The week in training

28 09 2010

Actively participating in the changing of a season, bearing direct witness to the world’s turning, is one of the joys of running. Last Saturday as I started out on my first 5+ hour training run of the year, the air was still summer-thick but perceptively less warm, and somewhat uneasy – a stirring in the tops of the trees, indistinct flashes and rumblings in the sky.

The heavens were churning with seasonal birth pangs. Less than two hours into the run, still in darkness (I had started at 4:30), there was a bright flash, a deep crackle as if the sagging skies were being ripped open, and the water poured down.

And down. Even in the headlights of the occasional passing car, I could barely see two blocks in front of me. Other runners, part of local marathon training groups, splashed by in the opposite direction, some of them laughing and whooping. I’m not much of a whooper, but I couldn’t help but smile as the rain soaked me through, with a new coolness pushing impatiently behind. Fall! And here I was, witnessing the dying struggles of the passing season and the triumphant, noisy entry of the new. I had wandered straight into Mother Nature’s battle line.

One of the joys of running is that we can directly participate in the passing of seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, the noisy migrations of birds and the colorful rusting of the trees, the rising and setting of the sun. The surface on which we run is spinning, turning and wearing a mighty groove in the universe, everything moving, everything in flux. It’s a privilege to be a part of it, to witness it all on the run.

The longer runs are getting easier, the post-run recovery quicker, and the weather cooler and drier. My right Achilles is nearly healed and I’m running practically pain-free. Running with our younger daughter in her first half marathon is less than two weeks away; the Palo Duro 50K in less than three weeks, the first discussion session of our sangha’s exploration of the Buddhist precepts in less than a month. Here’s to the pre-race taper. Here’s to fall. Here’s to the precepts. Here’s to you and a good season on the run, and on the cushion.

Running with Mu: stuck in the same gear

21 09 2010

In the last post on running with Mu, we discussed a Gear Change workout – learning to move forward at different speeds and becoming intimate with how our body-mind feels in each gear. This is helpful in increasing your awareness, while helping you make adjustments during training runs or races that are interrelated to changes in you and your environment, rather than trying to conform to the numbers on a clock.

The key checkpoint in any gear – in fact, the key to your running, life, and the ground of all being – is your breath. By constantly returning to your breath, which you are hopefully practicing in zazen and yoga, you are constantly returning to yourself. By returning to yourself, your running becomes less psychologically dependent on digital readouts and mp3 players, and more dependent on you. In all gears, over all types of terrain in all kinds of weather conditions, your breath is your constant, your North Star. Your breath is your running, and your running is your breath.

Mobile meditation: the Steady State run

To further explore the relation of your breath to your running and environment, we can add another workout to running with Mu: Steady State Running. Your goal in this workout is to find a lower gear (no higher than Third, please) and stay in it for as long as you can, until the end of your run (you set the distance). You can look at this workout as sort of an accelerated version of kinhin, a more meditative run where the goal is only to focus on yourself and your reaction to the world around you as you move through it. Steady State workouts are best done alone, or at least with no talking.

Start your Steady State run as you should for any other session when running with Mu: walk slowly for half a block, then a shuffle for the second half, then shift from first to third over the next ten minutes. At every stage of your run, from the moment you leave your house or car, note the changes in your breathing in reaction to your acceleration, and the changes in yourself. Does your body-mind feel reluctant to run today? Is it quite comfortable in second, but finds third a bit of a chore? Feeling frisky and third seems a little too easy? Whatever happens as you move forward, acknowledge it and let it go, but eventually shift into third (or second, if third already seems too much) and settle in for the ride.

Note how your breath and body change rhythm as you move forward. Even staying in one gear, your breath and body are constantly shifting rhythms in response to passing foot and wheeled traffic and changes in elevation or terrain. Paying close attention to your breath and body is like running with the world’s greatest jazz drummer: their constantly shifting polyrhythms become your iPod, while keeping your continuously informed of changes in your body-mind.

