Once More Into the Harmony Zone

Lorraine Moller, marathon bronze medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, wrote an article for the latest Running Times on “Becoming a Body Whisperer.” It’s worth reading.

Monitoring the body is an essential skill. Moller believes the best way to “listen to the body” is by paying attention to how we feel. I know she’s right. But, having said that, I suspect she leans a bit too far in the direction of running by feelings alone.

In support of feeling-based training, she tells about a runner who became fixated on the heart monitor and experienced worsening race times. When she persuaded him to take off the monitor and run by feeling, he soon returned to form.

I suspect Moller may have fallen into the trap of either/or thinking. “Feelings are good, therefore reason is bad.” But was the monitor to blame? Or was it the runner’s unreasoning obsession?

Neuroscientists now know that feeling and reason are inextricably linked, and that they work best in tandem.

In my book, I cite a classic study on the role of feelings in our lives. I’ve quoted this passage elsewhere in these articles, but it’s worth repeating:

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes research by neurologist Antonio Damasio, PhD, on patients whose ability to feel was impaired by brain damage. “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.”

Damasio believes we need feeling to guide our reasoning. “Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala [a primary center of raw emotional feeling in the brain], 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.”

Reason without feeling is untrustworthy – as the monitor-obsessed runner found. But this hardly suggests that we can safely dismiss reason in our training.

In our lives, we often find ourselves standing at a crossroads, where several directions seem equally valid and “logical.” Should I take this job or the other one? Both jobs pay well, and both offer great benefits. Both jobs would shorten my commute, and neither one is a pressure cooker that would consume my life. What should I do?

When too many of the variables are hidden, logic usually lets us down. When this happens, intuitive feeling – not emotion, but calm, detached, dispassionate, unprejudiced feeling – can often deliver the goods. If we can get sufficiently calm and weigh the options in the balance of calm, clear intuitive feeling, we’ll generally get a sense of the right choice. We’ll get a clear, harmonious feeling about one option, while the other will evoke a subtle sense of nervousness or discontent.

But feeling is reliable only to the extent that we can free our hearts from personal likes and dislikes. And that isn’t easy. Our emotions are loaded with prejudices born of our past fears and experiences. (As Moller discovered when subtle fears prevented her from going with the lead runners in the marathon at Barcelona.)

Learning to run intuitively – to “body-whisper” – usually takes years of practice. Doing it well requires some fairly masculine, rational abilities, such as a fierce commitment to do the right thing, while setting aside fleeting personal preferences.

When we run “in truth,” doing the right thing whenever we don shorts and shoes, we greatly improve our odds of doing optimal training that’s enjoyable.

I use a heart monitor constantly. I’m grateful for it. It’s good science. I can happily run without the monitor. But I do find that it helps me neutralize raw emotions, calm my feelings, and confirm what I sense my body is trying to say.

I’m a no-talent plodder, yet I know that at each moment of every run, there’s a single “right” or “best” pace. I think of that pace as my personal “harmony zone.”

Let’s say I’m scheduled for a sub-tempo run. I know I’ll need to warm up for 10 to 40 minutes. And the big question is, what pace is exactly right for the warmup? The answer is that the harmony zone tells me, with great precision. It’s the pace at which I feel best, in my body, heart, and mind. It is, quite literally, the “most harmonious pace” – the most enjoyable pace. If I honor that feeling and do as it suggests, I invariably end up having a great run. But if I speed up too soon, the feeling goes away and I lose the sense of the right pace for the day.

Over the years, I’ve confirmed that these feelings are very wise and deserve to be respected. When I follow the intuitive guidance, I get more out of my training, and I enjoy it more.

I believe – and my experience bears this out – that those feelings are my body’s way of telling me the pace it “needs” or “wants” at every stage of the run.

After warming up in the harmony zone for a time, I’ll speed up tentatively, and at some point, the body will give me its okay to run faster. Again – the way I know it’s okay to pick up the pace is that the harmonious feelings now occur at the higher pace. Speeding up feels exactly right – like falling effortlessly into a higher gear.

Where feeling and logic can end up “going to war” is when I decide, impatiently, that I don’t want to “waste this run,” and I push my body at the day’s scheduled pace, even though I lose that wonderful sense of harmony.

The intuitive feelings are quiet and subtle – they are, as Moller suggests, bare whispers of inner feeling. Thus, it’s very, very easy to override them with logic and stubborn willfulness. It takes great discipline to let them be our guide.

The other day, I had a run penciled in the schedule for 90 minutes, with 20-30 minutes at sub-tempo pace (just under 85% of max heart rate). Yet my harmony-zone pace was very low on the day – it was no higher than 75% MHR. And so I wisely let the body “win.” I abandoned logic – “Darn it, I’m scheduled for fast running, and I’m gonna tough it out and run hard!” Wise reason, unswayed by emotion, told me, based on long experience, that overdoing it would set back my training, because my body wasn’t prepared to run hard and needed an easy day.

I had a very productive run. Indeed, yes, it was slow, but the “harmony zone” feelings were quite strong at the slower pace. Thus it was enjoyable, and I was able to run for 70 minutes at a sufficiently reduced effort that my body recovered quickly. It was by no means a “junk run” or a waste of time.

The upshot was that, three days later, I was able to do a magnificent 70-minute run that included hard Lydiard-style hill exercises – and I was able to do it entirely in the harmony zone. Thus, I found that I had lost nothing by easing off when my body felt below par.

Feelings are an essential part of training. They’re particularly valuable for the self-coached runner. They are vital. But science can be a wonderful aid as well. A simple glance at the heart monitor gives me a valuable reality check. “This is the pace at which I feel most harmonious today – and, oh, look – the harmonious feeling is happening at a lower heart rate than usual. Aha! This means that my body is tired – I’m not recovered from the last hill session, and the heavy deadlifts at the gym…. And, oh, all of a sudden I’m not feeling terribly harmonious, and, oh, look, it’s because I’ve wandered a bit over the most harmonious pace and heart rate.”

i know these things from inner feeling, but reason confirms them and clarifies and reinforces them.

Feeling helps me find the best training plan for the day. Then reason chimes in with its masculine voice of logic and soldierly self-restraint: “I will not run outside the harmony zone today, even if it means running slowly and not for very long. If I push too hard today, I’ll dig a deep hole that it will take my body many days to climb out of.”

Reason is the voice of discipline – the voice that supplements the whispered wisdom of inner feeling. Reason can consult past experience and bring all the hard-won lessons to bear. “I know the consequences, because I’ve experienced them before.”

Can we safely train by feeling alone? I’ve tried it – and, I’m sorry, but I haven’t yet mastered my emotions sufficiently that I can always rely on my heart to be calm and intuitive. I need reason’s steadying hand. Reason helps me neutralize the raw emotions that tempt me to do foolish things. Reason is my crapmeister –the BS meter with the big red arrow that swings wildly and issues a loud warning buzzer when I’m tempted to do something stupid.

When the heart monitor tells me I’m running at the correct, scheduled pace, yet my body feels awful, I know what to do. I thank my heart, and I switch on my reason: “The smart thing today is to slow down and go home early. I know from long experience that this run will not be wasted, and that if I give my body the rest it needs, I’ll be able to run hard next time. But if I do too much today, I’ll just dig a deeper ditch of fatigue, and it may take my body a week or longer to climb out and fully recover.”