Once More, With Feeling

The five stages of a run — managing them well guarantees enjoyable running.

I can’t count the times I’ve started a run feeling emotionally blah and mentally scattered, and ended the run feeling wonderful.

The secret is simple: It nearly always happens when I do the right thing.

No matter how unpromising things seem at the start, I’ve learned that if I do my best and work with the natural stages of the run, I’ll be okay.

I do go on about this rather endlessly — sorry, old hands — but it’s marvelous to me how well it works. (Photo: Enjoying the final phase of a run at Rancho San Antonio, a 3800-acre park on the San Francisco Peninsula.)

Over the years, I realized that a run has five stages. The first is for the body. Until the body gets thoroughly warmed up, not much else can happen. So it doesn’t make much sense, at the start of a run, to expect to leap straight into wonderful, high-performance, zone-optimized running. At least, not with an old rust-bucket body and brain like mine.

I’ve learned that if I allow the run to evolve at its own pace, and work with each stage the best I can, then the running gets better at each stage, and a good ending is almost assured.

The five stages of a run are: body — heart — will — mind — soul. And there are excellent reasons why nature arranged them in that order.

Here’s how they evolve. As an example, I’ll use this week’s 2½-hour long run.

At the start, I knew there was feeling emotionally flat and mentally scattered. Not much I could do about it — I realized I would have to accept the conditions as they were, and make the best of them.

So, for the first hour or so, I made no big effort to concentrate my thoughts, generate big feelings, or pretend that the body was ready for high-performance running.

However, I didn’t let myself go completely loopy, letting my thoughts drift and my feelings drool out on the pavement.

Instead, I kept turning my attention to the heart. Why? Because in my 40 years of running I’ve realized that the heart is much more important than the mind.

Again, why? Because where the heart goes, the mind naturally and easily follows.

I’ve been a meditator for about the same time span, and I’ve discovered that this is also a key principle of meditation. You can do all the breathing exercises and meditative practices you like, but if your heart isn’t in your practice, you’ll find it much, much harder to get focused and inwardly still.

On the other hand, when the heart discovers something that it truly enjoys, or wants very strongly, the mind trots along obediently and becomes instantly focused on it. It’s a good argument for making your training, and your meditation, as enjoyable as possible.

I realized that in the natural unfolding of the stages of the run, my heart wouldn’t truly awaken until my body had had its say. It’s how my long runs usually unfold — working, working, working to get the body in sync — and it takes my 68-year-old body considerable time before my legs no longer feel wooden and stiff and sluggish, and my breathing is no long scattered and rough like a diesel engine starting on a freezing morning.

Once the body is really warmed up, it can crank out energy easily. If, on the other hand, I blast off at the start, my body may get in sync, in time, but I find I can never run as far or fast, with the same sense of effortless ease.

So I try to be patient, because I know that a bit of self-restraint will pay off later.

So, off I go, biding my time and trying to fill the first stage with as much enjoyable stuff as possible, to stave off impatience and get the best out of every moment of the run.

I try to find things to enjoy in every moment. One thing I like to do is explore the pace that feels exactly right at each moment — the pace that feels most harmonious, where the body seems to enjoy running the most.

I think of that pace as the “harmony zone.” Some days, it will be a bit quicker, and on other days it’s slower — but it’s always there — that “exactly right” pace.

Finally, at some point — it may take 15 minutes or up to an hour — the body “wakes up” and announces that it’s ready to run faster.

How does it announce its readiness? When I speed up a bit, tentatively, it feels completely natural and easy. And if I keep testing my edges, looking for the best harmony zone, I discover the best pace for the day. On days when I’m healthy and rested, that pace usually corresponds to a heart rate between 75% and 80%.

Another very interesting thing happens, once my body is thoroughly warmed up. Now that the body is able to crank out energy freely and efficiently, the sensation of energy lifts my mood.

