Category Archives: Training Ideas

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.

Meditation: an epic training tool. Slow yourself down to become faster.

Meditation calms the mind. It lets us collect the various parts of ourselves and bring them together to work on a specific objective. That objective can be to develop our athletic expression.

In training and life, it often happens that things just aren’t going our way. We’re in such a hurry that we stop functioning well: we drop a vase, and then we have to hurry even more to clean it up. The cycle just quickens—hurry only begets more hurry.

Paradoxically, in order to move faster, we have to learn how to slow down. But when the pressure’s up, that’s usually the very last thing we want to do. The ability to defuse those impulses is what separates good performers from the very best. That’s why you often hear in the Special Forces: “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” As I’ve discussed before, elite performers understand that when there is too much speed in a system—when they get the jitters—things start to go bad. On the other hand, when the non-elites see the elites moving faster, they assume (based on their mental models) that it is because the elites are putting more speed into the system.
Continue reading Meditation: an epic training tool. Slow yourself down to become faster.

Are you obsessed with getting fit?

The New York Times just came out with an article about the American fascination with “extreme fitness.”

The article critiques this trend on several grounds:

  • People are paying money to mimic hard labor; why not just go work construction?
  • The fitness trends of today are usually modeled after a watered-down version of “ultramasculine” groups like Navy Seals.
  • In these trends, “fitness” is often achieved at the cost of health. The NYT article that this isn’t fitness at all.

I have a post in the makings about my own opinions on these things, but first, I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Read the article (also linked here)—or don’t—and tell me what you think about the extreme fitness trends (or the critiques of it) in the comments.

Anything goes.

The best exercise ever: jumping rope.

Jumping rope prepares the body to interact with gravity and stress—making it the perfect precursor to running. It strengthens the connective tissue, solidifies the bones, develops the tendons, and teaches the muscles how to “talk” to each other through the stretch reflex.

Here’s how to do it right:

jump rope

Most people jump rope incorrectly: they use their calfs as the major pushoff muscles. But then, why is it so ubiquitous?

Because it is neurologically a lot simpler to use two muscles than to use a lot of them.

Most people’s bodies never learned to use all their muscles in dynamic activities: parents prefer to keep their kids inside throughout their critical periods (1-6 years of age). The parental risk aversion that translates to a reduction in dynamic play impoverishes the brain’s sensorimotor opportunities. Simply stated, the brain never learned how to use all of the muscles together—it didn’t have to.

So the brain chooses the quick way out: it only uses the calfs.

But the calf muscles were never “designed” to push off (in the sense that the arm muscles were never “designed” to support the body while running). Their function is to make sure that the foot remains at the correct angle in relation to the ground throughout the landing and propulsion of all leg-based activities. In other words, the calf muscles are designed to effectively transfer the force from the quads and the glutes into the ground, not as pushing muscles.

If we use them to push off, we overload them—but more importantly we use the entire leg and hip system in a way that it was never meant to be used. And what does this translate to?

Calf muscle tightness. 

To correct this, we need to train our muscles to interact correctly, and we need to make the brain realize that there is a way to use the most powerful muscles in the body, the quads and the glutes, as the main motors of propulsion. If we use the tiny calf muscles as our main pushing muscles, we will never become the fastest, most athletic version of ourselves.

Wearable tech stops us from listening to our bodies. That’s a problem.

We seem to have an ingrained cultural notion that technology solves everything. Got a problem? Throw some tech at it. Is that problem still there—or did it get worse? That’s okay. Some more tech should do the trick. This is what the wearable tech corporations like FitBit have been telling us. Wear a wristband that tracks the amount of steps you’ve taken, or the calories you’ve consumed, and that’ll make you fitter. Which launches us into a serious dilemma: we begin to think that we have control of our fitness like we have control of our thermostat.

