A Perfectly Reasonable Runner

What do you get when you give a 7-year-old an alarm clock and a screwdriver?

Right – springs, screws, and bits of metal and plastic strewn about the house.

The image of a small boy disassembling an alarm clock makes me think of sports science. Sports scientists are awfully good at taking the body apart and looking at the pieces, but not nearly as adept at putting together the pieces of a good training plan.

Bob Ronker, a friend and coworker at Runner’s World in the early 1970s, had several hundred back copies of Track & Field News, which he kept in a 3-foot pile by his armchair, alongside a smaller pile of Runner’s Worlds. (Photo: Bob Ronker at The Running Spot. His Cleveland, Ohio stores won the national 2008 Running Store of the Year award from the Running Retailers Association. His collection must fill a room by now.)Bob Ronker

Whenever I saw those twin stacks, an uneasy thought struck me: Why is there so much to learn about running? After all, running is an irreducibly simple sport – just put one foot in front of the other, and repeat. If science had discovered the ultimate truths of training, surely they would fit within the covers of a single slim magazine.

Complexity is a hallmark of our age. We’re buried daily under a tsunami of facts. Entire industries are devoted to generating information. It’s an article of faith in our rational, analytical culture that fact-gathering is the proper and appropriate approach to truth. We hope that by pulling apart the material world, we’ll be able to arrive at a better understanding of its nature and purpose.

Yet all those itty-bitty parts seldom give us the insights we need to function in the real world. In fact, the deeper we look, the more complex the picture grows, like a Mandelbrot fractal image. The trouble is, probing the world from the outside doesn’t take us down into the heart of things. Sports science gives us an external view of reality. It shows us the mechanical surfaces of things. And it hasn’t enlightened, inspired, or made us much wiser.

Consider the world-leading Africans. In a recent article, I remarked on how scientists have studied the Kenyans from every angle, in hopes of isolating the reasons for their success. Learning what sets the Kenyans apart would surely help other runners adjust their training and run better.

It’s logical, yet it hasn’t really worked out that way. The researchers have only succeeded in isolating a mishmash of mainly genetic factors: the Kenyans have long legs, strong thighs, thin calves, unusually large amounts of fat-burning enzymes, better muscle elasticity, low weight, and excellent biodynamics. Throw in a diet that’s 20% richer in carbs than the Americans and Europeans consume, and a less mentally analytical, more joyful approach to training.

So – good luck changing our leg length, strengthening our thighs, shrinking our calves, and slimming to 120 pounds.

Speaking for myself, I long ago became convinced that knowing the minutiae of physiology was a dead end. I’ve rarely heard a sports scientist say anything that actually improved my running – with a few notable exceptions, for example, the study that showed that running intervals improves 5K and 10K times better than tempo runs do. But these kinds of studies tend to be conducted by PE majors, not sports scientists.

The fattest, most detailed review of scientific research on runners, at 900-plus pages, is Timothy M. Noakes, MD’s Lore of Running. Because I write about running, I’ve read every word of Lore, and I suspect that my impressions are shared by others. Reading the “scientific” chapters left me with an empty, incomplete feeling. Having run my eyes over the endless details of carbohydrate metabolism, oxygen transport, biomechanics, and diet, I realized that I hadn’t actually learned anything that could help me train better.

Tim Noakes is a wonderful guy, and his book is a treasure. The scientific details may be unhelpful, but they are interesting – perhaps most notably Dr. Noakes’s theory of a “central governor” in the brain that takes over and makes us crash if we try to run too hard or long, placing at risk the two most important organs, the heart and brain.

In fact, I suspect that Lore reflects two sides of Noake’s own nature: there’s Tim Noakes the scientist, who loves to take things apart and find out how they work. And then there’s Tim Noakes, the veteran of 70 marathons and ultras who seeks solutions to the practical, everyday questions that runners face.

Noakes cheerfully admits that few runners who purchase Lore spend much time on the scientific chapters. Instead, they linger on the wonderful chapter titled “Learning From the Experts,” which describes the training and philosophies of legendary runners. “Over the years,” says Noakes, “many runners have told me that this is the most enjoyable chapter in the book. Certainly, it is the one that I believe provides the most practical advice, as all runners must train.”

