The Intuitive Runner

Does intuition exist? Is it a reliable guide for training?

Research at Heartmath Institute shows how easy it is to prove that intuition is real. Experimental subjects who were shown randomly sorted flash cards containing pleasant or disturbing images reacted to the upsetting images ahead of time, their emotional reactions reflected by changes in galvanic skin response (GSR) and heart-rate variability.

Scientific proofs of intuition are less persuasive than the rich anecdotal evidence for intuition in real life. British scientist Rupert Sheldrake has been pretty well blackballed by the orthodox scientific establishment for his research on intuition, described in books with intriguing titles such as Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and The Sense of Being Stared At.

Sheldrake is a brilliant man, a scientist of integrity. His lectures on intuition are fascinating; several are available for listening on his website.

In my articles on this website, and in my book, Fitness Intuition, I don’t mention the spiritual path that I personally follow. Suffice it to say that it emphasizes intuition as a means of receiving inner guidance from God. In over 41 years of following this path, I’ve had near-daily experiences of that higher guidance. Many were personal and subjective – e.g., feelings of love, joy, or inner blessing when I did something that appeared to please God. The divine response came most reliably when I let go of the little ego and embraced the wellbeing of others.

Other experiences weren’t confined to the subjective realm. Several years ago, for example, I was eager to find a healthy way to lose weight. I was skeptical of the Atkins, Pritikin, and Zone diets, because they were so obviously unbalanced, and from my training as a runner I knew that nature doesn’t work that way. Any diet that emphasizes a single food group, or that requires an anal-retentive degree of counting and measuring, is in my view, pure bunkum.

Was there a balanced diet that I could follow to drop the extra pounds, without compromising my health? Following the tactic that had become my habit over four decades, I prayed for guidance, and the next day while browsing in a bookstore, I discovered Eat to Live, a book that I’ve mentioned in several other articles here. (It’s since been retitled Eating for Health.)

Intuition has become a hot topic, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s recent bestseller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which touts the value of following our “gut instincts.” It’s a fascinating book, though it shares a deficiency with Rupert Sheldrake’s work: it provides lots of examples of intuitions that proved correct, but it doesn’t discuss the human faculty of intuition in a very useful way. Nor does it suggest how we can develop this important faculty.

And that’s where spiritual traditions are thousands of years ahead of the johnny-come-lately pop books.

Two streams have always existed in religion: an outer, dogmatic, rule-based strain, and an inner, intuitive path. In her book The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels describes how the early Christians were bitterly divided along these two lines, even though both communities of believers were danger of being executed if their faith were discovered. The Gnostics practiced meditation and prayer toward achieving personal, inner communion with God. Meanwhile, the orthodox community – the fundamentalists – preached outward ritual practices and a literal interpretation of the Bible.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. I suspect these two strains exist in running: on the one hand, the scientific approach, as epitomized by that vast tome, Lore of Running. And on the other, a more practical, experience-based approach.

I doubt 5 percent of the runners who own Lore of Running have read it from cover to cover. I have. I love that book – I write about running, and I felt duty-bound to be well-informed. My copy of Lore bristles with Post-Its that mark important passages. Yet I can’t deny that the scientific chapters are hard going.

Timothy Noakes, MD, the author of Lore, concedes that the chapters that most readers like best are ones that describe the lives of the great runners of the last 200 years, and how they trained. I suspect most readers feel they’ll derive more value by absorbing the wisdom of those great role models, than by rationally understanding the science of VO2Max.

The second current in running is subjective and intuitive. Like all natural processes, intuition has its own internal logic. As I mentioned earlier, I practice a spiritual path that emphasizes intuition. The problem with many ancient spiritual traditions is that their simple, core truths have often been buried under centuries of priestly interpretation and ignorance. Thus, much is expected to be taken “on faith,” where originally the emphasis was on crystal-clear practices aimed at obtaining specific results.

Today, there’s a crying need for religion to become practical and scientific again. With help from a handful of great modern spiritual teachers, the old teachings are being dusted off, and their eternal truths freshly revealed.

In Fitness Intuition, I explain how intuition can help us in our training. Developing intuition improves our ability to “listen to the body” and make decisions based on a sure awareness of its needs.

How can you develop your intuition? The first step is to understand how intuition works.

When are we most intuitive? When we’re calm, attentive, dispassionate, and receptive.