I’ll leave how long your Steady State workout goes to you, but stay in third gear, making adjustments to stay there as necessary. As with zazen, you’ll find it easy to lose focus and suddenly find yourself cruising in Fourth or slacking off in Second. Maybe you get a shot of endorphins and get a little carried away, or maybe your energy is a little low and you’re bonking a bit. When you realize you’ve slipped out of third, acknowledge it, let it go, and find third again.

Observe your mood changes, too. You may have started off the run without a lot of enthusiasm, then reached a certain point where your pleasure centers kicked in and you were actually enjoying yourself. You may be struggling with a persona l or work issue – note how these thoughts affect your ability to concentrate and stay in gear. In the latter stages, you may start feeling bored or tired and want the run to be over. Note everything, let it go, and get back in gear. Observe, as in zazen, how your feelings come and go.

Also observe how your environment changes as you run through it — the shifts in cloud patterns or the quick touch of a breeze, the sunlight, sounds of birds, people or cars that constantly appear out of nothing, fade into nothing. Your breath, your steps, the world around you, coming and going.

Whenever you slip out of third, acknowledge it, let it go, and return. Repeat as often as necessary until you can’t stay in third anymore, or until you decide you’re done.

Steady State workouts are literally meditation on the run. They are capable of reconnecting us with ourselves and our environment, even a daily running route we’ve traveled for years , in a deeply intimate way that makes us appreciate every step and see the most traveled paths anew. Steady State runs also help us recognize how our body-mind is constantly in flux – how what seemed like an ordeal a few blocks ago now seems easy, and of course vice versa. We learn not to exhaust ourselves by giving in to our continually shifting moods and thoughts, which can be quite helpful in the latter stages of especially grueling runs or races – and, of course, in life. We learn, quite simply, to put ourselves in motion and go along for the ride.

I’ll post more about Running with Mu next week.

Training break #189

17 09 2010

Right now, and already gone.

Running with mu: picking up (and putting down) the pace

15 09 2010

After a month of running with Mu, we’re going to step up the pace a little bit – literally. It’s time to sprint, or at least go faster, with Mu, for one day a week. Yes, we’re going to discuss a speed workout. But since it’s a speed workout with Mu, it’s a little different from the typical anxious race against the stopwatch you may be used to.

One of the main goals of running with Mu is to reconnect you with your running, and reconnecting your running to your life. One of the main objectives to reach that goal is to increase your body awareness. Through a steady practice of daily zazen, combined with yoga and some kinhin, you’re hopefully starting to become more aware of your body-mind, your running, and how they interact and impact each other.

Now we’re going to take mind-body awareness to another level and try using it to adjust our speed up and down. You should wear your stopwatch for this one, but do not (repeat, do not) time any distances in your run – only the time you will spend in each “gear.”

Finding your gears

Begin your run as usual, and run at your most relaxed pace for 10 minutes. We’ll call this First Gear. This is slightly above a jog, but very, very comfortable: talking is no problem at all. Pay attention to the rhythm of your breathing in first gear and other body signals. In first gear, you’re feeling no pain, no stress at all. If anything, you might be feeling a little reined because you want to go faster and know you can.

Now, check out what happens when you pass a car or another runner going faster than you – do you feel a sudden sense of embarrassment at being seen plodding along in first gear? Feeling a need to pick up the pace and show that runner or car you’re a lot faster than that? That can be a healthy innate competitive drive – so long as you don’t act on it every single time you feel it. Sometimes, first gear is the right gear, especially at the beginning of your run. If you’re a budding Type A and act on all your competitive urges and adrenaline surges, you’re going to exhaust yourself pretty quickly. Part of Running with Mu is learning to recognize that urge and just watch it carefully, nurturing it at the right time without stamping it out completely.

Okay, after a few minutes take it up just a notch to Second Gear. You can still talk, although it’s a bit more of an effort. Feel the changes in your body-mind when you switch to second. Become intimate with what second gear feels like.

