Be careful, be careless
Running has taught me many important things (and I don’t think I’m even close to learning everything). I keep going through cycles where I feel like I’m discovering something very complicated only to realize that the truth is quite simple.
I’ve learned that complex things don’t have to be complicated. Yet simple truths are often elusive, sometimes taking many years, or many decades, to fully comprehend.
You’ve experienced this, right?
This article is about a simple truth that has taken me a long time to understand (and to be honest, I’m still working it out).
It’s an article about optimizing performance by allowing polarized concepts to blend harmoniously.
I know, hang in there. It leads us to yoga, a practice that I’m looking at in a whole new way as a result of this understanding.
I think Carl Sandburg explained this truth better than I ever could.
Little girl, be careful what you say
when you make talk with words, words—
for words are made of syllables
and syllables, child, are made of air—
and air is so thin—air is the breath of God—
air is finer than fire or mist,
finer than water or moonlight,
finer than spider-webs in the moon,
finer than water-flowers in the morning:
and words are strong, too,
stronger than rocks or steel
stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle,
and soft, too, soft as little pigeon eggs,
soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
when you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
be careful, be careless, be careful,
be what you wish to be.
—Carl Sandburg, Wind Song
The Sthira (firmness) and Sukha (ease) of Yoga
“There is harmony in the tension of opposites, as in the case of the bow and lyre.” —Heraclitus
Like Carl Sandburg’s poem, you have to be both careful and careless to be what you wish to be. It’s this tension of opposites that creates harmony — and ultimately performance.
For runners, we must balance stiffness of form (in the skeleton, for example) with fluidity of motion (in the muscles, for example). We are at our best when running with both effort and ease. We need stability and mobility, strength and flexibility. We must do work, yet we must rest and recovery to get full benefit from our training.
I’ve found that getting just the right amount of polarized tension is key to running my best. The concept holds for my work, my relationships, and my thinking as well.
This has led me back to yoga after abandoning for many years.
It turns out yoga is literally built on the principle of polarized tension.
The Yoga Sutras is a centuries-old series of aphorisms that define yoga. “Sthira Sukham Asanam,” one of the most quoted Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, that means a yoga posture should be steady, firm and stable, yet also comfortable, light and delightful. It should be Sthira (firm) and Sukha (easy). It is a polarity of relaxation and tension.
By practicing yoga, I believe it is possible to get more comfortable and familiar with Sthira and Sukha. This practice provides a lots of benefits, but I’ll focus on just four in this article that go way beyond the strength, stability, and flexibility most often associated with the practice:
If you are interested in yoga, please sign up for Yoga for Runners, a series of practices to help you enhance balance, focus, and recovery.
It starts with balance
Wear and tear from training, together with the stresses of life, can easily lead to imbalance and underperformance.
Your body is highly integrated and intelligent. It works great when balanced, but it still finds a way to function and keep you going when imbalances are present.
Imbalances lead to compensations. Your body will do whatever is necessary to keep you moving. When your movement meets restriction and you continue to apply force, that force will transfer to the next available point of least resistance.
In other words, when you force yourself through pain in one area, you’ll inevitably cause pain in another area as well. That means injury, burnout, and underperformance. In addition to tanking your running, it negatively affects your work, your relationships, and your mindset, etc.
Yoga brings you back to balance
You need a way to find your way back to balance, back to your natural state.
Yoga is one of many solutions for this. Yoga equips you with insights into your imbalances and resulting compensation patterns, and give you skills to systematically correct yourself back to a happy medium.
These holistic skills blend breathing, mindset, and movement. With regular practice, yoga gives you a way to hit the reset button and rediscover balance in your mind and body.
Check out the Yoga Flow Workout on Runner’s Toolkit for a good starting point.
By the way …
Here’s what Jay Dicharry says about symmetry and balance. Jay is a physical therapist and researcher who is responsible for keeping many elite runners in the game, and I recommend his books, Running Rewired and Anatomy for Runners, to every runner I work with.
“Most people have a body structure that is pretty symmetric, and the right-to-left imbalances they have aren’t from bones, but rather how they control their bones. The quality of motion you have can be improved and refined. Take time to identify your imbalances, and take direction to bring your body back to symmetry. It’s one of the best uses of your time as an athlete to ensure you reach your goals and hit a new PR.”
— Jay Dicharry
The quality of your breath is a direct reflection of your interior state.
Breathing and mental state are connected. The more tired and stressed you are, the shallower your breath becomes. The causes your body to panic, which leads to more strained breathing and more fatigue. Its a vicious cycle.
Breathe better with yoga
Your breath is powerful because it enables you to focus and relax simultaneously, which happens to be when you’ll perform at your best, no matter what task you are attempting.
Best of all, it’s always with you — accessible no matter where you go.
Yoga integrates breathing and helps you learn simple breathing skills.
With practice, you learn techniques to stay calm under pressure, keep your systems functioning optimally, and help make the shift from stress to relaxation.
These skills also translate to your running — when you are tired and fatigued, the same breathing skills will give you an extra boost by allowing you to take in more of the precious oxygen you need to generate energy in you muscles.
Here’s are good breathing exercises to start with.
“Breathing is like solar energy for powering relaxation: it’s a way to regulate emotions that is free, always accessible, inexhaustible and easy to use.”
— Proper Breathing Brings Better Health, Scientific American, 15 January 2019
Focus your mind
A strong body does you no good if you can’t focus your energy to control and coordinate your movement. The same is true if you can’t silence distractions and doubt and anchor your mind on the task at hand.
Focus is essential to achieving your potential as a runner, and human.
Take control of your mental state
Consistent yoga practice leads to improved mental strength and stamina.
This happens because yoga poses demand focus. They challenge you just enough to keep you keenly aware of what you are doing.
By holding this focus thought yoga practice you become more aware of your tendencies, reactions, and mental behavior. This translates to a better mental state while running, working, thinking, and interacting with others.
“If you want to be the best, you shouldn’t focus on being the best, you should focus on being the best at getting better.”
— Brad Stulberg, Don’t Worry About Being the Best. Worry About Being the Best at Getting Better
It comes very
After all, working out gets results, right?
Most every workout we do is about pushing ourselves. However the benefits of training don’t happen during the workout, they happen afterwards as the body repairs itself. They happen during recovery.
Recovery is much more than just rest.
Do you focus as much energy on recovery as you do on your workouts? You may be sacrificing performance by not giving recovery the priority it deserves.
Embrace recovery with restorative yoga
Embrace recovery to become a better runner. From cool-down routines to meditation apps to self-massage techniques, there’s no doubt that you have lots of options to choose from.
Yoga deserves to be one of those tools you go to when you need to make the shift from exertion to recovery.
It’s important to note that yoga for recovery is different than yoga for strength and stability.
Restorative yoga is restful.
It is a physical relaxation practice that calms your body and mind.
If you workout a lot, the last thing you need is for yoga to be another way to explore your physical limits — that may do more harm than good.
Restorative yoga is a tool to retreat from athletic training and effectively recharge.
Here’s a good yoga recovery workout to get started with.
Take it to the next level
We’re introducing a Yoga for Runners program. If you are interested, please sign up be get more information on this series of practices to help you enhance balance, focus, and recovery.
Your mind, your body, and your running performances will thank you!