Running and Mindfulness Practice: Staying Calm and Alert

AJWs TaproomLast Friday, my school faculty participated in a four-hour mindfulness retreat at a local farm here in Central Virginia. During the course of the retreat we spent time both indoors and out practicing a variety of mindfulness methods and techniques and learning more about the importance of contemplative practices in this increasingly complex world. In particular, we were inspired to make meaningful connections between our work with students and our own experiences with personal reflection and physical restoration.

One theme that our facilitator returned to several times over the course of the afternoon was the role that mindfulness practice plays in our ability to remain calm and alert. In fact, he led us through a variety of activities that were specifically designed to help us find that place of equilibrium between alertness and calmness. When you think of it that’s not always an easy thing to do.

If we err on the side of calm, we can become lethargic, lazy and disinterested. Yet, erring on the side of alertness we become hyper, over-engaged, and unfocused. Taken to their extremes being too calm or too alert can be a bad thing. So, in our retreat, we were urged to find ways in our lives to seek those places where calm and alert are in balance. Where the external forces working against us give way to the internal forces that can sweep us away.

And that, of course, made me think of running. Certainly, there are times when calm gets the best of me and I am a bit of a slacker with my running and, conversely, there are times when I am a bit, shall we say, overly alert. But the sweet spot is when everything lines up and the fine line of calm alertness reveals itself. Perhaps the most meaningful experience I had of those two forces converging was in the 2005 Western States 100 Miler.

After crossing the River in second place and seeing several of my friends hiking down from Green Gate while I was running up I slowly settled into a nice rhythm on the beautiful section of trail between Green Gate and Brown’s Bar. One would think that a 10-mile stretch between mile 80 and 90 of a 100-mile race would not be a place where a runner would feel either calm or alert. Yet, as I made my way through the forest on that June afternoon, I felt completely immersed in the experience and completely absorbed in the moment. I felt both alone and complete. I was mindful of every footfall, conscious of every rustle in the bushes, and keenly aware of the beating of my heart. In addition, I was settled. My shoulders were relaxed, my jaw went slack, and my eyes were intensely focused. I was, at once, the most alert and calm as I had ever been. It was euphoric!

Not surprisingly, I snapped out of it after mile 90 and gutted out the last 10 miles just like everyone else did, but that 10-mile stretch of trail has had a special place in my heart ever since. In fact, every time I’ve been there in subsequent years, even though I have never enjoyed a repeat of my 2005 success, I have been transported back to that place of calm alertness that has made me a little bit more mindful, perhaps a touch more thoughtful, and undoubtedly a lot more whole.

Bottoms up!

AJW ‘s Beer of the Week
Lagunitas Brewing CompanyThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Lagunitas out in Northern California. Their Lagunitas Fusion 11 American Strong Ale is an excellent winter beer packs a punch. Some strong ales can be over the top but something about this seems just right. Kind of like that place right between calm and alert. :)

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • When have you found a balance of calm and alter during running?
  • Do you try to foster that balance when running? In life? If so, how do you go about it?

There are 5 comments

  1. Charlie M.

    Lately here in NW Virginia I've been trying to find a somewhat related kind of balance with difficult weather conditions. There is more light each day (1 month past the Winter Solstice) but the climate is getting colder and colder (because we're not at the halfway point of Winter yet). So because of the lighter skies, the mind is getting more alert and eager each day to run longer/faster in training, but the body is slower to warm up and seems more tired with each new day that feels colder. The body wants warm blankets and chai tea, the mind wants to begin the 2013 training. Right now, most of my alertness and hyperactivity is probably coffee-induced, and any calmness seems like a by-product of lethargic hibernation. When I do hit the Appalachian trails on the weekend, though, I hit that sweet spot about an hour into the run, calm and alert at the exact same moment and in equal portions. Then I notice my hands growing cold, the feet feel a bit wet, the lungs burning a bit from too much anaerobic gusto. And like that, the magical moment is gone. But for those few seconds/minutes, etc., it's perfect harmony.

    1. Charlie M.

      Also, there was an article in the New York Times (Jan 5, 2013) by Mirabai Bush (co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society) that discusses the author's work with major organizations like Google, Yale Law School, Hearst Publications, the Army, etc. The article notes that "Neuroscientists have confirmed much of what we were experiencing: that meditation

      improves attention, reduces stress hormones, increases appreciation and compassion for others and helps

      us recover faster from negative information". The article should have said, "…and run better, too!" :)

    1. AJW

      Paul, thanks for asking. And, just like every year, that's my goal (and I am praying to the God of Intense Canyon Heat" every night:) AJW

  2. Shelby

    You have described something that I’ve only recently identified in myself – the pendulum swing between being stressed out and apathic (in response to being stressed out). Can you share with us any of the exercises that your facilitator led you in?

  3. Tom Caughlan

    Its great to see mindfulness training and tenets migrate out of the therapy world (my field) and into the general consciousness. Its long been a part of sports psychology and the idea of attaining "flow" and its great to see runners like Tim Olsen who seems to practice it daily.

    In running, I always tried to dissociate from pain and discomfort in the past coming from the world of intervals, short races, and "pushing through pain". When working with folks in chronic pain and we teach mindful observation we see an overall decrease in pain levels. It truly is the next frontier of performance in all facets of life. Too bad we didn't learn from the monks two thousand years ago.

  4. MattP

    Loved the post, AJW.

    Do you happen to know the 1981 book by Peter Nabokov, Indian Running? It's a history (of sorts) of Native American running traditions, from the Incas to the 20th century. Among Nabokov's interests are the altered states of consciousness pursued by runners–not simply in order to run vast distances, but also to tap into sources of power in nature.

    In the Yoruk tribe in Northern California, for example, a runner would learn “cultivate an extra sensory relationship with the trail, through singing to it, addressing it. He was taught to make room for it, to receive the trail as a being, letting it dictate the run. It was as though the trail was running out behind him and under him by itself.”

    One of the exercises to learn to trust in the trail involved running blindfolded and letting the trail guide you (!)

    If anyone is interested, I wrote up a little review of Nabokov's book:

    Thanks again for this & all your posts. AJW's Corner is my favorite running blog.

  5. Ryan Knapp

    Well said Tom. I try to teach my athletes the same thing with regards to mental preparation. Dissociative thinking simply does not work. When you are focused in the moment and can feel what is going on in your body, you come to accept it and can handle new types of pain thresholds and improvements.

    So often runners search to get out of their mind and body, and all that does is cause a lapse in performance.

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