Physically, it feels as if my old Sixties VW van of a body is finally able to run smoothly, and I can press the pedal to the metal without spraying engine parts all over the road. But, emotionally, it’s very definitely the beginning of the “heart” stage. And that’s because a fresh flow of energy inevitably awakens positive, happy feelings.

The “heart” stage generally lasts quite a long time. I rarely feel emotionally giddy and gushy; rather, it’s a calm, light, positive, optimistic, happy feeling. In fact, there’s a big — and important — difference between emotion and feeling. Emotion is dangerous for a runner, for the simple reason that it always, always swings back into its opposite — one moment you’re feeling giddy with pleasure, and the next you’re inexplicably feeling depressed.

In Eastern paths, it’s known as the dualistic swings of maya. It’s said that when God manifested His outward creation, he vibrated his consciousness, and in doing so, He created countless dualistic opposites: day, night, heat, cold, youth, old age, elation, sadness, and so on. The dual opposites are unavoidable in the outward world, and in outward emotions. The way to escape the swings of opposites is by going within and finding an unshakable happiness by communing with the stillness of God’s consciousness.

At any rate, I think of this stage as “happy heart running,” and I might run that way for 45 minutes or longer. But, at some point, the feeling will change. It feels as if the feeling is fading, getting thinner and paler and diffused.

It’s a dangerous part of the run, because if I let myself get too mentally and emotionally flat and spacey, the rest of the run is always disappointing, mentally and emotionally blah — scattered, uncentered, and unsatisfying.

When those positive feelings begin to fade, it signals the start of the will-power phase.

At this point, I find that it pays big dividends if I deliberately take control.

The image I present to myself is of a warrior who fights, not for the sake of proving how warriorlike he is, but for the sake of being able to commune with the heart’s deepest love, and to give kindness and compassion to others.

If I give up and let go, let my thoughts and feelings drift and grow weak, I’ll be of little use to anyone, least of all myself, and I won’t have a very good time. But if I take control, exert a bit of calm self-restraint, and deliberately focus attention, I find that I can protect the inner core of my heart, where thoughts of kindness and compassion dwell. So I practice the discipline of a warrior, so that I can enjoy an inner communion with the expansive love and joy of the heart.

It hardly needs saying that it’s a very pleasant state — and so I do make the effort. Not a grim or pugnacious, straining kind of effort, but just quietly being disciplined and not letting my thoughts and emotions droop or flail about uselessly.

Working with will power opens the gates for the final stage of the run, the spiritual.

As I write this, I’m reminded of an anecdote from the distant past. I’ve been meditating for about 44 years. When I was a young disciple, I heard a talk by a senior monk of the path that I follow. He was an American, very simple, humble and plainspoken. His explanations were always simple and homely. In his talk, he explained meditation. “You do your practices, your breathing exercises and so on, and your mind becomes still and focused, and in that stillness you automatically feel God’s presence. And because God is lovable, you feel love for Him in your heart. And so you naturally give Him that love, and He gives it back to you, and in that way the love keeps growing.”

At any rate, I find that a bit of self-restraint and self-offering in aid of the “natural love of the heart” enables me to feel closer to a higher power within.

God responds in many ways — the Eastern scriptures say He can be experienced as light, sound, power, bliss, etc. For me, it often takes the form of inner sounds.

Okay, another digression. A word about perfectionism. Because, when we talk of spiritual practice, there’s always a danger that we’ll think “Oh, but I’m not spiritual.” Or, “Oh, but I’m not good enough.”

A problem with rule-bound, dogmatic approaches to religion is that they create a perfect setup for hypocrisy. The rigid rules leave no wiggle-room for personal growth. “I’m a sinner, and God is an angry God, and therefore I must be perfect, or else risk eternal damnation.” Therefore, in other words, I must pretend to be perfect, because I jolly well know I am not.