Just change the little number and the temperature will change. The little number says how fit we are. But the body is a complex system, and as such, it is hostile to our attempts at simplification. If we try to “describe” fitness in such a simplistic way, we will find again and again that we are becoming overtrained and injured. As Albert Einstein said:

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

That is exactly the claim that wearable tech purports to let us make: that we “know” how fit we are because the little digital monitor says so. We can say “this is our fitness”—a claim about knowledge (or even worse “this is fitness”—a claim about truth). And our bodies, and our fitness, will be shipwrecked accordingly. The gods will be laughing at our disdain of the fact that the body is a dynamic system.

Continue reading Wearable tech stops us from listening to our bodies. That’s a problem.

The importance of a “Vision.”

These days, we find ourselves in a multitude of wars, literal and metaphoric. We are always fighting against something. Whether it is obesity, aging, injury or death, it seems that most of what we do is to try and stave off the avalanche of the inevitable. This battle cannot be won—and yet we fight it. But the reality is: we don’t have to.

When the majority of us lay athletes begin to exercise, we often do it to hold something at bay. Maybe it’s heart disease. Maybe it’s something else. In systems thinking, is often referred to as “Negative Vision.” We bring into our minds the image of what we don’t want to happen, and we exercise accordingly.

There are several big problems with this approach: first and foremost, we don’t have a mission in mind—something that we are driven to accomplish. For that very reason, we find whatever it is that we’re trying to outrun constantly nipping at our heels. That is a losing battle.

Continue reading The importance of a “Vision.”

The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.

Static stretching is one of the most entrenched exercise habits in the western hemisphere, especially for runners. It doesn’t do any favors to our running economy, our injury rates, our long-term development of power—and yet it endures.

You would think this means that we have an unabashed cultural acceptance of stretching, but that isn’t so. No matter how positively we speak of stretching, or how much we proselytize its benefits, the language that we use to describe it (and its effects) continue to carry hints that it isn’t—and will never be—a real solution.

Continue reading The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.

Increasing the body’s percentage of liquid assets is how we accelerate athletic development.

The human body is an economic system. If only we treated it that way. The ways in which the magazines and the latest trends compel us to go about exercise and physical development just don’t observe this reality.

Because the body functions like an economy, the surest way to achieve any goal is creating the conditions for growth in that direction. This is why I speak in terms of liquid assetsassets which can be sold very quickly and without losing market value in the process. Increasing the liquidity of our body’s relevant nutrients—fats and carbohydrates, to name two—is the very first step towards entering a cycle of investment to drive the body’s economy in the direction we want—even when “growth” corresponds to growing in the direction of a lower body mass.

Even when we’re talking about running for the sole purpose of being skinny, constraining calories just won’t cut it. By forcing the body to implement austerity measures (through dieting), we destroy its ability to grow in any direction. Even though we’ll achieve skinniness in the short-term, doing so will compromise the body’s ability to maintain it. In systems-speak, this is a classic example of Shifting the Burden.

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Running Backwards: a training idea for runners with lateral knee pain.

The exercise of running backwards helps the runner fix quite a few of the most common biomechanical problems, such as lateral knee pain, certain kinds of lower back pain, and plantar fasciitis. It does this by correcting the location of your center of gravity (CoG).

The CoG is importantly related to the body’s “mechanical solution,” the algorithm of muscle contractions that maintains the body erect and stable throughout the course of activity. Because the CoG is defined as the place where there are no forces acting on the body, any shifts or changes in the muscle firings that the body interacts with mechanical energy—any change in the mechanical solution—will necessarily alter the location of the center of gravity.

Strengthening a muscle that was previously too weak to be used in strenuous exercise will change the body’s mechanical solution: for any particular action, employing more muscles instead of less facilitates the body’s movement through space, since the brain is better able to correct for a center of gravity that moves due to change of direction, change of speed, or variable terrain.

Continue reading Running Backwards: a training idea for runners with lateral knee pain.

4-count breathing: An exercise for runners, meditators, commandos, and everyone else.

4-count breathing is well-known as a relaxing exercise, a form of meditation, and a tactical combat tool. This is a very useful tool for runners, because it helps the body function aerobically at a very high level of performance. For those who don’t know what I’m referring to, 4-count breathing is a technique that consists of the following steps:

Square-breathing-296x300

Continue reading 4-count breathing: An exercise for runners, meditators, commandos, and everyone else.