The riches of recovery

20 05 2011

The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery: Rest, Relax & Restore for Peak Performance by Sage Rountree (VeloPress)

“No one is going to get rich writing a triathlon book about rest,” Tom Rogers wrote in The Perfect Distance, and quoted in Sage Rountree’s new book. Sad but true. Most hardcore runners and triathletes don’t want to hear about having to rest or recover from anything. You could look at it as one-thirds ego, fear, and delusion: there’s an ego-fed image of indestructibility that many athletes feel they must maintain in order to perform, there’s a fear of taking a fitness hit if you skip a week or even a day of training, and there’s the delusion that rest is somewhat unnecessary and perhaps even detrimental.

Rountree quite clearly and sensibly deflates all of these assumptions and shows how rest, when properly measured and managed, can actually boost peak performance. Her book is a treasure trove of recovery information, with 20 chapters, 2 appendices and references for further reading. No topic is left uncovered: qualitative and quantitative measurements for recovery, active recovery, recovering from injury and illness, nutrition, hydration, meditation, cold and heat, supplements, stress reduction, restorative yoga, massage, self massage … it’s all there, and more. Marathoners, ultramarathoners, triathletes and even just plain stressed out average folk will find a wealth of useful information in The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery.

At times it seems like almost too much information, on too many different (albeit related) subjects. There is simply not enough space and too many relevant topics to delve deeply on any specific aspect of recovery. Personally I felt the all-too-brief chapter on sleep was tantalizing more than satisfying and could easily be expanded into a book of its own, as could the chapter on meditation and breathing. It’s also a little regrettable that a few current “high tech” tools are described and pictured in the book instead of discussed in a more general fashion, since the devices shown will probably date the book within five years. (And as anyone knows who visits here on occasion, I don’t have a lot of faith in high tech solutions to organic problems anyway.) And knowing her deserved reputation as an expert on yoga for athletes, the chapter on restorative yoga was probably a given, although it seems a little cursory given her other yoga books.

But to say there’s not a lot of valuable information here would be very wrong. As a runner in distances up to 50K and a short-course triathlon competitor for the U.S national team, Rountree definitely knows her stuff, and she’s an excellent writer and organizer of information. There are just so many relevant topics covered that at times it feels like drinking from a fire hose. But hey, at least someone finally turned the spigot on. Rest and recovery have been almost taboo subjects in the racing community, something best avoided by popping a few tablets of “Vitamin I” (Ibuprofen) and getting on with more and more training until the wheels finally come off. Unfortunately, hobbling around in a leg cast equals “rest” for many runners. It’s to Rountree’s deep credit that she not only understood the necessity of dealing with this subject seriously, but to leave no stone unturned. And if you’re really interested in delving deeper, she lists a ton of supplemental reference material to get you going. Recommended.

Training Break #196

13 05 2011

One of my teacher friends cautions his students, “When you do zazen, try ‘A’ way. If ‘A’ way doesn’t work, try ‘B’ way.” I bow to the wisdom of his words. I am not really your teacher. You must teach yourself. As far as practice goes, you are not your neighbor. What works for her might not work for you. What works for you now might not work for you next year. Keep it open.

— Robert Aitken, Miniatures of a Zen Master

Racing with Mu

11 05 2011

How do you race and remain true to your Zen practice? Isn’t being competitive the very antithesis of Zen? Can you stoke the competitive fires without burning up, or out, in the process? I’ve just asked myself some good questions! Here’s something in the way of an answer, based on many invaluable years of personal mistakes.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy competitive urge; it’s part of the human animal, what makes us (along with opposable thumbs and a big ol’ brain and such) the Deciders, the final link in the food chain. But we can definitely overdo it. Shouting at people during a race – drivers, pedestrians or cyclists who accidentally (or, sadly, sometimes on purpose) get in our way — is one sign we’re redlining the competitive urge. Stretching the truth about how we did in a race is another sign that perhaps we’re too focused on the numbers rather than the experience. Entering multiple races very close together in frantic search of that ideal race time or experience, sort of the runner’s equivalent of playing the slots, is a borderline emotional addiction that can lead to burnout and physical injury.

And it can spill over into our Zen practice, as anyone knows who has experienced a mild feeling of smug satisfaction when it’s the person on the cushion next to them who sneezes during zazen, rather than themselves, or the frustration and annoyance that can flare when our teacher isn’t satisfied with our response in dokusan. I can sit quieter than anybody, I can pass koans faster than anybody! I’m a Zen monster! Get out of my way, people!

We should honor the competitor in us, as it can be a very healthy and useful part of our lives – when nurtured and watched carefully. And after all, the vast majority of runners, including me, are really only competing against ourselves. Which is why we should:

1. Set realistic stretch goals. Maybe a 3:45 marathon is a doable stretch goal for you. Maybe a Boston Marathon or Western States qualifier is not. You know yourself better than anyone, if you look clearly. When planning your next running challenge, be honest with yourself and where you are currently with your running, then look at what you’re hoping to achieve. Delusion only leads to frustration, exhaustion, and injury.