Noakes concedes that sports scientists are less concerned with helping athletes train well, than with understanding how the exercising body works:

Surprisingly few studies of the effects of different training regimes on athletic performance have been quantified in scientifically designed trials. In part, this is because few exercise scientists have considered this to be important, choosing rather to study how the body adapts to training at the cellular and molecular level. Perhaps they believe that neither the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine nor its sporting equivalent, the International Olympic Committee Science Prize, will be won by the exercise scientist who first discovers the most ideal athletic training program.

The experiences of great runners are more relevant than the words of the scientists, perhaps because we relate to the individual better than to anonymous “study groups” assembled for research purposes.

When we start out as runners, many of us eagerly read books on training and try to follow their recommendations to the letter. But a time inevitably comes when the book says one thing and our bodies say something different. (Photo: One of my favorite places to run: the Coastal Trail overlooking San Francisco Bay. It’s easy to harmonize my heart in places like this.)

“Train hard today,” the book says, and “Take the day off!” says the body. I remember when that happened, I doggedly continued to try to follow the book. I thought, “This guy has coached champions – he ought to know what works. I’m probably just being lazy – once I start my run, I’ll shake this sluggish mood.”

It can be difficult for beginners to shake the “hypnotism of the book.” It’s hard to know when to ignore the advice of experienced runners and forge our own way.

A key factor that helps us find our path is pain. Learning to train generally involves that we repeatedly experience the pain of overtraining. Suffering convinces us of the wisdom of “listening to the body.”

Learning about our own body is the next step in a runner’s education. But this stage, too, is fraught with danger. Too often, when runners stop training by the book, they swing too far in the opposite direction, of “training how they feel.”

“Feeling-based training” has a respectable pedigree. Among the coaches and runners who’ve preached it are New Zealand’s Arthur Lydiard, the University of Oregon’s Bill Bowerman, and US 5000-meter record holder Bob Kennedy.

Bill Bowerman and Arthur LydiardThe problem is, feeling-based training does work, but it requires the right kind of feeling.

It’s good to understand that feelings exist in a spectrum with raw emotion at one end and calm, intuitive feeling at the other. Raw emotion is the kind of feeling that gets us in trouble, while calm, objective feeling can help us make reliable decisions about our training.

When a runner says he “trains how I feel,” what he often means is that he runs as hard and as long as he “feels” the body can bear. What he doesn’t mention is the many times this kind of training leads him into a ditch. Raw, emotional feeling isn’t very good at perceiving the body’s actual needs.

The subconscious thought, common among runners, is: “If my body can run hard today, it would be less than honorable, valiant, and courageous to run easy – I’d be a slacker!”

But when runners allow their training plans to get tangled up with emotion, ego, and self-image, it’s a sure recipe for disaster.

The fact is, the mind tends to trot along and obediently supply a host of “good reasons” to back up whatever emotion we’re currently feeling. If we feel like running hard, the mind will eagerly deliver all the reasons why it’s good, noble, virtuous, heroic, excellent and wise to do so. But as the saying goes, our best laid plans can be “perfectly reasonable, yet damnably wrong.”

Fortunately, there’s the very different kind of feeling at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Calm, dispassionate, detached, objective feeling is a much more reliable guide for training than raw emotion. It’s the kind of feeling that Bowerman, Lydiard, and Kennedy are referring to when they speak of “feeling-based training.”

It’s feeling that lacks personal attachment. It’s calm, objective, and free of the prejudices of emotional desire. It’s the kind of feeling you get when you’re facing an important decision, and you go to a park and sit by a stream and get very still inside and consider which option creates the clearest feeling in your heart. “I want to take that job, and not the other one – but thinking about the second job actually gives me a more positive feeling when I reflect on it with a calm, detached mind.”

Needless to say, calm feeling doesn’t come easy when raw emotions are running rampant. Unrefined emotion is a raging mountain stream, engorged by spring melt.

It would be good if we could find a way to get into the right kind of feeling reliably, before we make mistakes. Arnold Ehret, a natural-foods advocate of the early 1900s, put it this way: “I have learned to repent before I sin, so I no longer have to suffer the consequences.”

