breath there for a moment, and exhale.
(Note: This isn’t “diaphragmatic breathing” to maximize volume – it’s a yoga practice for bringing energy into the upper spine.)
Don’t force it – just do what’s comfortable. If you keep it up for a while, I promise you’ll begin to feel energy and awareness gathering in the upper part of the spine, especially at the level of the heart. And what’s really cool is how the quality of your feelings will rise. It’s a very helpful practice when you’re feeling emotionally flat and uninspired.
So here are my simple tips for high-quality runs: 1. create energy by eating, sleeping, and training wisely, 2. remove blocks to energy by good posture, and 3. “breathe energy” into the upper spine.
If you’re curious about the yoga tradition from which the ideas in this article are derived, I can’t recommend a better resource than www.ananda.org. It’s the Mother Lode for practical yoga lore for modern, western people. For starters, I can recommend two books: Autobiography of a Yogi, and The New Path: My Life With Paramhansa Yogananda. These aren’t sectarian books; rather, they deal in universal principles, and they’re a fascinating read.