“True greatness comes not by favoritism but by fitness.” – MLK
Actively Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.
Neuroscience explains how the repetitive motions and the complex cognitive functions of running can trigger neurotransmitters, chemicals that boost the brain’s connectivity, thought patterns and decision-making—human qualities that are often compromised by the stress of troubled political times.
I like to think that there is much more I can do with my daily run besides build my esteem, enhance my mood or see how my performance compares on the various social media networks. So rather than try to run away from worldly problems by taking a temporary break from dwelling on them, I actually try to engage them more fully through running which works wonders on my heart and mind.
Last month was the federal holiday honoring The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was born January 15th, 1929. He was assassinated April 4th, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was just 39 years old. While Dr. King is primarily remembered as a civil rights leader, he also championed the cause of the poor, organizing the Poor People’s Campaign to address issues of economic justice. Dr. King was also a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy and the Vietnam War.
One way I try to deepen my resolution for 2017 is by using several runs during the year to actively remember Dr. King’s lifework, a teaching 100% relevant to the world situation of today.
I do these runs alone. I dedicate them to internalizing my childhood beliefs and aspirations. It was growing up in suburban Los Angeles during the era of forced busing, the practice of assigning and transporting students to racially segregated schools that grounded my lifelong belief in civil and human rights.
So on certain days, before I lace up and hit the trails, I take a deep breath in remembrance of MLK, a true challenger who used his strength to improve other’s lives, becoming heroic, magnanimous and inspiring.
To renew my focus, I take some quiet time once in a while to review one of his sermons like “The Drum Major Instinct,” one of his most cited works. In this speech Dr. King reflected on his determination to leave a legacy of serving others.
“Deep down within all of us is an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct-a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life. So before we condemn anyone else for it, let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct.”- MLK – 1968
Here Dr. King expressed his determination to leave a legacy of serving others. So I ask myself how am I living? How would I like to be remembered for making a difference in other people’s lives? What would I like others to be able to say about how I helped people?
I commit my daily run to reflecting on this. Once I’ve cleared out my surface thoughts and emotions, rather than try to relieve my stress, I go right into it. I journal about my experience later in the day to drive it deeper in myself and do my best carry it with me after the run. By choosing to concentrate on his ideals of freedom, justice and equality during my run rather than compartmentalizing my workout and simply taking in audio and video tributes that idolize Dr. King, I am making a firm internal statement: “I believe in civil rights and human rights for all.”
I’ve even been known recite the mantra, “How long, Not long!” out loud as I run along the path, adding to the flow of biochemical energy that both calms my nerves and quickens my pace.
I do this as an act of faith, that channeling my passion for running into the world situation is a direct way I can become emotionally healthy and abundant. So the “can do” attitude and steady inner drive I manifest while running can go into making things happen that construct a better world for everyone in my life.
“Don’t idolize my father. Embrace his ideals of freedom, justice and equality. Every time I come to these anniversaries, I think about what Dad said in Montgomery in 1965 and how at the end of his remarks he talked about how long will it be. He went on to say he didn’t know how long, but he said he knew that it wouldn’t be long because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, and yet that scaffold sways the unknown—behind the dim unknown, standeth God, keeping watch above his own. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because God almighty is still on the throne. Keep keeping on. We’re going to be all right. We’re not there yet.” MLK III
There have always been inspirational runners who defy conventional beliefs regarding aging and human performance. Last Sunday, October 16, 2016, 85-year old Canadian runner Ed Whitlock joined their ranks in a major way. Whitlock blew away expectations by running a 3:56 marathon at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, crushing the men’s 85-89 world record by more than 30 minutes. The Milton, Ontario resident wore a 30-year-old singlet and ran in 15-year-old Brooks shoes.
After the race Ed reminded everyone that, at any age, the struggle of the marathon is never easy, “I went out a bit too hard so I didn’t feel at all happy at 25K… My legs were getting pretty heavy and I wasn’t running freely. So I consciously eased back. I thought it was going to be an absolute disaster.”