A few minutes more, and now to Third. Talking is still possible, but pretty difficult. You’re not reciting the Gettysburg Address in third gear. Again, feel the change from second to third and be aware of what happens.

Fourth Gear: talking is mostly one-syllable words. Feel the change from third to fourth; gain an understanding of what “fourth” is to you and how it feels.

Finally, Fifth. No holding back, as fast as you can go. You can’t talk, you can barely think – it’s all you can do to focus on your breath, your legs churning, your arms pumping. Depending on how you’re feeling, it might feel exhilarating, or it might feel impossible.

Now, shift back down to fourth, then third and so on until you’re back in first. Feel your heart and breath pumping hard, all of the varied sensations running all up and down your body-mind.

You’ve spent only a few minutes in each gear. Shift back and forth between them for a total of 20-30 minutes or so – get used to how each gear change feels as you go up and down. Learn to recognize the distinct differences in each gear: how you feel, the pace and effort required. For some Gear Change workout sessions, it might be more helpful not to shift all the way up to fifth — you might find it hard to recognize what first through fourth feel like again after running in fifth for awhile. You might also find recognizing just four gears works better for you than trying to recognize five, which is fine too.

Shifting down, going home

Understand that today’s third gear might be tomorrow’s fourth, or next week’s second. You’re learning to run by feel, adjusting your gears for how you’re feeling on any particular day. Very often we try to fit a 7:30/mile pace in what is, realistically, an 8:30/mile pace day – just because it’s what’s on the schedule and what the charts and tables say we need to do. It’s like trying to force a square peg into a round hole: frustrating and exhausting.

On other days, we feel like running 7:00 pace when the schedule says 7:30. Should we run in a higher gear than what we think we’re supposed to? So long as you’re not too close to a scheduled race (and you shouldn’t be if you’re just starting to run with Mu), I say absolutely. Running with Mu is about listening to your body: sometimes it complains; sometimes it’s shouting for joy. Make peace with it and go along for the ride.

To finish the gear workout, shift back down to first for 5-10 minutes, then do kinhin for another 5-10 when you’re back home. What you’ve done is a somewhat free-form version of a fartlek workout, the main difference being you are mainly practicing becoming intimate with your body-mind at different speeds on different days.

So beginning the first week of the second month of Running with Mu, we’ve now added what I’ll call a “Gear Change” workout, a sort of accelerated body awareness workout, for 1-2 days a week. You’re still only running for 5-6 days/week, going no faster than third gear for the rest of those days. You’re still not wearing a cell phone, Garmin, iPod, or any other electronic device, and you’re only wearing the watch now to time how long you’ve been running. I would still leave the watch at home most days except Gear Change day. We’re still learning to listen to our body-mind, rather than a hunk of electronics strapped to our wrist.

I’ll try to post more on running with Mu next week.

Training update

13 09 2010

Before getting back to running with Mu, I thought I’d take a moment to jot down where I am in my race training. I’m currently training for the Palo Duro 50K in October, although I have two smaller races prior to that one: a 20K in Dallas this weekend, and a half marathon in Tyler the week before going to Palo Duro.

The heat and humidity do not go gentle into that good September night in Dallas, and this year is no exception. It’s really hard to get a good bearing on my current fitness level because I’ve been forced to run all but one of my long runs (“long” = 4-6 hours) at a significantly reduced pace to counteract the weather. But I’d have to say that overall, I’m feeling pretty good about my fitness. The early cycles of training for an ultra race season have much more to do with quantity — just accumulating extra hours on your legs.

I had been experiencing some right foot problems that were creating an annoyance, although they were never so bad that I was forced to stop running – but there were step-back weeks I decided it might be better to skip some of the weekday runs, just to give the foot a rest. I had originally thought these problems were Achilles-related (and I still think I had overcooked some of my incline workouts while in Boulder during the summer), but now I’m thinking they had more to do with some minor lower back/sciatic nerve issues that were causing occasional isolated numbness and some pain.

