Tag Archives: observation

Want to change your stride safely? Learn about your body.

In my last post,  reader Ana Maria Castro Monzon commented:

“Great contribution! something that happens to me eventually when I’m running is that I feel that I run too slowly. I identified with “I’m just a slow runner.” How can I observe the alignment of my body when I run to improve my step?”

That’s the million-dollar question. I’ll say again what I answered in the comments: aside from going to a gait specialist, the best thing that you can do is observe, observe, and observe.

Most of us don’t really zoom into what we’re doing when we run. But if we did zoom in, and we watched and felt our body move, we would feel the slight disparities in our pushoff, the small differences in our arm swing, etc. That’s the very first step. Simply stated, look for differences.

First, we need to see that something needs to change, in order to change it. And when we develop experience in observing the motion and shape of our bodies, something happens. Just like when we develop experience observing brush strokes on a canvas, we develop an intuitive awareness of what’s wrong, of what’s missing, or what should be removed.

Observation and introspection are the key to developing this intuition, which later translates into knowledge. Why? Our bodies are systems, and systems are like puzzles: every single piece has a particular place in the whole, and its shape and color reveal its place relative to the others. In our bodies, every muscle, bone, and tendon has a particular place, and all of these parts function relative to every other. When one of these parts is functioning incorrectly, this reflects on itself and on the parts that surround it: when you put a puzzle piece in the incorrect location, not only does it seem out of place, but the pieces that surround the spot where it should have been are also negatively affected.

In the human machine, not a single part is superfluous, or out of place. Just like when you look at a car’s engine block: even if you don’t know much about cars, or engines, and at first glance you swear that one of its parts is superfluous—that it’s there just because, for “no rhyme or reason”—you’ll likely find that it has a very specific function, that you couldn’t pinpoint because you weren’t an expert.

This is the story of the appendix: some 20 years back, it still was thought that the appendix was a remnant of evolution. People would jokingly say that its only purpose was to get infected so that it could be cut out. But now we know better: the purpose of the appendix is to safeguard intestinal bacteria in the case of diarrhea or disease, so that the intestinal flora has a chance to repopulate.

All systems, across all domains, function largely like this. If something exists, it is there to perform a certain function. And when we introspect about our bodies and observe them, we’ll realize two things: first, that our bodies are systems, and second, that if we’re slow, or sick, or injury-prone, we can be certain that it is because some part is not doing its job, and certain that it’s not because we are slow, or sick, or prone to injury.

Further introspection will reveal what part (or parts) that is.

Even more introspection will reveal what to do about it.

And then there is the research. Although not every one of us has to become a physical therapist or a doctor—who are experts in all bodies—there is no good reason why each one of us shouldn’t become an expert in our own body. That’s the path that will take us towards being injury-free, and towards speed. While some of us may just want to be told what to do by a coach or a physical trainer, firsthand knowledge of our bodies is the most invaluable tool. Let me put it to you this way: two-thirds of the way into a marathon, we can be wondering why we’re getting hamstring cramps, or we can be exactly sure why we aren’t. There may be a few shortcuts to success, but there are no shortcuts to excellence.

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.