Ed’s marathon story is not wonderful and encouraging just because of his superlative time. It demonstrates his huge heart and spirit, one that embraces the fact of aging and celebrates it rather than trying to fend it off or conquer it.
Can I Run Forever?
Coaches and competitors alike are constantly grappling with the question of making concessions to age. Some people insist that aging is purely a mental game, and the only reason we think we can’t run after a certain age is because of our societal conditioning and beliefs.
In the late 1990’s I met several 70-something runners who joined me at the starting line of the Leadville Trail 100. I was deeply moved. I knew from that day forward I would be a “lifer.” Hence my original coaching slogan was born: “Run Forever.”
Now, at 61 years young, I’ve become more of a realist. Even if I were to advance some novel argument touting the merits of running to attain long term health and longevity, the truth of the matter is that the biopsychology of aging remains largely a mystery. I personally believe it is entirely dependent on individual human experience.
As we get older, we discover changes — sometimes dramatic changes — in how our bodies move and behave. If we can accept the reality of life after our prime years with poise and grace, if we can decide to “intentionally age” with optimism and humor, we can turn our golden years into a time of personal renewal and deep satisfaction.
Do You Know Your Fitness Age?
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
A recent study of fitness and lifespan merges scientific training with modern lifestyle habits and relevant health factors, which can provide the inspiration to live a more balanced life. The research suggests that a person’s “fitness age” — determined primarily by a measure of cardiovascular health — is a better predictor of longevity than chronological age. And your body’s capacity to transport and use oxygen during exercise (VO2 max) is the most precise measure of overall cardiovascular health and fitness.
Many older athletes are amazingly young in terms of fitness age. Sports like running can potentially slow the rate of decline from aging drastically. Many of the masters ultra runners I know have stayed remarkably young.
The wisdom they’ve gained over the years and decades allows them to mentally cope with the challenges of longer-distance training and racing. Their strength is found in their ability to concentrate and endure. In this way, they run well beyond their prime years.
However, quantity of exercise is not the same as quality of exercise. In fact, master’s endurance athletes and weekend warriors who spend an inordinate amount of time getting fit may actually be harming themselves by pushing and sacrificing their bodies beyond their limits. By training smarter, not harder, one can both maintain optimum health while achieving impressive levels of physical performance.
When Life is in Balance, Everything Works Better
It’s easy to assume that running and other endurance activities always lead to a wide range of health benefits, but our overall health is also influenced by how we lead our lives, both at home and at work. We’re all familiar with how much stress can arise due to competing demands on our time and attention. The time we spend in training can help counteract these tensions by putting them in perspective and making them manageable.
An injured knee, an irregular heartbeat, recurring respiratory infection, chronic fatigue or other health problems should not be considered “side effects” of training hard. These symptoms are all indicators of an imbalance between fitness and health. It is vital to acknowledging and pay heed to our bodies, no matter how old we are.
More importantly, researchers far smarter and more eloquent than I am have recently reported some very interesting findings. The three-decade Harvard Men’s Health Study indicates that the strongest determiner of longevity by far is not cardiovascular health, but the quality of relationships, friendships and family ties that one has cultivated throughout one’s life. The better the quality of our relationships, the longer and happier our lives. Thus my current coaching mantra: “Run Together.”
Foster’s Formula for Resilience
Thankfully, one’s fitness age is not set in stone. Amazingly, some older athletes can even improve with age – if they learn how to adjust their training expectations in order to compensate for the inevitable effects of physical aging. It’s not unusual to meet runners who exude the glow of fitness well after the chronological age of 50.
One such runner was New Zealand’s Jack Foster, who developed guidelines for dealing with two types of slow-down: racing and recovery. Foster was one of the first runners to figure out just how long to “back off” after a big effort. His recovery formula has become a valuable guideline for runners of all ages.
