Good Words from Steve Magness at Science of Running

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“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.”

– Steve Magness, Science of Running

I’m a big fan of Steve Magness’ work. He is both a researcher and an in-the-trenches running coach. His site the Science of Running is full of excellent information. His book (also titled The Science of Running) is a must-read for running coaches and any serious runner.

Under pressure

I greatly appreciate his latest blog post titled New Year’s Reflections and Anti-resolutions. He discusses resolutions and the high failure rate experienced by those undertaking them. He observes that a lot of us feel forced to make decisions and when that happens, we make bad decisions. When we feel cornered and pressured to accomplish or achieve something then we often don’t get the results we want. He says:

“Today, with social media, an ability to instantly compare ourselves to any of our peers, and a high premium placed on accomplishments and ‘success’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we have to do something. We have to accomplish some goal, take some job, marry some guy or gal, all on some set time line or else we’re perceived as a failure. Society and culture put us in a place of ‘forcing’ us to do something.”

I can definitely relate to this scenario. I sometimes feel pressure when I observe the accomplishments of others in my field, or when I look at the athletic feats of men my age. It’s easy to feel like I don’t measure up, that I’m not “enough.” Later in this post I’ll give some evidence that by letting my mind wander to others’ achievements, I’m probably undermining my contentment in life.

Here is more from Magness:

“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.

In running, big breakthroughs occur when you let them happen. You’re more relaxed while still driven and focused during the race versus tense and pressing in which you are trying to force a new Personal Record.  Ask any sprint coach if people run faster relaxed versus tensed and you will find your answer to why forcing a race does not work.”

There is power in being mentally engaged in the here-and-now rather than longing for the end product. Most of us have probably experienced this when we try really hard at almost anything. From a golf swing to trying to impress a date or a boss, if we bear down too much and try to force it we rarely get the results we want.

Flow

In contrast to forcing things, we would ideally relax and perhaps just react to events. Psychology researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow” state:

“These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you ‘forget yourself’ and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as ‘being in the zone’). You may be surprised to learn, however, that in recent years this experience has become the focus of much research by positive psychologists. Indeed, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has even given it a name for an objective condition — ‘flow.'”

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience flow on the ski slopes–though not nearly as often as I’d like! Everything works. I turn effortlessly. I’m in total control. I move but I’m not aware of how it’s happening. I often feel this way when I trail run, mountain bike, lift heavy weights or when reading a great book. Life is best when I feel this “flow.”

Process, oh how I love the!

I recall conversations about training I’ve had with a friend. Much of his life is devoted to triathlon specifically and intense physical activity generally. We both love physical exertion of a sometimes extreme degree, and we both agree that we dearly love the process. Lifting weights. A track workout. A long bike ride. Learning a new exercise. We love every step towards the end goal. We love the beginning when we feel good, the middle when we’re tired and questioning why we’re doing it, and the glorious end when we feel a sense of accomplishment. In loving the process the end goal comes to us.

Magness speaks to loving the process:

“The key though is not simply thinking ‘it will all work out’ but instead acknowledging the first portion which is if you work hard at things you enjoy, love the process, then eventually things will work out. Perhaps not always in the direction you want them to, but for the most part they will.”

(Additionally, it’s during intense training that we are wholly focused on the task at hand. More on that in a moment.)

Chasing a mirage

I like Magness’s analysis of being process-focused rather than outcome-focused:

“We get caught in the rat race of trying to chase success, satisfaction, happiness, and outcomes. The reality is that this is simply an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us engaged. Researchers have found that it’s not the actual reward that gives us the most bang for our buck in terms of the wonderful feel good hormone of Dopamine. Instead, it’s the chase that gives us the huge bump in Dopamine.

We’re designed for the process, but we focus on the outcome. It’s this nice little trick of mother nature that makes us follow through and get things done. It’s why we suffer from this nice fallacy of ‘If only I had X, I’d be happy/satisfied/whatever…’ We then chase X, feeling pretty good about ourselves as we chase it, but then are torn down by the feeling of discontentment when we finally reached our goal and while the payoff was nice, it most certainly doesn’t meet pre-conceived expectations. So we are left with the inevitable ‘so what now…’ that predictably follows.”