In hopes of a quick n’ easy fix, I made some work posture changes, switched desk chairs, made time for some special inversion yoga sessions, and turned around the mattress in our bed. This past Sunday’s run was mostly pain free for the first time in nearly two months, so I feel my diagnosis and treatment plan have been largely correct and progress has been made. It’s delusional to think I’ll be in primo 50K shape by the time I’m in the canyon, but I’m confident I can finish without having to crawl.

I have one more long-run weekend before Palo Duro, the last weekend of September, and I’m hoping that over the next 10-12 days more of the heat and humidity will begin to taper off. It would be helpful to get in one long run in more habitable planetary conditions, just to get a more accurate gauge of where I am fitness-wise. But, the weather is what it is, and I live where I live. Onward through the (humid) fog!

Training Break #188

10 09 2010

A trail is only useful to get you to where you’re going to leave the trail.

– Gary Snyder

Running With Mu: Where’s the Beef?

9 09 2010

Continuing with this somewhat impromptu series on Running with Mu (last installment and links to earlier ones here), let’s start to put a little structure around all this meditating, yoga, and running.

For the first week, no running – you just meditated (zazen) for 5-25 minutes or so each day, combined with some helpful runner-oriented yoga 4-5 times/week to increase flexibility, strength, restore tired muscles, and enhance body-mind awareness. It’s telling that in much of classic Zen literature, “body” and “mind” are not separated, but are described as one thing: “body-mind.” Your body is your brain; your brain is your body. No “body,” no “mind”; just body-mind. If it doesn’t make much sense to you now, it should after spending some quality time running with Mu.

For the second week, you added 3-5 minutes of kinhin to your daily zazen as a way to increase body-mind and motion awareness — all of the little things that have to happen just to propel you forward, and what changes in and around you as a result. Then, you ran – just a little, and without a watch, Garmin, or iPod. But you don’t want to run every day the second week … just once every other day, and just until you feel pleasantly tired. No specific minutes or miles. And no speed workouts please!

On your days away from running, pay attention to how you feel about taking a day off: do you feel anxious, or guilty? After many months (or even years) of running nearly every single day and even running through injuries, we can often feel some anxiety or guilt on days we don’t run … and we really shouldn’t. Running should never feel like an obligation, or a chore. As you’ve hopefully started to realize even by only the second week, being able to run is a gift, and we should always treat it that way. So, for the second week, don’t give yourself a gift every day, or your gift will begin to feel more like a burden.

By now the more competitive runners, even the vegetarian ones, might be asking, “Where’s the beef?” All of this meditating and the no stopwatch routine and all of the other kinder/gentler/fuzzier stuff is okay for a week or two, but dude: what about training? Real training? Can you run with Mu and still train to compete?

Absolutely! Running with Mu is about finding your way to a healthier relationship with your running, not retiring from racing. If you like to race, that’s great. By finding a healthier relationship to your running, you can also take a more balanced approach to your racing, and without sacrificing personal performance goals. But walk before you run, and run with Mu before you race with Mu. It took a long time for you to get frustrated about your running, and it’s going to take a little time to get back. We’re just in the second week! Patience, Grasshopper.

Okay, okay, we’ll speed things up a bit: continue the zazen/kinhin/technology-free ”recovery run” 4-5 days per week routine for the first month of running with Mu. Enjoy your sitting, your kinhin, and your running. Enjoy the freedom from the scheduled miles per week/minutes per mile treadmill.

Starting with the 5th week, we’ll try some different, more focused runs, including pace runs. But instead of timing ourselves with a watch, we’ll experiment and make ourselves aware of 4-5 distinctly different personal “gears,” from slowest to fastest, that we can learn to call on whenever we need them … not by the numbers, but by feel. Pace runs again! That’s a little beefier, right?

More on this next week.

Kinhin: walking with Mu

7 09 2010

Continuing with this somewhat free form series (here’s parts 1, 2, and 3), you finally pulled on your running clothes and shoes and are headed out the door. Except you probably want to head out to the back yard, or to some quiet place. And you’re not going to run. Not quite yet.