This is Foster’s formula in a nutshell:
longer recovery time
+ attitude adjustment
+ realistic goals
= continued gratification and satisfaction with performance and achievement
Even when he was racing his hardest and training his best, Foster took at least one easy day for every mile he raced. This meant that he eased up for a week or more after a 10K, and a month or more after a marathon. He didn’t completely stop running. But neither did he race, or even train very long or hard, until the period of recovering and rebuilding was over.
Jack also adjusted well to life after personal records philosophically: “The drop-off in racing performance with age manifests itself only on timekeepers’ stopwatches… the sensations of the running action, the breathing and the other experiences of racing all feel the same. Only the watch shows otherwise.”
The older you are, the more flexible you need to be with your training plans. Older runners need longer recovery time, an attitude adjustment, and realistic goals to insure continued fulfillment, achievement and hopefully an improved fitness age.
Times change but feelings don’t. The movements of the running action, the deeper, rhythmic breathing will always make us feel good. Everyone’s times will eventually slow down, but may the sensation of the effort and the excitement of running make you feel forever young!
Study nature. Love nature. Stay close to nature. It will never fail you. – Frank Lloyd Wright
Recent studies are finally corroborating what educators, mountain athletes and backpackers have always known: being in nature has profoundly positive effects on human beings.The sense of wonder and awe elicited by being in nature invites people to redirect concern away from the self and toward everything else. Those adventurous souls who have been touched by this quiet sense of awe and power tend to act more generously and ethically, since they feel a deeper connection to others and the world in general.
Studies exploring the deeper neurological mechanisms involved suggest that spending time in nature is vital for maintaining mental health in a rapidly urbanizing world. A hike or run in the mountains will surely soothe the heart and, in the process, change the workings of our brains in ways that improve our mental wellbeing. Simply going for a walk in the park, ambling along a local open space trail, or climbing your favorite mountain will—at least temporarily—clear your brain of anxiety while considerably reducing stress hormones. The more awareness we can bring to our outdoor activities, the greater the likelihood that these positive results will “stick” once we return to the city.
Learning to “just be” in nature
The first tip is simple: enter nature’s silence as often as possible, and remain there for as long as possible. Turn off your phone or music device. Limit your conversations to functional talking for the first 20-30 minutes. Being quiet is one of the most instructive things you can do in the wild, because simple awareness of the silent world of nature will begin to alter your mood almost immediately. Silence cleanses the doors of perception and opens you up to realms beyond habitual words and thoughts. Cultivating the ability to be in silence in nature gradually leads to an almost immediate sense of calmness whenever you visit her.
Be patient and deliberate while you settle into yourself. Sense your muscles and pay attention to your posture so you can position your whole body effectively from the start. Then move over the earth with poise and grace. If you are so fortunate as to meet a wild animal, approach it with stealth and respect, taking care not to disrupt anything in its habitat. Efforts like these will open up the narrow chinks and caverns in your body through which you tend see things as either flat or as a bunch of isolated parts.
To involve the senses and centers of your whole body more fully, start by feeling your feet on the ground. From there pay particular attention to the vastness of the sky. You will probably be inclined to look down when you run or hike, perhaps to be sure of your footing. To counter this downward pull, keep your head still, relax your neck and shoulders, then let your natural gaze rise gradually. Scan your environment; be sensitive to anything that calls to you. With experience you can simultaneously glance at the ground several feet ahead of you while expanding your visual field all the way to the horizon.
Take it slowly. Don’t rush past things. Try to notice as much as possible. Give yourself a moment to absorb your surroundings deeply. Once you find the right rhythm, everything becomes more vivid. You become friends with the world of nature by immersing yourself in the subtle nuances, rich textures and vibrant colors of your environment. Observe how the lighting changes constantly. Notice the energy emanating from the natural features around you. By taking the time to slow down in nature, you will feel much fuller and more relaxed when you go back to your busy life.
