The Fitness Intuition Method

In the movies, James Bond leaps in the Aston Martin, cranks it to life, floors the accelerator, and disappears in a cloud of burning rubber.

In real life, few people over 18 would treat a car like that.

Modern cars don’t need much warming up, but they do need some. Here’s the advice of TV’s Car Talk guys:

Unless it’s below freezing, cars don’t need to be warmed up at all.

Driving them gently is the best warmup there is. If it’s 25 degrees out, you might want to let it warm up for 30 seconds. If it’s 10 degrees out, warm it up for a minute. If it’s 10 degrees out, move somewhere warmer.

Drive gently for the first five minutes or so in the morning. If you live one minute from the freeway, don’t floor it on the entrance ramp and jump right into the passing lane. Take it nice and easy.

This has to do with getting the oil heated up so it coats and splashes well. That’s the real reason for warming up your car. Also, don’t “rev” your car while it’s warming up and especially right after you crank it.

There’s not much in a car that needs warming up – just the oil.

But the human body is a different story. Considered strictly as a machine, the body is way more complex than a car.

Moreover, we human beings are more than just our bodies. Science tells us our bodies, minds, and hearts are inextricably connected. The thoughts and feelings we habitually cultivate profoundly impact our bodies, for good or ill.

So, before flooring the accelerator when we exercise, it’s a good idea to warm up those other parts, too. The evidence even suggests it will seriously help our running.

I suspect some people are “fast warmers.” A friend of mine, John Novak, can go from a dead stop to running at a brisk 75-80% of max heart rate almost instantly, without apparent unease. I can’t do it. Recently, John and I ran for an hour together, and I had an insight about why it works for him.

John is good-natured. I’ve never seen him get emotionally upset. He’s aware of other people’s realities and relates to them with kindness and goodwill. When we run together, the other runners are always smiling and saying hi.

I suspect John doesn’t need to warm up because he keeps his heart warmed-up all the time.

In fact, there’s science to support the notion that a “happy heart” makes running easier.

In Fitness Intuition, I describe research on how positive and negative emotions affect “heart rate variability.”

Briefly, heart rate variability (HRV) measures how smoothly or erratically the heart “changes speed.” Our heart rate changes continually, and the more erratically those shifts occur, the less efficiently the heart can accomplish its work.

Think of a car that’s running out of gas, lurching forward and dying as it stutters to a stop. That’s how the heart works when our feelings are negative – angry, fearful, dejected, resentful, and so on.

The Heartmath people found a direct link between HRV and the positive or negative quality of our feelings. Simply put, the more positive feeling we can generate, the more smoothly and efficiently our hearts are able to work. Conversely, the more negative our feelings, the less efficiently the heart works.

For a runner, this means that positive feelings are incredibly important, since they allow the heart to work harder with less strain.

In fact, the Heartmath scientists found that when a person experiences positive feelings such as love, kindness, etc., the heart’s electrical power output jumps by over 500 percent.

A wonderful thing about these findings is that they’re practical. Some people might consider the following statement outrageous – but, here goes: “The more positive you feel when you run, the harder you’ll be able to run with a sense of effortless ease.”

I’ve tested this too many times to be any longer in doubt. I spent years looking for a reliable method for entering the fabled running “zone” – that enjoyable state where inner silence and effortless speed come together. But I’m no longer searching for the mystical “method.” I’ve found it. And to the extent that I succeed in practicing it well, I get the results, every time.

It all depends on the warmup. If I can get my heart into a positive “place” at the start of a run, and if I’m healthy, fit and well-rested, I find I can always run hard with greatly reduced effort.

My buddy John, who’s a boundlessly positive guy, doesn’t need a long warmup to get there. But I have to work at it.

I’ve hinted at the “method,” but let me recap.

I warm up for a long time – for me, it might take 40 minutes of easy jogging, at a slow 65-67% of maximum heart rate (MHR).

Other days, I might go slowly for 15-20 minutes, then be able to kick it up to 70% to 75% comfortably.

How do I know how fast I can go on a given day? You guessed it – by the feeling in my heart. Here’s how it works.

After the first 15-20 minutes of the warmup, I’ll test my “daily speed limit.” I’ll raise the pace a hair and see how it feels. The telltale sign is a sense of ease – if it feels like I’m slipping effortlessly into a higher gear, I’ll go with it. But if there’s a subtle negative feeling – “uh-oh, not yet” – I’ll drop back to 65-67% and try again later. Some days, the “easy feeling” comes a lot sooner than others.

