Training That Heals

I generally walk for five minutes at the start of a run, to give my legs a chance to warm up and to set the tone of the run with a prayer. Today, I asked God to show me what to do at every moment of the run. I knew my part would be paying attention all the time, and turning toward Him continually; but I knew He would be the eyes of the run, the heart and brain. All I had to do was ask.

I was feeling ragged as I walked out of the parking lot. My pulse was a bit high; I couldn’t tell if it was from the 85-degree heat or because my body was tired. I didn’t have much enthusiasm to run; but I thought I would just take it one step at a time, run slowly, and see what would happen.

I’ve started a new training plan. I’m doing the nose-breathing method that John Douillard recommends in his book Body, Mind, and Sport. His methods are borrowed from the teachings of Ayurveda, a very old Indian healing art. Douillard is former professional triathlete who trained 5-6 hours a day in his peak competitive years, and continually failed to break into the top ranks, until he consulted an Ayurvedic physician who told him to cut back on his training and train differently. To shorten a long story, he spent several years honing a system that allowed him to train his body to run, swim, and bike extremely hard while his heart was beating at an astonishingly slow rate.

There are two ways that I know of to run brilliantly, in the zone state. One is to train the body to run aerobically, even at very high heart rates. That’s what happened to me in the 96% run. The other way is to train the body to exercise extremely hard at a very low heart rate. That’s what the training systems of John Douillard and Philip Maffetone aim to do. Both systems have you do a high volume of training at a low aerobic pace–in Maffetone’s case, no harder than about 70% of maximum heart rate, and in Douillard’s system, no harder than 50% of maximum heart rate, determined by the Karvonen formula, which for me, works out to about 64% of my heart-rate maximum.

That’s very slow; in fact, it totally contradicts all of the currently accepted wisdom about training the body for maximal performance. If you were to go on the Internet rec.running newsgroup and explain these methods, you would be laughed out of town. Yet Maffetone and Douillard have trained some extremely successful athletes. Maffetone’s system was used by Mark Allen when he won the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon an incredible six times. Other Maffetone-trained athletes include short-distance triathletes Colleen Cannon and Mike Pigg, and marathoner Priscilla Welch. Douillard’s system has been used with great success by individual marathoners and high-school cross-country teams.

I really “discovered” Douillard’s book only years after I first read it and rejected its ideas because they seemed so far-fetched. In the intervening years, as I learned to listen to the cues my body was giving me, and follow them, I adopted training programs that led me, step by step, into slower and slower training, accompanied by higher and higher feelings of health and fitness.

At first, I began doing all of my aerobic training runs at about 77-78% of MHR, following the recommendations of John L. Parker, Jr., in his book Heart-Rate Training for the Compleat Idiot. Parker’s system proposed to be an easier, more sensible alternative to the scientifically backed ideas of coaches like Roy Benson, Jack Daniels, and Pete Pfitzinger. And indeed, for a short while, my body seemed to be thriving on Parker’s methods.

I felt much healthier and fitter than I ever had. But I began to notice that my heart felt more harmonious when I ran at about 70% of MHR, than when I ran at Parker’s recommended 70% percent of MHR by the Karvonen formula, which for me, worked out to 77-78% as a simple percent of MHR.

I had no objective basis for training at 70% of MHR except my own inner feeling. There was no book or coach telling me that it was a good thing; I simply did it because it felt right. But then I came across Phil Maffetone’s book, Training for Endurance, which recommended training even slower.

I was deeply attracted by the rationale that Maffetone gave for his system, which entailed building a strong aerobic base with many months of pure slow, aerobic running, followed by 5-8 weeks of intense speedwork and racing in preparation for a target race. It’s the system that Mark Allen used to win Hawaiian Ironman — powerful evidence that it worked. I knew of other successful runners who’d based their training on a high volume of pure aerobic work, plus a small amounts of speedwork relative to what most other top competitive runners were doing. Those slow-training runners included former women’s marathon world record holder Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, and former US 50-mile champion Bob Deines.

I began following Maffetone’s advice, running no faster than about 70% of my MHR, calculated not by the Karvonen formula but as a pure percentage. (Actually, I arrived at this figure using Maffetone’s “180-minus” formula, which I won’t explain here.) And I immediately noticed that I felt healthier and fitter than ever.

Maffetone was my guide for about a year, until I rediscovered John Douillard’s book and, this time, found it deeply inspiring and persuasive. I find it noteworthy that God had put Douillard’s teachings before me years ago, but that I needed to come to them in my own good time. That’s been my experience always, that God never insists that I follow His guidance; He’s willing to wait until I’m able to find the faith within to follow. He’s concerned with letting me grow as quickly as I’m willing – not that I follow a rigid set of rules.

Douillard based his ideas about training on the ancient Indian healing school of Ayurveda, specifically an ancient treatise that recommended exercising no harder than 50% of maximum capacity. Douillard gives a formula for calculating the individual’s 50% work rate. I won’t go into that calculation here; I’m not interested in stealing Douillard’s fire, so I recommend that interested readers buy his book. Suffice it to say that for me, as a 62-year-old runner, the maximum recommended training pace worked out to roughly 64% of MHR.