So you’ve found your secluded spot – your fenced back yard, your big spare bedroom, wherever – and you’re standing there in your running clothes and shoes.

Take a breath. Take several, and just let them come and go on their own, much like meditation. Feel your running clothes hanging from your body.

Now, flex your toes. Feel the muscles in your toes and calves expand and contract, the ends of your toes pressing lightly against the inside of your shoes. At the same time, maintain awareness of your breathing, the space around you, all of the sounds that appear and disappear. Do this for a minute or two.

Now, as you breathe in and without forcing the breath, lift your foot and take one step forward. Feel all of the muscles that have to work to make this happen, how it affects your balance, your breathing, your thought patterns. The soft press of your foot, landing gently on the surface just beneath it. Feel the difference in your balance and posture, now that you’ve taken that step. Look around and see how taking that one step may have changed your perspective, what you can see and how you view the space around you.

A single step. That’s all. So much has to happen for that step to take place. And so much follows, so many things can change, just from taking it. A step is a small miracle, a modest agent of change.

Continue to take one step after another, slowly, timing your steps with the coming and going of your breath. You are going slow, slow, slow. You are feeling every muscle used to take those steps, all of the tension and release, the press of your foot against the surface of the earth. If you’re doing this outside, you might notice even the slightest dips and changes in the texture of the earth’s surface.

What you’re doing is a form of kinhin, or walking meditation. In Zen practice, we engage in kinhin to stretch our legs after long periods of zazen, or seated meditation. As part of our running practice, it is a profoundly simple way to re-engage with the basic act of taking a step – the moment that just precedes the step, the moment of taking the step, and the moment after the step is taken. It reconnects you with the surface beneath your feet and, like yoga, reacquaints you with your body. It can also heighten your walking/running awareness, making you more mindful of the many dozens of tiny things that have to happen for even a step to take place.

Will you practice kinhin when you actually run? Not consciously. But if you practice a few minutes of kinhin before and/or after each run, you might find it seeping into your running practice. You’ll be more aware of the ground beneath your feet, the changing environment around you, your muscles working to propel you forward, your perception being transformed as your direction and the light changes. Will it make you a better runner? It might help make you a more aware runner. And that’s a big part of what Running with Mu is all about – bringing awareness back to your running and to your life.

When we are truly aware, being fully present with every step, we reconnect with our bodies, our environment, and our running, and realize how they work closely together. We begin to understand how even the slightest change in pace or incline affects our breathing and our body rhythm. Without adding in a lot of extra thinking to the equation (although, as with seated meditation, you might be a little self-conscious about it at first), we become more understanding of just what happens when we run, an understanding that goes deeper than the blinking numbers on our stopwatch. Your running world begins to widen a bit.

Okay, enough kinhin. Now go for a run, in any direction you please – don’t worry about a specific route or time you have to be back. Remember, you’re not wearing a watch (or carrying a cell phone or iPod, I hope), so just go … any pace you’d like, even walk some if you want. Go until you begin to feel pleasantly tired, then head for home.

Back home, be sure to take a moment to practice kinhin at the end of your run for 3-4 minutes and see how different your breathing and muscles feel now that your run is over. Take a few minutes to feel how running transforms your body, your breathing, how you feel, even your thought processes. Take a moment to relive your run and then, just let it go. Whether you thought it was bad or good, it was just one run of hopefully many to come. One day’s run cannot define you. That’s something else we’ll perhaps eventually learn by Running with Mu. One step at a time, one breath at a time, one run at a time, one day at a time.

I’ll try to post more on Running with Mu later this week.

Running with Mu: Re-gifting running to yourself

2 09 2010

Okay, so we’ve been discussing a running rediscovery program called (for lack of anything better at the moment) “Run With Mu.” It’s rough, a work in progress, but it’s really more food for thought/practice than a hard-wired training program … a Zen inquiry, if you will.