During the warmup, I’ll reach into my bag of personal heart-harmonizing methods. I might sing silently, repeat an uplifting phrase, remember a positive experience, meditate on nature, say an affirmation, etc.

On the physical side, I’ll breathe deeply into my chest and hold the breath there for a moment before exhaling. I find that deep, regular breathing creates a pool of energy in the area of the heart and helps harmonize my feelings. This reflects a core principle of yoga: that restless breathing makes the mind restless, and deep, regular breathing calms the mind and helps harmonize the heart.

Sometimes I’ll focus on the rhythm of running, and see if I can make it musical, in time with my breathing and inner singing, like a dance.

On any run, my body needs a precise amount of warmup before it’s willing to run fast. It might take longer because of something I ate, or because I didn’t get enough rest, etc. Or it might happen quickly.

What if the body never gives the signal that it’s ready to go fast? What if that easy feeling never comes? On those days, I try not to “argue” with my body. I’ll keep the pace slow. This always pays off. Doing the “right” thing generates good feelings, and it keeps my body healthy for high-quality running on another day.

I’ve learned that it pays to be disciplined about following the heart. “Listening to the body” takes patience, honesty, and a willingness to sacrifice impulsive, emotion-driven running for the greater good of high-quality running when the body is truly ready.

If I follow my heart, I always end up having a good run, even if my body wants to go slowly, or tells me to stop early and go home. The key is doing what feels right. Making stupid, impulsive decisions never generates good feelings; but doing the right thing always delivers a rewarding run.

The Heartmath researchers discovered that the heart can beat in a harmonious, efficient rhythm at any speed. It doesn’t matter if you’re jogging at a slow 65% of MHR, or doing hard repeats at 96% – if your feelings are positive, your running will feel less labored at any pace.

Perhaps you’re thinking: “Well, why not ‘warm up’ the heart by generating positive feelings before we run?”

Excellent idea!

Last Saturday, I drove 50 miles to San Francisco to run. I enjoy driving out of town for my long runs because it gives me a chance to sing in the car. On the spiritual path that I follow, we sing as part of our spiritual practice, to harmonize and uplift the heart. It’s convenient, because the same music that helps me feel “in tune” spiritually does a good job of preparing my body to run.

I ran a favorite route that starts on the Bay and meanders across the Golden Gate Bridge and onto the trails of the Marin Headlands. (I’ve put photos of this route online; see the San Francisco gallery here.)

Now then, two things about the run. First, I didn’t need a long warmup. I’m pretty sure that’s because my heart was warmed up from singing. Second, I practiced firm pace discipline, because I didn’t want to waste the 70-mile drive on a careless, disappointing run.

The discipline paid off. Back at the bridge, I kicked up the pace to 91%, to see how it would feel. I decided I would let my heart tell me what my body was ready for. Ninety-one percent of MHR is a high tempo pace that would normally feel very hard. Yet because of the positive feelings in my heart, it wasn’t a struggle. It wasn’t quite effortless, because I was mildly sub-par and I’d been running for nearly two hours; but it was quite easy, and I ended up running 30 minutes at that pace. I finished feeling “pleasantly tired.”

By golly, this heart stuff works.

Zone Checklist

To increase the odds of finding your way into the running “zone,” consider trying some of these tips:

  1. Start with a “pre-warmup.” Before the run, listen to inspiring music, sing, send good energy to others, or repeat an affirmation, etc. – whatever gets your heart beating in a positive, calm rhythm. If you’re of spiritual temperament, you might try walking a quarter mile and asking for inner guidance – in your own words, ask for help to set the little ego aside and expand your awareness to include a broader reality.
  2. Start slowly. If you wear a heart monitor, try warming up at 65-67% of max heart rate. If you don’t use a monitor, jog at a pace that feels comfortable, without the slightest suggestion of effort or pressure. Warm up at that easy pace for at least 10-15 minutes, then gently explore your “daily speed limit.”

Speed up a little and see how it feels. If it feels like you’re slipping effortlessly into a higher gear, go ahead and run at the quicker pace. Every so often, nudge the pace again and check the feeling. Some days, you won’t be able to run faster than a slow jog without hearing a subtle “No.” Honor that feeling – it’s your body telling you it needs to take it easy. Enjoy!