There’s a wonderful book, Education for Life: Preparing Children to Meet the Challenges, by J. Donald Walters. It’s primarily a guide for parents and teachers, but it’s worth reading for what it says about human nature.

Walters explains that children mature in six-year stages. During the first stage, from birth to age 6, the child is mainly concerned with learning to manage its body – learning to walk, talk, and use its senses. From roughly 6 to 12, children live primarily in a world of feeling. Developing the ability to refine their feelings is essential to prepare for the next stage, will power, from 12 to 18. Without the ability to feel the realities of others, will power can become a brutal tool for fulfilling selfish desires. Finally, from 18 to 24 young people become engaged with ideas and the life of the mind.

Walters writes:

Only by calm inner feeling can a person know definitely the right course to take in any action. Those who direct their lives from this deeper level of feeling achieve levels of success that are never reached by people who limit their quest for answers to the exercise of reason. Reason, indeed, if unsupported by feeling, may point to hundreds of plausible directions without offering certainty as to the rightness of any of them.

Children need to learn how to react appropriately. This they can never do if their reaction springs out of their subjective emotions. Considerable training is needed to learn how to harness feeling and make it a useful ally. What children are taught, instead, as they grow older, is that feelings are inevitably obstacles to correct insight. The scientific method is offered as a model. “If you want to see things objectively,” they are told, “you must view everything in terms of cold logic.”….

Ignored is the fact that, usually, the greater the scientist, the more deeply he feels his subject. Or that, as Einstein put it, the essence of true scientific discovery is a sense of mystical awe.

Walters notes:

There are many ways of clarifying feeling, just as there are principles of logic (already taught in the schools) for learning to reason correctly. Feeling can be clarified, for instance, by learning how to distance feeling from one’s personal likes and dislikes, withdrawing one’s awareness to a calm center in the heart. Feeling can be clarified by directing the heart’s energies upward to the brain, and thence to a point between the eyebrows that was anciently identified as the seat of concentration in the body.

This last idea, of focusing attention at the physical seat of concentration, may seem a bit strange. But research has confirmed the existence and location of this area, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

In Fitness Intuition, I mention an interesting study of how emotions are routed in the brain:

In 2002, scientists at Duke University used brain scans to verify that raw emotions interfere with concentration, and that mental focus and unrefined emotions exist in a mutually exclusive relationship. That is, not only does emotion distort our ability to focus, but deliberately focusing attention is an effective way to calm and “neutralize” disruptive emotions. As the Duke news release put it, “Surprisingly, an increase in one type of function is accompanied by a noticeable decrease in the other.”

In plain English: intense mental focus helps us calm raw emotion and feel what’s true. Again, from Fitness Intuition:

“We’ve known for a long time that some people are more easily distracted and that emotions can play a big part in this,” said Kevin S. LaBarr, assistant professor at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and an author of the [above-mentioned] study. “Our study shows that two streams of processing take place in the brain, with attentional tasks and emotions moving in parallel before finally coming together.” The two streams are integrated in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which is located between the right and left halves of the brain’s frontal portion and is involved in a wide range of thought processes and emotional response. (Duke University press release, August 19, 2002)

People who meditate find that keeping their attention persistently but with relaxation in the area of the anterior cingulate (behind the point between the eyebrows) more or less automatically soothes any troubling emotions they might be feeling, and helps them become more calm, positive, and concentrated.

A study conducted in the early 1970s found that champion runners tended to focus their attention deliberately when they ran, monitoring their form, breathing, thoughts, etc. – in contrast to recreational runners, who were more apt to let their minds wander. The researchers called the champion runners’ mental style “associating” and the joggers’ “dissociating.”

Even mental woolgathering can be productive – there are probably few runners who haven’t experienced how uncontrolled thoughts gradually fall into a focus, producing creative insights, at least on the best runs.

But deliberately concentrating does produce rewards, not least of which is the ability to better control raw emotions and avoid impulsive training. And focusing the mind doesn’t have to be hard work.