2. Don’t play the slots. There are a few acceptable reasons for running several grueling races very close together, but hoping you’ll get lucky and have that perfect race time or experience isn’t one of them. It’s hard on your body and can be very wearing on you emotionally when things don’t go your way. Which leads to …

3. Training can prepare you, but it can’t guarantee you. While they have their advantages and many success stories, I feel there’s a potentially harmful side effect of following precise race training regimens such as those espoused by Pfitzinger or Daniels: believing that scientifically precise training always leads to scientifically precise results. There are so many variables in any given race that it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen. Do the best you can based on your training, and take what the day gives you.

4. Stop looking at that watch. Stop it, I said. Stopwatches can serve a useful purpose. But who’s running this race, your watch or you? It’s so easy to get caught up in those blinky little digital numbers and forget what’s going on all around you. There are many amazing and inspiring personal stories unfolding around you with every step, and there you are — head down, desperately trying to recalculate your mile splits. If you must race with a stopwatch, think of it as a helpful tool, not the judge of your personal worth. Time? As a sage once sang, Time just keeps on slippin’, slippin’ into the future.

5. Sometimes the cartoon characters win. It’s tough to swallow sometimes, but that slightly oversized woman in the turtle costume? That dweeby, pale guy in the pink tutu? Look; they’re beating you. And there will always be people faster than you, in costume or out of it. Don’t let your ego destroy your race by forcing you to try to outrun those who you feel superior to. We’re all cartoon characters, when you get down to it; some of us just like to wear the uniform.

6. Enjoy the best, forget the rest. When you have a great race, absolutely tell everyone you know and savor the experience for awhile … then let it go. When you have a bad race, don’t hide from your friends or spend weeks poring over your training log, trying to figure out the exact moment in time when it all went off the rails. Chalk it up as a day in the life … and let it go. Letting go of our races, good and bad, can be hard, but doing so lets us start our new challenges with a fresh slate.

Honor your inner competitor, without being enslaved by it. It’s a great awareness practice point for your running.

A book about Mu

10 05 2011

No, not this blog, the koan. Wisdom Publications recently published an anthology of short essays on Mu, the pesky little koan which I took as inspiration for Run With Mu‘s title. It’s considered by many as the foundation koan of Zen Buddhism (if you want to explore a little about koan study, try this book or this one), and it’s pretty simple, really:

A young monk asked the master, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

The master said, “Mu.”

“Mu” is variously translated as different variations of “no,” or “nothing,” and at least one website I’ve found says the historical meaning of Mu is roughly “the place where truth is declared,” which sounds really nice, but is it Mu? What is Mu, really? A invaluable key to personal enlightenment, or just some kind of nerdy cosmic joke?

Well, you won’t find out by reading this book, or any book. But that doesn’t mean The Book of Mu isn’t valuable for practitioners to dip into, one reading at a time, over the course of many months or years, even after you’ve moved on to focusing on other koans. I was pleased to see that an essay by my teacher is included in the book, which makes me think of the many times he and I (and the rest of my infinitely patient teachers) have wrestled together with Mu. I’ve read a few of the selections, and it’s pretty much a lot of mostly interesting variations on the same thing: “work on Mu with everything you’ve got.” Yes indeedy!

Bottom line, same as with books on running: you’re better off actually doing the work than reading about it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t realize something helpful from reading. Just don’t expect The Book of Mu, or any book, to do your work for you. While others can point you in a general direction, everyone has to find their own way through running, and running with Mu. And it’s a relief to see The Book of Mu doesn’t offer a step-by-step approach, or a program, or bulleted lists of handy dandy tips and pointers. For anyone whose practice includes koan study, it will serve as inspiration and, perhaps, something more – but no money-back guarantees. Mu doesn’t work that way.

Hello, body

8 05 2011

Hello, body. What were you telling me last Thursday evening as I sat in zazen, minding my own business? You said that you were thirsty for a longer run, to go back up in the hilly neighborhoods around the lake and see things I hadn’t seen in awhile.

My mind didn’t agree with you, did it? On the calendar for Saturday: a brief hour’s run out my door and through my immediate neighborhood. That was what the schedule dictated. That was what my mind said to do, laid out weeks before in the chart it had carefully created. And it argued about this sudden rebellion against the plan. No time, too far, too much, what about the schedule?

But I listened to you, body. I trusted that thirst in you, rather than follow the preconceived plan my mind had created. And I went long, longer than I had gone in many weeks. I saw mating mallards, squadrons of refugee green parrots, old familiar houses undergoing fresh transformations. I leaned into the breeze and listened to the water slap against the shoreline, and I continued past the hour my mind had planned and kept going, going, until I reached my car again in a little over two hours.

And you felt so satisfied, body, if a little more tired than perhaps my mind had intended. And I had certainly gone farther, much farther, than the plans my mind had made.

But we had experienced so much that was good, and your satisfaction told me listening to you was the right thing to do. I promise to listen to you more often, when you want to go longer. And yes, I promise to listen when you hurt or are tired, and want to go shorter — or even stop altogether, which is sometimes the hardest thing for me to hear you say, even when you say it as loud as you can.

It’s not that my mind isn’t helpful, body; we both know that. As we go about our business, we owe it a great deal. But I can let it rule the roost sometimes, can’t I? You have a lot of helpful things to tell me, too. But instead of feeling like a full and equal partner, you feel perhaps a little like a servant — right, body? Or even a slave.

It’s like the great Rinzai Zen master Yamamoto Gempo said in a commentary on the koan Mu: “Our minds are continually running.” I promise to let my mind run less, and let you run more.


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