What is this “running,” anyway? That’s what we’re going to try to rediscover.

Just to catch up the morbidly curious newcomers, we’ve talked about the why and the who, and for the first week of practice we made a vow not to race for six months, sat and stared at a wall, accented that sitting with a little yoga, and didn’t do a single lick of running. So far, so good. But we’ve only just begun to do nothing. Yes, we’ve probably annoyed you. Now we’re going to embarrass you.

It’s week 2 of our practice, and immediately following your first meditation session for this week, put on your running clothes. Finally! But wait a minute, don’t just grab them out of the drawer, pull them on and dash out the door. Not just yet.

In his book Running: The Spiritual Path, Episcopal seminarian and marathoner Roger Joslin talks about putting on our running clothes as if they were priestly vestments. That sounds solemn, but I don’t think solemnity was what Joslin was after. Solemnity has nothing important to do with real spirituality, anyway, and it has less than nothing to do with running. What Joslin is talking about is more the idea of approaching running mindfully. When we can be mindful without being self-conscious about it, every experience can be truly holy, in the purest sense of that word: “exalted or worthy of complete devotion,” according to my dictionary.

“Running is my church,” a friend once said simply. And going to church begins before we ever take a step toward the sanctuary, with choosing what to wear.

How to unwrap running

Start by remembering that running is a gift, something you can enter into fully using only a t-shirt, shorts, socks, and a pair of shoes, and stepping just outside your front door. How many of our daily activities are that uncomplicated and free? No car, no Crackberry, no meeting to discuss where to run or how fast to go, no specific place you have to be at a certain time. Whenever you decide to go for a run, you have just re-gifted yourself with a wonderful present. Take a little time to enjoy unwrapping it first.

Slowly open the drawer or closet where your running clothes are stashed. Some people I know don’t like the artificial high-tech materials many running shirts and shorts are made with, and run only in cotton. I like the special lightweight fabrics. Putting them on after a full day of wearing much heavier, more restrictive clothing, I take a moment to enjoy their lightness, their smoothness. Like my black pajama pants and t-shirt help me prepare for meditation, my running clothes help me enter more fully into the realm of running. Just slipping one of my running shirts over my head and feeling it slide down my torso brings me out of the heaviness of work and into a lighter, more breathable realm.

Why am I getting somewhat uncomfortably sensual about a t-shirt and a pair of shorts? We’re not trying to make a religion out of putting on your running clothes, or of running. But for many weeks, months, or even years, you’ve probably not given a lot of awareness to what you wear to run in – and by extension, you’re probably not bringing a whole lot of awareness to what you do after you’re dressed and push your way out the door, either.

Taking time with each activity of your running, being fully present with something as small as pulling on a pair of shorts and tying that double knot in your shoes … this helps you to realize each detail of running, however small, as something special. Think of the millions of people who aren’t able to run for one reason or another. Think of the millions who could never even think of affording a $30 pair of shorts or $100 pair of shoes just for running, much less the travel expenses to fly to another city or state park just to run a marathon. You’re fortunate to be able to run at all, and you’re also perhaps fortunate to have the means to pay for things that make your running a little more comfortable or interesting.

And If you want to say a short prayer or gatha of gratitude as you get dressed, there’s certainly no harm in that. Here’s a Buddhist-inspired gatha for getting dressed before running:

Putting on my running clothes,
I feel their lightness.
As I walk outside,
I vow to run with a light heart.

Make up something similar following the spiritual practice of your choice, if you wish. Or just say, “Wow, this is awesome. I’m pretty lucky.” That’s okay, too.

One final thing: leave the iPod, stopwatch and Garmin in the drawer. Today, we’re not going to need them. Actually, we’re not going to be using any of them for quite awhile — and while the “why” of this may already be evident even at this early stage, I’ll discuss it a little more later.

All right, now we’re finally dressed, and we’re going to walk outside. But we’re not going to run. Nope, sorry. Not yet …

Enjoy your weekend.


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