In distance running, the three most successful cultures in the last 100 years – in New Zealand, Kenya, and Ethiopia – all started with individuals who placed a high value on the group, and on making training fun.
The Kenyan runners, who were notorious for training extremely hard when it mattered, would simply stop running and go home if their bodies seemed to be telling them that they weren’t ready to run. A Western-trained runner, by contrast, would be more likely to obsess over “making the numbers” and push through the workout regardless of the body’s signals.
The Kenyans ran by intuition, with a relaxed and receptive attitude that left their hearts open to feel what was right on the day.
The tone for the Ethiopians’ rise to prominence was set by Abebe Bikila, the cheerful unknown who won the marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome – barefoot; and by Haile Gebrselassie, who enjoyed his training and ran – and lived – with an expansive heart. The New Zealanders, too, brought a spirit of camaraderie and fun to their training. Their coach, the legendary Arthur Lydiard, believed we should finish every run feeling “pleasantly tired,” but never exhausted.
Devi and Jyotish are longtime friends. In the late 1970s, Jyotish and I often ran together on forest trails and abandoned logging roads in the remote Sierra foothills near Nevada City, California. Jyotish recently penned an article on the importance of relaxation in meditation: “Relax and Feel.”
(Yes, I borrowed the title, but our articles will be indexed for very different search terms. Parenthetically, “relax and feel” was coined by Paramhansa Yogananda with reference to his system of energization exercises: “Tense with will — relax and feel!”)
Here’s an excerpt:
“When Devi and I were starting Ananda’s first large ashram in San Francisco we enjoyed running and participated in the city’s famed Bay to Breakers race. In a park near us there was a Saturday runner’s clinic open to anyone who wanted to attend. The instructor, who had been a famous college track coach, told an illuminating story about his career change.
“He said, ‘As a college coach, I had several world-class, Olympic-level athletes on the team. Then one day a group of lady librarians from the college asked if I could coach them. Eventually, giving in to their persistence, I told them to run around the track with a moderate effort. They were thrilled with their success, and over the next few weeks, as they continued to ask my advice, a nice bond formed between us.
“‘Then I recognized something that changed the course of my life. The librarians were always happy, positive, and having fun. My world-class runners, on the other hand, were usually upset and angry about something. Perhaps they had been edged out in a race or failed to set a personal best by a tenth of a second. One day a light bulb went off in my brain – I realized that I was coaching the wrong type of people. I ended up quitting my job and the stress that went with it. Now, I coach runners who just want to have fun, and my life also has become fun.’”
There’s a strong subculture in sports today of folks who’ve begun to understand the connection between success and happiness. I’ve mentioned Tony Holler in these pages. Tony is a former high school football, basketball, and track coach in Illinois who built a wonderful legacy of success with young athletes by making sure their workouts were always fun.
It’s not complicated. Without looking at the science, we can test these simple principles in our own lives. Sure, it takes discipline and perseverance to be successful in anything. But when the fun barometer starts to fall, it just might be a sign that we’re doing it wrong.