  1. During the warmup, “watch your heart.” Don’t let your mind wander, but be relaxed about it. Simply immerse your attention in enjoying whatever’s happening here and now. Pay attention to the feeling in your heart. If you’re feeling angry, hurt, or discouraged, you’ll be richly rewarded for any efforts you make to transform the upset feelings.
  2. Brain researchers have discovered that focused attention sucks energy away from the brain circuits involved in raw emotion. The two circuits are mutually exclusive: raw emotion destroys concentration – and focused attention weakens raw emotions. The neuroscientists have also discovered that the physical center of mental concentration is in the forepart of the brain, slightly above and behind the point between the eyebrows. (When we concentrate, we automatically wrinkle our forehead, reflecting an instinctive effort to bring energy to that part of the brain.) You’ll find it easier to focus your attention if you hold your attention gently but persistently at that point.

    The forepart of the brain – called the prefrontal cortex – doesn’t fully mature until we’re in our twenties. The abilities that are localized in that area are characteristics of maturity: the ability to concentrate, to form plans and pursue them to completion, to restrain raw emotions, etc. You might find it helpful to focus energy and attention at the point between the eyebrows in situations that demand mature behavior marked by self-restraint and including the realities of others.

    As a side benefit, the forebrain is also a powerful center of positive, upbeat, optimistic states of mind in the brain. Brain scans of successful people reveal a greater concentration of energy in the area of the prefrontal cortex than in people who have poor concentration, little ambition, a flat affect, and a negative, dispirited outlook.

  3. Here are some other ideas you might try: repeat an uplifting phrase. Listen to soothing music – or better, silently sing a song that fills your heart with positive feelings. (Active music-making affects our awareness more powerfully than passive listening.) Send positive thoughts to others. Or pray for them. (Prayer for others is a powerful way to heal yourself – “the instrument is blessed by that which flows through it.”) If you’re feeling too crummy for these subtle methods to have much effect, see suggestion 7.
  4. Be persistent. It’s all right if your mind wanders – that’s natural. Certainly, it never works to try to force your mind to a focus. On the other hand, don’t let the galloping mind wander too far. Just keep it on a loose rein until it slows to a canter, then a trot.
  5. A focused mind brings rich rewards. Focused attention opens doorways for peace and joy. Remember that concentration isn’t about brute force; it’s synonymous with strong interest. Practice immersing your attention calmly, enjoyably in what’s happening at each moment of the run: your rhythm, the passing scenes, the beauties of nature, your breathing, etc.
  6. Many practices can help generate positive feelings in the heart. I’ve suggested a few: singing, etc. But running itself can take us a good part of the way. In the Fitness Intuition chapter called “The Five Dimensions of Fitness,” I describe the five stages of a run. The first stage is for the body – at the start, our muscles, heart, and lungs need to get warmed up and synchronized.

    Toward the end of the warmup, we enter stage 2. The body is working smoothly and rhythmically, and positive feelings naturally start to bubble up, without any deliberate effort on our part. There’s no need to rush to the second stage. As the body warms up, we naturally feel more positive. “Just running” is wonderful therapy for a bruised heart.

  7. Anything you do while running that diminishes the ego will increase your enjoyment. All of the techniques I’ve mentioned help expand awareness beyond the little self. Another easy practice is to simply appreciate the people you pass and the natural scenery through which you run. Feel that they are part of your larger self and that you are a small part of that larger self.

    It’s not necessary to be gushy or emotional; deep feelings are calm and inward. “Before there can be an expansion, there must be a certain inner grounding first,” is how my spiritual teacher put it. It helps to pull your awareness deliberately inward with an effort of will, while focusing attention at the point between the eyebrows (see #4). Mature personalities willingly exercise self-restraint, setting themselves aside to make room for the others’ realities. Calm, controlled, inward expansion of feeling is more rewarding than gushy emotions.

  8. A saying in yoga is “A bent spine is the enemy of enlightenment.” It’s easier to “get high” while running if you hold your upper spine straight. Before starting the run, try joining your hands behind your back and stretching backward, as if opening your chest cavity to make room for the heart to expand. Consider the people you know who live “from the heart,” and how their strong, positive feelings are reflected in their posture – erect, chest-first, like ships breaking life’s waves. You can even stretch backward during the run – it can lift your mood in the late stages of a long outing. The relentless pounding of a 20-miler tends to compress the spine and block energy from flowing freely through the heart.

The notion of a “The Fitness Intuition Method” makes me laugh. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 40 years as a runner, it’s that the best “methods” are built-in. Discovering our own best training methods requires that we just pay careful attention to how our bodies and minds respond to long runs, speedwork, etc.

I believe listening to the heart will help you find your own method – the “Jane Smith Method” or “John Doe Method” that will bring you the very best results.