How can we develop these qualities, so that we can receive inner feedback from the body – and, if we’re inclinded, higher, intuitive guidance for our training and our lives? A good first step is to understand how practices like meditation stimulate the areas of the physical brain where these qualities are localized.

Here’s an excerpt from Fitness Intuition:

Roughly 70 years ago, researchers became aware that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is the “control center,” where raw emotions are restrained and modulated. In certain spiritual paths, the primary meditative practice involves holding attention gently in the prefrontal cortex, at the point between the eyebrows, a technique that those traditions claim has a powerful harmonizing effect on the emotions, and calms and focuses the mind.

In his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman writes:

A. R. Luria, the brilliant Russian neuropsychologist, proposed as long ago as the 1930s that the prefrontal cortex was key for self-control and constraining emotional outbursts; patients who had damage to this area, he noted, were impulsive and prone to flare-ups of fear and anger. And a study of two dozen men and women who had been convicted of impulsive, heat-of-passion murders found, using PET scans for brain imaging, that they had a much lower than usual level of activity in these same sections of the prefrontal cortex. (Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. p. 314)

In 2002, scientists at Duke University used brain scans to verify that raw emotions interfere with concentration, and that mental focus and emotion 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” raw 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.”

This is interesting news for runners. And it’s especially relevant for competitive runners, because it confirms the age-old maxim that deliberately focusing attention before a race tends to calm pre-race jitters, while uncontrolled emotions are dangerous, because they can interfere with concentration and good decision-making.

Consider the experiences of two runners at the 2002 US Olympic Trials:

Everyone gets nervous before races. “If you’re not nervous, you’re not excited,” says U.S. 5,000m Olympian Brad Hauser. But poorly managed pre-race anxiety can undo months of training by misdirecting your energies away from the task at hand – racing your best. Case in point: Hauser’s fifth-place finish in the 10,000m trials. “I made a rookie mistake, ” admits Hauser. “I was too excited. When the running got hard I was too focused on the result, on making the team.”

Nick Rogers, who finished third in the 5,000m after a DNF at 10K, admits, “Anxiety is the reason I didn’t make the 10K team. I knew I was one of the top contenders and I just let the pressure get to me. I didn’t have fun. For me, anxiety can make me almost focus too much on the race.”1

Distracting emotions led Hauser and Rose to worry about results, instead of calmly focusing in the moment, on running their best race.

Deliberately focusing attention in the prefrontal cortex can help the mind become relaxed and one-pointed – a definite asset for runners who want to race well, or simply to improve the quality of their runs.

“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 responses.2

I’ve found that holding my attention persistently but with deep relaxation in the area of the anterior cingulate (behind the point between the eyebrows) more or less automatically soothed any troubling emotions I might be feeling, and helped me become more calm, positive, and concentrated.

Here’s a simple meditation practice for achieving the calm, focused, receptive, dispassionate intuitive state:

  • Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Tense your whole body, and relax quickly, “throwing” the breath out: “huh-huh!”
  • Inhale to a count of 6 to 12 – whatever’s comfortable for you; hold the breath for the same count, then exhale to the same count. This practice will help regularize your breathing. Calm, even breathing promotes a calm, quite mind.
  • Tense and relax as in step 1, but this time repeat three times.
  • Hold your attention gently at the point between the eyebrows. Don’t strain; let your attention become calmly absorbed at that point. If you’re of spiritual inclination, offer a prayer.
  • While gazing calmly at the “spiritual eye,” watch your breath and repeat a calming phrase with each inhalation and exhalation. For example, “In…out” or “Gather…relax.” In yoga meditation, it’s common to say “hong” on inhalation and “sau” (“saw“) on exhalation, as these words are believed to have a calming effect on the nerve currents associated with inhalation and exhalation. (“Hong Sau” in Sanskrit means literally “I am He.”)
  • Don’t make hard work of it. Feel that you’re withdrawing from outward concerns, finding the center of your self within, and from that point drawing fresh energy and inspiration for your running and your life. Feel that in going within, you are rising to greet the spirit of which you are a small part. In that oneness, expand your heart in sympathy to all.

In meditative traditions, it’s said that the more time you spend in the inner silence, the more intuitive you’ll become. If you’d like to learn more about meditation, I recommend John Novak’s book, How to Meditate, and an audio CD, Meditation for Starters .

1“Nervous-Who Me?” By Gordon Bloch, Running Times, © Copyright Running Times, November 2000, p. 63. (Used with permission.)

2Duke University press release, August 19, 2002