That’s very slow! At least, in the initial phases. Douillard, of course, promises (and, as I frequently had to force myself to remember he’s got the results to prove it) that the human body loves this kind of training, and gratefully responds by gradually becoming very efficient–acquiring the ability to fly over the ground at an unusually low metabolic rate, reflected in very slow breathing and heart rate. Douillard also teaches his readers to nose-breathe, and to exhale in a specific way, which he calls “Darth Vader” breathing.

I’ve been strictly following Douillard’s recommendations for about six weeks now, and I’ve been having some interesting results. For example, a 4 ½-hour run with 3000′ of climbing in warm weather was much easier while nose-breathing than it would have been otherwise. But, while the physical results have been impressive, the mental, emotional, and spiritual results have been no less so.

I ran 10 miles today in 85-degree heat, in the hills, mostly on dirt roads that were fully exposed to the midday sun. As I said earlier, I was feeling tired, and I was fairly certain that my body would tell me, after the first five miles, to pack it in and go home. But I wanted to do as much as possible. Douillard claims that the body loves exercising at 50% of its max capacity, and I wondered if it would respond differently, now that I was keeping my heart rate strictly below that figure. I thought perhaps, if my body really didn’t want to run longer, it would tell me so by raising my heart rate when it got tired. But, in the distant background of my mind, I was wondering if giving the body the kind of movement it liked best would generate fresh energy and have a healing, rather than a tearing-down effect. It didn’t sound terribly scientific, even to me, though I knew from personal experience and from my general reading in spiritual literature, that energy is healing. If I treated my body well, perhaps it would be able to generate fresh energy, even while it was feeling tired, and perhaps it would revive. I know how crazy that sounds. But it was right.

My heart rate was abnormally high. For a long time, at least 50 minutes, I could only shuffle at a creepingly slow warmup pace. I kept doing the Darth Vader breath, while holding my heart rate strictly below the 64% figure. And for quite a while, my mind and body seemed numbed by fatigue; I wasn’t feeling the least bit creative or enthusiastic. But then a strange thing began to happen: I began to feel very good inside.

Very soon after I began nose-breathing and doing the Darth-Vader breath, I noticed how powerfully it calmed and focused my mind. In fact, it was so calming that I was a little scared, because I no longer felt much like praying in words, and I thought that running wordlessly would keep me from finding God’s presence within.

But little by little, I realized how lovely it was to run in a state of relative silence, and how much easier it was to hold my attention alert and focused and open my heart. I began to realize how unnecessary the words were, so long as the attention and intention were right, so long as I was keeping company with God in my heart, just being His child and running together, sharing the lovely sights and sensations of nature, and any thoughts and feelings that might occur. It was a more reflective, inward way of running, and I realized that I’d been handed a powerful key to meditative running.

I’ve mentioned in my book how struck I am by other people’s response when I succeed in “running happy.” It doesn’t seem to matter what level of inward attunement I’ve achieved–whether I’m running in a “zone state” or simply with an open heart, or if I’m feeling an attunement with God in the form of love or joy. What really matters, I believe, is that all of these positive, expansive states generate powerful vibrations that people pick up on instantly, without fail. And that’s certainly what happened today. After about 50 minutes of running, my body began to feel so revived and healed, and my mind and heart were so cheerful and happy, that everyone I passed had a smile, a wave, or a nice exchange of words.

I was shuffling along the Chamise Trail, on a hill that’s fully exposed to the sun, and I passed several runners coming the other way. All of them were young and male, and every one exchanged some kind of greeting. The first was an austere-looking fellow, but despite his determinedly grim expression, he gave me a friendly wave. The next fellow as zooming down the hill–he looked to be about 30, and he was obviously very fit. As he sailed around the corner and approached, he smiled and yelled in a voice that was charged with positive energy and tinged by a foreign accent, “How you doin’ today?!”

The third guy was short and dressed like an ultra-endurance athlete, with a small runner’s backpack, neat white hat, and matching blue shirt and shorts. I knew he was an ultra runner the moment I saw his quads–they were powerful. My heart had been humming along happily, self-contained and centered, and it instantly responded to that runner’s energy, “Wow, that guy’s a mountain runner. Yeah! He’s a mountain runner, for sure. Hurrah!”

I wasn’t doing anything outwardly; in fact, when he first appeared I turned my gaze away for a moment, gathering my focus for an appropriate response, and that’s when my heart opened. As we passed, there was a deep interchange of energy. We said no more than two words, quietly, yet there was a sense of real connection, of a kind of robust, athletic love. I was grateful for having experienced it. For me, it expressed at least one aspect of the deepest kind of sharing two athletes can have.

I thought maybe that when I returned from the remoter hills, back to the flat areas closer to the park entrance, the “baby stroller lane,” that I might lose that inspiration, and my body would, at last, let down and feel tired. But it didn’t happen. I felt wonderful for the rest of the day.