Concentration is actually easier when it’s linked to feeling – not an arduous grinding of mental gears, but allowing our attention to rest in one-pointed absorption in what we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, thinking. Running forest trails, for example, it’s interesting to imagine the new views that greet us at each turn of the trail as separate scenes to be enjoyed for their unique beauties. By letting our attention fall into a focus, we can more easily run “in the moment” and experience the one-pointed attention that’s a key aspect of the high-performance sports “zone.”

Holding attention gently, without tension, at the point between the eyebrows can help. But two further aids for focusing attention are “finding the heart” and “energizing the heart.”

To find the heart, pay attention to whatever you’re feeling. Rest with that feeling and see if you can get to the bottom of it, and find out what you’re feeling at the deepest core of the heart. It’s rather like the practice of Vipassana meditation – dispassionately observing one’s own thoughts and feelings. After a while, one realizes that the “place” from which one is watching is an enjoyable place to be.

Sometimes emotional feelings can be far too turbulent to be refined and harmonized by such gentle methods. At those times, it helps to simply run, and become absorbed in the physical rhythm of running, which by itself is powerfully calming and harmonizing.

Yoga meditation is based on the relationship between the breath and the mind – the fact that calm, regular breathing promotes mental calmness. Thus, running, which tends to “regularize” the rhythms of the breath, promotes calmness and concentration.

To energize the heart, I find it helpful to straighten my spine to release any blocks in the flow of energy to the heart. (It also improves my running form.) I’ll breathe deeply and hold my breath in the area of the heart until I can feel a definite gathering of energy there. This is something I often practice when I’m not running, and want to “get back to my center” and raise my feelings and mood.

When I feel energy gathered in the area of the heart, I’ll try to release it upward toward the brain, by joining my hands behind my back and stretching my spine backward and upward. It’s an enjoyable practice. It’s emotionally uplifting and liberating. I often find it helps me run more “from my chest,” leading with my heart. This, too, is enjoyable; it makes me feel like a dynamic, enthusiastic, poised and heartfelt runner. Whenever I do that, I realize that running well is very much about the heart.

Feeling is an essential tool for good training. Without it, decisions based on logic alone are iffy at best. From Fitness Intuition:

Researchers now suspect that feeling and reason work hand in hand. Contrary to a longstanding prejudice of our western culture, which assumes that reason is the superior faculty, the researchers are finding that reason is deeply compromised unless it’s balanced with the feelings of the heart.

Consider…the role of emotions in even the most “rational” decision-making. In work with far-reaching implications for understanding mental life, Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine [now at USC], has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the prefrontal/amygdala circuit [the neural link between the main centers of reason and emotion in the brain]. Their decision making is terribly flawed – and yet they show no deterioration at all in IQ or any cognitive ability. Despite their intact intelligence, they make disastrous choices in business and their personal lives, and can even obsess endlessly over a decision so simple as when to make an appointment.

Dr. Damasio believes their decisions are so bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning…. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past – everything takes on a gray neutrality….

Evidence like this leads Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use. (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1997. pp. 27-28)

Reason is a wonderful tool – it can help us solve problems and keep us on track when raw emotion threatens to lead us into a ditch. But it also needs to be balanced by the wise coach in the heart.

2 thoughts on “A Perfectly Reasonable Runner”

  1. That is a really interesting article. I am overweight and have been planning for a long time to start a fitness program, however actually doing it always seems to elude me. Now I know that I have to do it if the need is overwhelming.

  2. John – Thanks for your comment. You’ll likely find exercise very enjoyable. The secret is to start where you are, go forward in small steps, and always keep the fun bigger than the pain. For weight loss, I recommend Joel Fuhrman’s book, Eat to Live. It makes weight-loss easy, even as the pounds drop away. Do read the book – it will give you invaluable information. That said, I disagree in a very minor way with Fuhrman – like many of his fans, I do eat eggs (mainly the night before a long run or hard gym workout) and milk (after a long run/workout). I find that it doesn’t prevent weight control, so long as I don’t overdo the eggs and milk. Another “good guy” when it comes to fitness and weight-loss is Clarence Bass. His idea of infrequent, hard exercise plus frequent mild exercise truly does work. Weight training really helps keep the pounds off. Best of luck!

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