Meditation: could it be a running-specific recovery tool?

I meditate as a way to maintain overall mental health, keep my mind clean of obstructions, and to synchronize some of the body’s vital systems like the cardiovascular system and the lungs. In other words, I use meditation for “general maintenance,” if you will. But recently, I made the discovery that meditation has been (at least for me) an amazing postrun activity, especially to let the body wind down after a long run.

Thanks to this discovery, I’ve begun to use meditation (in addition to its generalized, catch-all nature) in a much more surgical fashion. When I meditate after a long run, I find that I have very little muscle soreness, and my recovery from the run begins soon after. I’ve been able to increase my training volume quite noticeably, since my resting heart rate remains consistently low, at 42-47 bpm.

Throughout my experience with meditation, I’ve used different forms of it towards different ends, although most of them come from the discipline and tradition of Zen. Without going into much detail, Zen centers on the ability to perceive the world in a “purer” fashion—in other words, free of the constructs that society creates, and the heuristics that our cognitive machinery uses to allow us to navigate our world.

The type of Zen meditation that I’ve used here is best referred to as “observing the breath.” Its purpose is to observe what the body does—to sit with the body (in its company, if you will)—and just let its processes run its course. Think of it in terms of “observing and allowing.”

By doing that, I realized that something really interesting began to happen.

Usually, I get back from a long run, and my breathing winds down within a minute. I’m tired, and my muscles are tired, and I sit down and rest for a while. For sure, I’ll drink some water. And a couple of hours later, I start feeling the onset of muscle soreness.

But when I started to meditate directly after the long run, regardless of how tired I was—or rather especially if I was extremely tired—I realized that, as soon as I achieved a meditative state, my breathing started to wind back up again. Of its own volition, my body starts taking deep breaths, in which the lungs completely fill and empty. This usually keeps up for like 6-10 minutes, and then my breath gradually starts winding down. Just to let the process run its course completely, I usually remain in a meditative state for about 20 minutes.

So, why did I start breathing harder if I was meditating?

Here’s my hypothesis:

When I get back from a long run and just “go chill,”  my mind isn’t in “observation mode,” it’s in “doing mode” or “thinking mode.” So, once the long run is over, my mind comes up with other ideas of what it should be doing. The processes that were going on during the long run, such as metabolizing a high volume of lactate thanks to accelerated breathing, get overriden by newer processes, and forgotten before they have a chance to fully conclude.

So, when my long run ends, I believe that my body still has a hell of a lot of lactate that needs to be metabolized—but the necessary oxygen flow just … stops.

On the other hand, when I went into meditation—into “observation” mode—after the long run, I removed my mind from the equation. This was about sitting with the body and watching the body intently, and letting it do whatever. And what it chose to do was to increase the respiratory rate and depth of respirations dramatically. Why did this happen? Again, what I have is only conjecture, but I think that what happened is that my body decided that the best thing it could be doing for its own sake was to continue metabolizing the by-products of exercise (such as its heavyweight: lactate). For this, it needs a lot of oxygen—much, much more than I usually give it, in the minutes directly after the conclusion of my long runs.

It seems like that’s why my body decided to increase my rate of breathing.

I’d like to hear your thoughts about this in the comments. I’m convinced that this works on myself. But I’m curious what you use meditation for (if you use it at all). I’m especially interested in your doubts, and in the plausibility of what I discuss in this post. Also, if you think you may have ideas on a possible experimental design to test the correlation between meditation and the opportunity for continued lactate metabolism, do tell.

I’d like to engage with the subject of meditation (and my experiences of it) in a much more academically and experimentally rigorous sense.

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