Zen and the Art of Physical Training

Once I heard a cool Zen story. A newbie was trying to learn the art of archery under the harsh guidance of a Master archer. The Japanese bow is very stiff and takes a lot of strength to bend then hold on the target. Master archers make it look completely natural and relaxed, but it takes years of training to just let the arrow fly to the target.

The newbie was trying so hard to hit the target that he was holding his breath. Huffing and puffing and his arms wobbly, he couldn't aim and his arrows were flying all over the place.

One day the master, who had been watching the newbie struggle for weeks, approached and told him to stop. The Master then moved the target and placed it just a few feet in front of the newbie.

"There, you can't miss the target," said the Master. "Now you can concentrate on learning to shoot the bow."

Many exercisers are like the Zen newbie, including trainers and coaches. Exercise books, magazines, and blogs are loaded with  instructions to set goals, quantify, measure, list, be obsessed with outcomes, but there are other, maybe more effective, ways to get stronger or run longer, and enjoy training for an event or just maintaining your fitness. Too often reaching for physical goals set us back and, in the worst cases, cause injuries.

Read this provocative post by Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Body. The training secrets of a U.S. soldier named Victor are fascinating and appropriate for TOJs of all ages.

The Bitter Truth

Recently, the Wellness Club where I work had a discussion about the health benefits of chocolate or, more precisely, cocoa. Cocoa is truly a miracle food delivered to us through the centuries from the Aztecs and Mayans. You can read all about it here. Note the special benefits for exercisers.

The more I see people who are chronically ill or will soon be because of their lifestyles, the more sobered I am about the realistic prospects of them changing. Change is very hard, harder than maybe we know or want to admit. Certainly many people want to do it, yet few accomplish lasting change, whether it's exercising more or eating better.

If you read the psychological literature about change, you'll find people in the profession are only able to talk about it in very general terms. Basically, it boils down to you've really got to want to do it, then you need to do it. And usually it helps you to have social support, i.e., family, friends, or a social network, for the change you are attempting to make.

What gives us hope is that some people do change and the changes endure. We all know an inspiring story of the person who lost 100 lbs. or finally stopped smoking and became a marathoner, despite discouraging odds that it's very probable.

One of the enlightening moments during our discussion of chocolate came when the unwelcome fact was presented that all the amazing, healthy properties of cocoa are missing in milk chocolate. Dark chocolate, the kind with tremendous benefits to your heart and brain, is slightly bitter, although people have figured out how to make it taste pretty appetizing.

How we change is not something rational where you hear factual information then alter your behavior. The day we discussed chocolate we had four bars, three of healthy dark chocolate, and one which was milk chocolate. After passing them around so people could examine the differences on the labels, such as the huge amount of sugar contained in milk chocolate when compared to dark chocolate, we held a drawing for the bars.

The rules of the drawing were that the person whose name was drawn first would have first pick of the four bars. After giggling happily after her name was drawn and having heard all the facts regarding the health benefits of dark chocolate, she chose the one made of milk chocolate.

When it comes to health and fitness, it's as if there's a biblical predetermination to it. Wasn't there a passage that went something like many are called, but few are chosen?

Be saved. Eat dark chocolate.

The White Dragon - Again

A story revisited for those who live where it snows:
Early one morning, I was waiting at a gate in Denver International Airport for a flight to San Francisco that had been delayed because of snow. To pass the time, I was on my computer looking at running and exercise blogs. A man, whose hair was tied back in a long, dark braid, sat down beside me. He was wearing a black North Face jacket over some kind traditional garb tied by a colorful sash at his waist. He had knee high boots that appeared to be made of wool.

I noticed he had a pair of brand new trail shoes tied to the handle of a brown canvas carry on bag. "You a runner?" I asked. His age was hard to guess. His Asian face was ruddy, lustrous, and weathered, with eyes, surrounded by vague crowsfeet, sparkled like black diamonds. He nodded with a warm smile.

I asked him where he was going. "Home. Tibet," he said.

"Wow, I bet that's a tough place to run. The altitude," I said.

He shrugged. "High not so bad. White Dragon. Yes"
I thought about what he said. "White Dragon?" I asked, not understanding. He grinned and pointed to the snow swirling around the airplane outside beyond the window. "Ah, yes, now I understand. Yeah, snow can be tough."