There’s no give, no slack, no room to begin where we are, and grow from there. Not if an angry, intolerant God is always watching, ready to condemn us to hell for the slightest mistake. It’s why fundamentalists develop so many rigid formulas — the “right” catch-phrases, the “right” behavior, the endless petty rules.

So, when it comes to the stages of a run, let me confess that — last I looked — I hadn’t yet achieved the final perfection — including the perfect self-restraint and self-offering one might expect of a saint.

But, the point is, in my experience, God doesn’t seem to mind. Elsewhere in these pages, I’ve told how, years ago, I once felt that I’d made some mistake, and how, in the evening, I crawled back to my meditation seat and prayed, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to accept me the way I am.” And I was surprised to hear a loving, feminine voice, as of a bustling, efficient, mother, that said, “I am not interested in your faults — I am interested only in your continual improvement.”

So, for me, the “soul phase” of the run never comes with an overmastering flood of divine bliss, but usually with a kind of homespun, enjoyable awareness of inner harmony, often accompanied by the same sounds I hear in meditation. Certainly not the mighty roar of OM, but it doesn’t matter, since what pleases God, and gives me true joy, is that I’m moving in the right direction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I do my best to run and remain inwardly relaxed and focused on my practice, a very nice thing happens — the soul communion that I’m feeling gets reflected in my running form, and my running becomes very rhythmic, free and harmonious.

Toward the end of the run, I did a faceplant. I was running on the dirt margin of a bike path on the Stanford campus. The ground was leaf-strewn and muddy, and I stubbed a toe and went down, sliding in the mud behind a bus stop. A black woman who was sitting on the bench turned with a sympathetic expression and said, “Ooh…” But I was enjoying myself so much, I jumped up and laughed and said, “I must have been thinking egotistical thoughts!” She laughed and said, “Maybe it just happened.” I said, “No, that’s usually when it happens.”

It’s true — pride, in running, often precedes a fall.

But I wondered if she wasn’t right. In fact, I hadn’t been thinking egotistically. And as I warmed down from the run I remembered a story about my spiritual teacher.

His first disciple in this country was a dentist from Boston. The teacher once told him, “Always remember, Doctor, when you’re in OM, nothing can touch you.”

One day, the doctor went sailing in a small boat, when the weather suddenly turned bad and it looked as if the boat would be swamped. But the discipled remembered his teacher’s saying and went inward until he heard the cosmic roar of OM.

At the same time, the teacher was talking with friends, when he suddenly stopped and began pacing up and down, exclaiming, “Doctor is in serious trouble — serious trouble, I tell you!”

The dentist-disciple managed to sail safely to shore, and when he next saw the teacher, before he could say a word, the teacher said, “You came near getting wet, didn’t you, doctor?”

Like most runners, I’ve done more faceplants than I care to count, and my pride has often been severely shaken, but not this time — it was like a stage-faceplant, as if it were happening to someone else and I was watching happily and enjoying the show.

2 thoughts on “Once More, With Feeling”

  1. wow your thoughts on OM are freaking hallariois! to each there own and I respect all types of beliefs but to think you can reach a point of OM were nothing can touch you is a little much! Good article thou well said. Maybe I could ask you a question and say as someone who has moved to the rockies and quit smokeing after 10 years, what is the best way to build my endurance? I normaly just go untill I feel like I am going to fall over and never once have had the hole five stages of running………will power is big factor, my harmony zone I am afraid would be a fast walk.


  2. Billie – Congratulations on giving up smoking – that’s no small accomplishment!

    To start running, you might look at Jeff Galloways’ Book on Running. See here.

    The reason you don’t experience the five stages is very likely that you’re still way much in the first stage of a runner’s career, which is almost entirely about the body. Fortunately, each stage has its own unique rewards and satisfactions – getting fit is hugely enjoyable, as you’ll surely discover. The secret is to “inch up,” make steady, slow, relaxed, enjoyable progress. Good luck!

    Re OM – it’s a stretch, I grant you. The proof is experience, not blind belief or “figuring it out.”

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