Feel free to experiment! How much time in nature is ideal for you to reduce stress and keep your mind right? What types of environments suit you best, and under what conditions? Mountains? Forests? Water? Deserts? What times of day work better for you? What weather do you thrive in? Try walking, running and sitting still under different conditions so you can observe any contrasts in psychological benefits. Spend time in nature both alone and with one or more companions; notice the differences, if any, in these experiences.
Eventually the calm clarity and alertness of mind you’ve cultivated during your time in nature will both relax you and make you comfortable in your own skin when you return to your normal routine. Perhaps you will have thrown off a piece of your “thought-ridden nature” for good. Perhaps your true nature will shine through more and more.
For thousands of years people have used mindfulness practices to deal effectively with a wide range of life challenges. We are now witnessing an explosion of scientific research demonstrating that mindfulness meditation changes both the function and structure of the brain.
Sitting in stillness is a simple, straightforward way to practice mindfulness meditation. Like physical exercise, sitting meditation has been shown to have many benefits: it can boost your immune system as well as treat and prevent a wide range of psychological, social and medical issues.
Running can bring benefits similar to those of meditation. Sitting quietly for 20-30 minutes every day helps reinforce the sense of calm and peace I experience through running; it affects the quality of energy I bring to my running; and it has a profound effect on how good I feel inside.
The simple act of sitting cross-legged on the ground with my back still and straight helps me deepen my level of concentration by increasing the amount of time my mind can remain undisturbed. By practicing regularly, the deliberate holding of a constant focus and effortless absorption of sitting has given me a sense of unity and rightness of movement.
Whether I am simply out on a routine training run or competing in a hard race, the most important thing to me is that I float along, relaxing rhythmically to allow better delivery of oxygen and nutrients to both my lungs and legs. Running in a “cocoon of concentration,” the freedom from distraction and sustained alertness I get from sitting allow me refine my coordination in every moment and to offload fatigue by recruiting deeper tissues found in difficult to activate muscles.
The inner composure, centeredness in action and relaxation I maintain from my sit helps me resist to the urge to quit as I push my lungs, heart, and legs beyond their ordinary capacity. The denying voices that accompany the pain of fat, muscle and capillaries breaking down become easier to endure because I calmly wait for the second energy that eventually surges through me. The newfound strength of my body compensating to regenerate itself adds to the pleasure I get from exceeding a limit and my sense of pride from overcoming my resistance.
Whenever I have dedicated myself to a regular sitting practice, I have been able to tolerate a more exhausting training routine simply by drawing on the capacities I have built through sitting. While I do not have an exceptional physique in any way, sitting and running have made me very robust for my age.
Approached in this balanced way, sitting and running soon merge into the same experience for me. Through sitting practice I try to develop extraordinary patience and a meditative state. Then when I run, I simply relax and meditate along the way when I need to. However small or great the distance I have remaining to run is irrelevant because my legs will obey me by continuing in the same rhythm.
After many years of training, competition has become a sacred act for me. I am unconcerned with results or times. Whether I am alone, cruising along in the mid-pack or on the heels of the top runners in my age group, I maintain the focus of running from the center, my belly, with little or no wasted movement.
Tips for Sitting Meditation
The physical and mental balance of sitting practice is an empowering tool for your own health care as well as your emotional and psychological wellbeing. To gain strength in your sitting posture is to open a gateway to hearing and feeling the flow of information from the inner world. Persevering in the pursuit of stillness and calmness can give us the power to organize and reshape our thinking, emotions, and behavior. Even a brief sit in the morning will help you contact and preserve your inner calm at the start of a busy day.
The fine balance of sitting cross legged on the ground like a mountain, with your back still and straight, can seem like hard work at first because there are actually many more small movements of small parts at work cooperating to maintain your body’s delicate poise in stillness than there are when walking or running.
Since the attempt to sit this still is not entirely natural, it must be directed consciously. To gain strength in your posture you must learn to stay relaxed and ride out the physical stresses and strains you may feel by imposing the right measure of willpower on your body. In this way sitting teaches you about inner poise, grace under pressure, and detachment from results, all of which are fundamental to running, healing and spiritual practice.