"White Dragon tough," he offered. I asked him what he meant. In his broken English he explained that his ancestors taught him that there is a White Dragon that abides part of the year in a cave on a mountain near Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. Sometimes the White Dragon lives in the sky, but when it is in its cave, there is snow, which is like its skin. I asked him to tell me more and he gave me these laws of the White Snow Dragon. He said if you heed them and say a quick prayer to the White Dragon before each outing, you can run safely all winter long.

First Law: White Snow Dragon HidesThere's always some mystery when you run on snow because you don't always know what is really under your feet. The snow may be thin, but hiding a layer of ice. Deep snow can conceal rocks, roots and curbs. Start slowly to get the feel of the snow and surface underneath, watch for lumps and dimples where you are about to step. Run more upright with short strides and come down more flat-footed that you do in dry conditions.

Second Law: Stay Quiet So White Snow Dragon Sleeps
Be light on your feet. Float like you are on thin ice. You will not slip as much, or break through hard crust. If the snow is more than a couple inches deep, you take one successful stride at a time, not reach too far or gain the high forward momentum you attain in summer. If you slip, forward momentum will turn you into a comic figure.

Third Law: Fight White Dragon, White Snow Dragon WinsYou cannot overpower snow. If you push too hard with your foot, you will not turn the force of your muscles into kinetic energy, but dissipate it in the snow. That's tiring and why when you run on snow you will never run the same distance as fast as you do when its dry. Plan on a shorter, slower run. If even the most powerful athlete tries to attack a run in deep snow , s/he will collapse with exhaustion within a minutes. Submit and relax.

Fourth Law: White Dragon Centers All Beings
Find your balance by running with a low center of gravity. Balance from your core. If you r on ice or on a steep hill, keep your hands low and slightly away from your sides. The steeper, the lower. Enjoy the burn in your lower legs and ankles as they seek to find balance on an unstable surface.

Fifth Law: If White Dragon Wakes, Kiss the EarthSometimes, despite your best efforts, you will fall. Relax your body as you go down and roll to minimize the shock to any one part. Keep your upper body strong so you can use your slightly bent, outstretched arms to soften the pull of gravity. If you don't hurt too bad, have a good laugh.

I had a hundred questions to ask him about the White Dragon, but they called to start boarding our flight. What about gear? What about different types of snows? Lots of trail runners retreat to gyms for the winter to escape snow and cold and jump on treadmills and other contraptions. But a TOJ on a treadmill is like a prisoner looking through the prison bars at the world going along outside. This TOJ loves snow because the best trails are less crowded, more big mammals are hanging around, and the running is challenging.

His zone was called to board, and I stood up to thank him for his advice and shake his hand. He was short, but sinewy and powerfully built. I glanced down at the trail shoes dangling from his bag. They we heavily lugged and had a high cuff, perfect for the deep snow where he was headed.

I thought about giving him a tip that if was going to run on ice a lot, he might want to get some 3/8 sheet metal screws and insert them around the outer edges of the shoe, maybe set them in a little Shoe Goo. That works as good a studded snow tires. But then I realized he might not have access to a hardware or running store, and just said, "I hope you have many happy miles in those shoes and don't wake the White Dragon."

He smiled. "Oh, no, I sell to a tourist in Kathmandu for fifty bucks. I run these," he said pointing to his wool boots with a Yak hide sole. "They stick like snow leopard."

As he disappeared down the Jetway, I was still smiling.

Over-Carbed and Under-Exercised

Months ago I talked about Doug McGuff, MD, and John Little's book entitled "Body by Science."
It's one of the most informative books on the relationship of muscles, strength and metabolism I've run across.

I recently ran across a video of a lecture by McGuff that's worth watching because he does an excellent job describing the dynamic relationship between muscles, glucose, and metabolic syndrome, the plague of civilization and underlying cause of the obesity epidemic.  

Body By Science from Pinpoint Multimedia on Vimeo.

While I don't subscribe to his narrow view of exercise (he dismisses aerobic exercises like running and biking in favor of high intensity torture on weight machines), he has a deep understanding of the role of muscle in health, especially people who are trying to lose weight.

We tend to think of diet and exercise as separate topics, but after watching McGuff you'll see why it's critical to have muscle and exercise all three types of your muscle fibers hard, not just the slow twitch ones.