He says, “If I only had X, I’d be happy…” I believe a lot of us go through life this way, basing our contentment on external things: a race outcome, a flat stomach, a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse, money, a house in a certain neighborhood… In other words, we’re looking for the perfect circumstance when everything goes right–then we’ll be happy!

In this scenario, we’re looking outside ourselves for contentment, fulfillment and happiness. We’re looking for affirmation of ourselves via things that we may not control. Interestingly, when we achieve one of these things (say hitting a PR in the deadlift, taking 2 minutes off your marathon time or making X amount of money) have we actually found happiness? Maybe…. But often we’ve simply obtained one of these things and we’re not actually any happier, so we keep looking for the next magic thing that will fulfill us.

(In my experience, by chasing happiness that we believe lives outside us, we’re really chasing a mirage. The external thing that we covet so much rarely if ever lives up to expectations.)

Happiness through focus

A 2010 study called A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind seems relevant to some of these ideas. The research was done by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. Here are some paragraphs that deserve consideration, starting with what I think is the big picture on wandering minds:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

When are we happiest?

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

(Hey! Wow! Exercise!)

Finally,

“Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.”

What am I saying?

I believe that I’m advocating for finding activities that demand our full mental engagement. The phrase “live in the moment,” seems appropriate (even though it sounds cliche and a bit too cute for my taste–it happens to encapsulate a great concept!) There is a subtle, sublime state of mind that can’t be found by multi-tasking (possibly the ultimate non-focused happiness killer) or keeping up with the Joneses. Further, the focus on the process keeps us “in the moment.” If we can find a love for the process–rather than a fixation on the outcome–then I believe we can find a healthy dose of happiness.

How’s Your New Year’s Resolution?

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It’s exactly 45 days into 2011.  Do you have a New Year’s Resolution?  If so, what is it?  Is it specific or vague?  Does it involve measurable steps tied to a timetable, or is “just something you’re working on?”  Do you feel you’re moving effectively towards your resolution  or is it sort of sliding sideways and backwards out of your thinking?

Just wondering….

New Year’s Resolutions

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“This year I will… (insert whatever gargantuan tried-for-before-but-never-accomplished miracle you wish; for our purposes here we’ll say:) get in shape.”
thousands of new gym members

Now’s the time of year when many a well meaning American joins a gym, vows to give up their favorite food, start eating their least favorite food, exercise like Hercules, change their physique… and generally repeat a pattern they’ve performed before–which includes struggle and failure.  Some time around the end of March the pattern will look the same as last year: Minimal weight lost.  Resolution forgotten.  (The good news for me is that a lot of these fine folks will enlist my assistance in achieving their goals.  My genuine hope is that I help create new exercise lovers.)  Is there a way to actually realize our once and future fitness goals?  Very likely.

Your Brain Doesn’t Have a New Year’s Resolution

First, why do we fail at these goals in the first place?  A recent article in the Miami Herald, New Year’s resolutions?  Brain can sabotage success discuss the role of the brain in this process.  Essentially the immediate reward often outweighs the long-term results we’re seeking.  Fudge tastes good now.  Getting strong and lean takes weeks.  Put another way: It’s the dopamine stupid.

Dopamine is released during rewarding experiences.  Sex, tasty food, various drugs, fun times all release dopamine.  We tend to form habits around the activities that release dopamine.  These habits and rituals become very hard wired in our brain.  Examples include a smoke after a meal, snacks in front of the TV, junk food at the movie.  Further, we like our dopamine now not later.  Thus that tasty dessert provides the deeply wired payoff we want.  For someone new to exercise or who’s had negative experiences with exercise, there’s not much dopamine to be found at the gym.

Survival, the Brain & Energy Expenditure

Very nearly every feeling, thought, drive and signal in our bodies is there for our survival.  Neurological activity is calorically expensive.  (That is, we use a lot of calories to perform brain functions such as learning new skills.  Exercise and new eating habits are definitely skills).  If we use up too many calories then we’ll die.  Our brain knows all this, and here lies the foundation of thwarted resolutions.