The following paragraphs by zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi provide an excellent introduction to zazen, the zen style of sitting meditation:
“The most important thing in taking the Zazen sitting posture is to keep your spine straight. Your ears and shoulders should be in a line. Relax your shoulders and push up towards the ceiling with the back of your head. And you pull your chin in. When your chin is tilted up you have no strength in your posture; you are probably dreaming. Also to gain strength in your posture, press your diaphragm down towards your hara, or lower abdomen. This will help you maintain your physical and mental balance. At first you may find some difficulty breathing naturally but when you get accustomed to it you will be able to breathe naturally and deeply. You should not be tilted sideways backwards or forwards. You should be sitting up straight as if you were supporting the sky with your head. This is not just form or breathing. It expresses the key point of Buddhism.
It is the perfect expression of Buddha nature. If you want understanding of Buddhism, you should practice in this way. These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this form itself is the purpose of the practice. When you have the posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. When you try to attain something your mind starts to wander about somewhere else. When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here. A Zen maser would say, “Kill the Buddha!” Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else.
The most important thing is to own your physical body. If you slump, you will lose yourself. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body. This is not the way. We must exist right here right now!
Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself enlightenment. — In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.
So try to keep the right posture, not only when you are practicing Zazen but in all your activities. Take the right posture when you are driving your car and when you are reading. If you read in a slumped position, you cannot stay awake long. Try. You will discover how important it is to keep the right posture. This is the true teaching. The teaching, which is written on paper, is not the true teaching. Written teaching is a kind of food for your brain but it is more important to be yourself practicing the right way of life.”
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can make sitting meditation a complementary practice that can directly enhance your health and running performance, please contact me through this site, or check out this link to a great class on the topic.
“Let your personality show; let your game flow.” — Anonymous
If you’re like me, motivational suggestions like “Do your best!” or “Give it 100%!” are just too vague to be of much use. I need specific goals and targets to aim for. Points of focus, technique, and realistic running speeds/distances set just above my current skill level provide a clear focus and direction to my running. Task-oriented goals like these are the building blocks of my motivation, and learning to set the right goals helps me extend my personal limits and increase my enjoyment immensely.
Competition can play a key role in this process. Odds are you’ve already formed your own philosophy and attitudes about competition, which have in turn been shaped by your genetic inheritance and childhood experiences. A healthy attitude toward competition can be a powerful ally in increasing one’s performance, enjoyment level, and overall satisfaction throughout life. But competition can also have a dark side.
There was a time in my life when the desire to win was so strong that it cast a shadow over everything else. I thought the ultimate goal of running was to compete, and the greatest happiness to be derived from training was to win. For me, there was no worse feeling than not being able to race up to my expectations. Not surprisingly, I discovered that my happiness and self-esteem were directly linked to my win/loss record. I began to question the wisdom of this approach; I began studying the nature of competition itself.
I learned that the “racer” and the “pacer” are the two bookends of the competitive spectrum. The racer believes that winning is all that matters, that failing to win is unacceptable. The racer’s attitude is summed up by Vince Lombardi’s quote, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The pacer, on the other hand, believes that participating and doing your best are what matter most. The pacer attitude places a high value on sportsmanship, cooperation, and teamwork; it is the view championed at the Olympic Games. In today’s highly competitive and commercialized world, the choice of which camp to be in, racer or pacer, can be complicated.
I love the fact that the word “compete” is derived from the Latin competere, “to strive in common.” In other words, the best way to find out how good my skills are is to match them against the skills of other people of similar ability. This understanding brought about a fundamental change in my approach to competing. There’s still nothing like a race to ignite my inner fire, but now I’m less concerned with the final results than I am with searching out the best in myself.
Whether it’s playing in a Super Bowl or running in a local trail race, if we let winning and losing define our lives, we’re in for a rough road. No one can win all the time; but our character can develop and shine forth while we are “striving in common” with others, searching out the best in ourselves.