This is a 6 part series that I am writing for the KIWI trail runner magazine. I wanted to have a look at some of the main components the combine to produce an happy, balanced. high performing athlete. Part 1 looks at meditation and mindfulness as a practice.
Now if you had told me a couple of years ago to practice meditating for 10 min a day I wouldn't have considered it. Sitting and doing nothing was so counter intuitive to what society demands of us. It is slowly ingrained in us from an early age that it's important to be "busy". This is the stock standard answer to the age old greeting - "How are you?" Sitting and breathing is doing nothing - it's LAZY. I wrote it off as a waste of time. It was what new age hippies who were not successful in navigating real world issues engaged in. I didn't have time for that hippy crap, but in March 2014 I had a couple of life changing moments and made a long- lasting decision to strive every day to be better. I started by moving my diet towards a more plant based whole- food approach, I scheduled in micro chunks of exercise on days that I had thought previously too "busy". I continued with my usual running and swimming training but focussed on working out with motivating positive people (wife and good mates) amongst the beautiful environment whenever possible. I become less concerned about the destination and made sure I was nailing the journey. In doing this the destinations kept improving. I also spent more time reading about, and listening to successful people that were also on a "self- improvement quest" to glean tips that I could assimilate into my routines.
One of the books I started with was titled "Finding Ultra" by Rich Roll. This was about a guy who on his 40th birthday realised he was an overweight alcoholic and decided to turn his life around with a plant based diet, structured exercise, and an outward-looking attitude. This platform for change allowed him to modify his negative habits, and he started to focus on the age-old question of finding purpose, working on his craft, and applying that in service towards making the world a better place. Every week I scheduled in listening to the Rich Roll podcast. Each week Rich delves into everything wellness via interviews with forward thinking, paradigm-smashing minds in fitness, health, nutrition, art, entrepreneurship and spirituality. I love these - as they aren't merely interviews but conversations designed to empower and move you towards finding your best, most authentic self. Basically getting over yourself and striving towards awesome.
After listening to over 50 podcasts (I listened while cleaning the house or on the bike trainer) one aspect that many of these successful people had as part of their habit toolbox was the practice of meditation. I was particularly impressed with RRP #172 (Rich Roll Podcast) with Light Watkins - Yoga/Mediation expert; Light Watkins is a yoga teacher who has written the book "The Inner Gym". Another fascinating speaker was Andy Puddicombe, considered "the international poster boy for the modern mindfulness movement." Andy Puddicombe is an ordained Tibetan Buddist monk. Andy's sensational journey started in England dropping out of university, then training as a monk with thousands of hours of meditation. He then joined with the Moscow state circus en-route back to London where he completed his degree in the Circus arts. Andy then created an easy practical meditation app "Headspace" to bring meditation to the masses in an easy "bite-size" format that is applicable to anybody. His story of university drop out, to Monk; to millionaire is inspiring and depicts that incredible journey of self discovery that most people are too busy to undertake due to life getting in the way.
I enjoyed Light Watkins explanation that meditation doesn't have to be associated with a religion or any other negative pre-conceived framework. It seems accepted fact that stress is a major contributor to ill health in our "busy" society. Science has shown meditation or "being still" as one of the greatest counter stress solutions, yet this seems to be an as-yet untapped resource.
If you are already in a negative mindset about attempting meditation (I certainly was) or feel you are too time crunched then you are the type likely to gain the most benefit from starting to meditate.
Over the last year I decided to experiment on myself by committing to 10 min meditating for 100 days. I then planned to assess if it had a positive impact on my life. I down loaded the "Headspace" app (available for FREE at the app store) and scheduled it in. Here are a few of my observations from completing 100 days in a row:
1) My mind has more focus. I seem to flow from one task to the next with less hesitation and procrastinating. Days have more structure. I feel when I'm training, working, or doing homework with the kids I am more in the zone.
2) I don't react as quickly to provocation. I have started to take more time after listening to people before replying. I find myself automatically considering the other persons point of view and situation, instead of focussing on formulating my response. This was especially helpful when dealing with my daughter Stella (5 years old). I feel better equipped to be the adult in the interaction. I am far more compassionate than I was. This helps with relationships in all aspects of my life - family, physiotherapy, and coaching.
3) I have more energy. I find it very easy to get out of bed (even at 3:45am if I have a long run scheduled). I want to rip into the day and make good use of the time. The "everyday is a gift" is no longer just a facebook post - it is an authentic way of life.
4) I have improved clarity. The 10min meditation seems to defrag my head. Things seem clearer and this translates into less fuzzy moments as I'm not worrying or dwelling on stuff like I used to. I acknowledge situations quickly and don't ruminate as much. When I'm out on a long run I switch off from the troubles of the day far quicker, and feel more "refreshed" than I used to.
5) I'm making better decisions on a daily basis. I'm using my time in a more productive manner. I watch less TV, I eat to nourish rather than for entertainment or through boredom, and I really appreciate getting out in nature. If I can train or spend time with my family or mates outside in the great outdoors then I relish that experience and rarely take it for granted. I'm more grateful for my training time.
6) The material things don't matter as much. I feel at peace with where I'm at and feel more grateful for what I have. I no longer fantasise about getting a bigger TV or a new car. I feel more in touch where the value lies - moments not money. I don't look at it as deprivation anymore but enhancement.
I have also experimented with meditation immediately before key running rep sessions and races. I find it easier to "slip into" a more relaxed mindset + posture (resulting in improved running form) when the going gets tough. If you get overly anxious before racing then engaging in meditation on an ongoing basis is worth trying as one tool to assist overcome pre-race nerves.
Meditation is one piece of the wellness jigsaw that is moving me towards a better version of myself. After 260 days of 10min a day I feel I am a better person (confirmed by my wife). Engaging in the art of mediation has become one of my corner-stone habits and I believe the flow-on positively affects all the other aspects of my life. For me, it's no longer an experiment it's just what I do, and I plan to keep doing it. I would whole heartedly encourage everybody to give it a go.
Key Resources to start your meditation journey:-
Book : The Inner Gym - A 30 day workout for strengthening HAPPINESS : Light Watkins.
App : Headspace (Andy Puddicombe)
Podcasts : Rich Roll App (www.richroll.com) #172 Light Watkins #142 Andy Puddicombe.
If you wanted a step towards meditation that incorporated movement and was very beneficial for your running then get yourself to a yoga class. The off season is a perfect time to engage in some new restorative practices that will benefit your athlete body + mind for the long term without getting distracted by short term race goals. Reputable studies show that yoga helps with stress, improves weight loss, eases pain, and will improve running performance. The improved flexibility and through range stability will help your running form (especially over the age of 35 when your running stride starts to decrease) helping the all important running economy + it helps with preventing injury. There are a wide array of yoga classes to choose from these days. I would say there is no one form or style that benefits runners more, it's more about how consistent you are with your yoga practise. Find a class that fits with your schedule (at least once a week, if not twice if starting out so you can really hone your technique), and a teacher that motivates and inspires while understanding your requirements as a runner. Make sure you practice the poses on your own between classes. At the end of most yoga classes there is a time to focus on your breathing and be still. This is a great taste of meditation in a bite size non threating chunk. I would recommend sitting (rather than lying down) when practicing the meditation component - I find it much easier to focus on my breath in sitting and the mind wanders less. Lying down tends to be better for deep relaxation.