Drastic changes such as those often attempted by Resolutioners makes the brain say, “Whoa!  We need to avoid all this new hard work or we might DIE!”  Plus there’s no dopamine involved in all this new activity–but the stress of all this change makes us seek out our beloved dopamine/fudge/ice cream/onion rings/etc.  The result is we have a really hard time sticking to our big goal.  So how do we proceed?

Threat Modulation for a Successful Resolution

We talk extensively in Z-Health about threats and threat modulation.  We learn that small, incremental changes are far less threatening to our survival instincts than drastic changes.  We tend to stick with small changes better than big changes.  With regard to our fitness resolutions, we have several considerations in this direction.

First we might consider diet and exercise.  These are two different things.  Someone may well be ready to start exercising but not at all ready to make dietary changes or vice versa.  If we try to change both aspects then we will find it tough going.  Therefore we should start making changes where success is most likely to occur.

Second, within either diet or exercise, we should consider what’s ideal versus what’s truly realistic.  If your favorite food is doughnuts for breakfast then yes, giving them up completely is a great idea.  But in reality it likely isn’t happening.  But can we get someone to go from eating doughnuts for breakfast five days a week to only four days a week?  Maybe.  Or can this person go from three doughnuts a day to three doughnuts every other day–and only two doughnuts on the other days?  Sounds reasonable.  These are rather small steps–but they are steps forward.

Similarly, many Resolutioners come into the gym telling themselves and anyone who’ll listen that they’re ready to work extremely hard every day of the week.

“I’m not fooling around this time!  I want to see results–and I want to see them fast!  I’ll do Whatever It Takes!”

Yet typically these folks aren’t undertaking any exercise at all.  So going from no exercise to a superhuman level of exercise is again a threat to our survival with no dopamine payoff.  Great way to sabotage the resolution.  It’s far more realistic for someone to go from no days per week of exercise to two days.  Then a couple of weeks later add another day.

(Oddly enough, a trainer has a powerful tool to employ when someone talks about undertaking unrealistically lofty s actions: We say, “Nope.  Don’t do that.”  They’ll likely start arguing for their own beneficial change.  It works off a phenomenon called the righting reflex.  Think of a parent giving a kid orders.  “Do this.”  “Don’t do that.”  He or she will resist whatever they’re told to do or not do.  Tell someone what they already know such as “You need to start exercising,” and they’ll likely give you reasons why they can’t or won’t. In contrast, tell a someone NOT to exercise too much  and suddenly he or she will start agitating to exercise.  They’ll argue against their own worst habits.)

Tortoise vs. the Hare

So again, in the ideal situation, someone who eats garbage and never exercises should some day eat well and exercise regularly.  In order to get to this new lifestyle though, gradual, non-threatening change is the way to go if we want to achieve our fitness goal at all, much less maintain our new sleek physique.

So we might consider only changing one part of this equation.  We might create a small, very achievable goal such as dedicating one hour, twice a week to exercising with a trainer for four weeks.  If the clieint achieves this goal then they’ve found success and success begets success.  (Very likely they’re already feeling better from this moderate level of exercise and they want to feel even better.)  We might then add one day of exercise and also consider dedicating one day per week to healthy eating. Psychologically, if the client experiences success–even on a small scale–we get that dopamine payoff and suddenly they’ve developed an exercise habit.  We’re now well on the road to realizing our big goal.

Deliberate Action

Fitness goals don’t make themselves happen.  Any number of lofty goals can be achieved but there must be a mindful effort toward these goals.  If our current habits got us into the shape we’re in now, then new actions are required in order to get us into better shape.  Small changes are ideal–but there must be changes!

I typically tell clients that they have many choices throughout the day of what to eat and whether or not to exercise.  At some point they must make at least one healthier decision.  If all they can do is make ONE healthier choice today then they’ve moved forward.  Maybe they make one single better choice every other day.  Great!  This is progress.

Success is a guarantee if healthy new habits replace old unhealthy habits.  The body has no choice but to adapt to the consumption of healthy food and the execution of hard physical work.  Guaranteed.  The changes we want will not happen as fast as we want them to–they never do!–but the New Year’s Resolution can become reality if it’s pursued correctly.