I hear it at least once a week at my CrossFit gym.
“You’ve gotta relax.”
“Turn off your brain, and relax.”
I always knew getting good at a sport took strength, coordination, practice, and guts, but I never thought I also had to relax.
I get through much of my day—and life—with a low-level hum of anxiety. It pushes me to meet my deadlines, to exercise, to clean the house, and to get a healthy dinner on the table for my family.
It also has a dark side. It makes me single-focused, resistant to change, and a little too focused on the end result, not the journey.
I’ve always approached athletic challenges the way I do any other assignment—with a focus on getting it done quickly and well. I usually end up enjoying the workout or my writing project, but I never start out with that as my focus. In fact, I start every new project or workout with a small voice in my head, saying, “What if you can’t do this? What if you fail?”
Probably not the best way to achieve a relaxed state.
I had all these thoughts percolating in my head—could my no-nonsense, slightly anxious, goal-oriented attitude be negatively impacting my CrossFit performance?—when I took the kids to the library last week. As they got sucked into one of the computer games in the children’s area, I wandered over to the trade paperback racks. I was nervous leaving the kids on the other side of the library unsupervised, so I quickly scanned the books and saw a familiar-looking blue cover.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I remembered I had heard it was good, but all I knew was that it was about a tribe of people in some isolated place who ran hundreds of miles at a time. That, and it had something to do with barefoot running.
I grabbed it and walked quickly back to my kids, who were still happily absorbed in the game.
I cracked open the book that night and was immediately absorbed. The writing style is fast-moving, punchy, and suspenseful. (Sometimes the cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter seemed forced, but it kept me turning the page.)
At a basic level, the book is about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who are able to run for days. The author wants to know their secret, and along the way the book delves into the history of endurance running, physiology, evolutionary biology, nutrition, and sports psychology.
Even thought it’s about the sport of running, many of the ideas in the book apply to all athletic pursuits. And one of the main things the author discovers as he learns more about the Tarahumara and their almost super-human endurance, is that they approach running with love and with joy.
I don’t believe that there’s some unseen hand guiding things as trivial as my book selection, but this book couldn’t have come into my hands at a better time. Just when I was trying to wrap my head around the mental side of fitness, and how to infuse my workouts with more natural movement and joy, I read this:
“… you can’t muscle through a five-hour run … you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving.”
Sounds a lot like learning how to do double unders, where the jump rope passes under your feet two times for every one jump. Try to do it too quickly, get upset, try to muscle through it, and everything falls apart. If you relax, breathe, and jump high—it works.
There’s a section in the book about Emil Zatopek, a Czech runner who competed in the 1940s and 50s. He was known for his generosity, friendliness, and love of life. An elite running coach named Dr. Joe Vigil studied Zatopek and the Tarahumara, and concluded that:
“there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. The engineering was certainly the same: both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding.”
Another quote from the book, which comes back to me every time I see my kids take off down the sidewalk:
“Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled out to slow down? Every game you played, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attacked jungle outposts in your neighbors’ backyards. Half the fun of doing anything was doing it at record pace, making it probably the last time in your life you’d ever get hassled for going too fast.
That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation.”
So how do I find that place of joy? I love CrossFit—I love pushing myself, I love getting stronger, I love the community. I’m competitive, but I think anyone who gets into CrossFit has to have that side to them. So how do I push myself, but still feel joy in the process?
I think I can start by drowning out the anxious thoughts with positive ones. Just as I am currently working on double unders every day, I could make it an assignment to start each workout thinking, “I can’t wait to work on this movement,” or “I bet I’ll do really well.”
Does anyone have experience with this kind of positive self-talk? Does it work? Any suggestions for how to retrain my brain to look for joy, not anxiety and stress?