Saturday, August 30, 2014

Slowing Down for Speed, Efficiency, and Endurance

"Sit down and wait 'til your hurry's over...because before you know it, in the blink of an eye, 
your life is over."
~ Norman Gibbs (my Papa Norman)

My Papa Norman - the greatest Grandpa ever to live - always used to say that to me.   He said it's something his Grandpa used to tell him.  I sort of understood it, but thought it was a little counter-intuitive:  how are you supposed to sit down and wait if you're in a hurry?  The past couple weeks, however, that little Papa Norman-ism has taken on a whole new that I understand on a new and profoundly deeper level.

We're a crazed, busy society for the most part, and nothing makes you sit up and take notice of how busy we are like returning from a relaxing vacation.   I spent three weeks in Nebraska and Colorado in July and August, and returned from that vacation with an unsettling sense of how much I've been sucked into the rat race of urban life. I'm a very adaptable person and think I could live just about anywhere I had or wanted to.  But the mountains of Colorado and the Boulder area spoke to me in a way that only one other place has before (Ireland).  They didn't speak to me in a whisper...they spoke to me in a loud, drill sergeant voice (much like my Papa would have used in the Marines, although he wasn't a drill sergeant) to say "You must, for the good of your soul and to live your true life, find a way to move here!"  Yes, the mountains of Colorado are pulling at my heart and soul with as much force as the gravity between the Earth and the Moon.

Happy mountains in El Dorado Canyon outside Boulder...
Usually when I return from vacation, I feel a sense of calm and joy to be back home.  I've loved D.C and northern Virginia in the 17 years I've lived here, and always thought this is where I would stay.  But upon returning from this vacation, for the first time ever, I had the feeling of "I'm done with this place."  Done with the competitive chaos.  Done with the politics and suited-up Type A personalities who saturate this area.  Done with only feeling connected to nature on the weekends.

But recognizing that I'm not in a position to just drop everything and move to Boulder, I decided I need to set about implementing a path that will get me there.  In the meantime, however, I still need to live here, still need to work, still need to somehow thrive in the chaos.

But how do I do that?

On the drive back from Nebraska I was listening to my usual podcasts and one was on the topic of Zone 2 heart rate training.  This is a topic that I know all too well (see my prior post on periodization), but for those of you who aren't familiar with the concept, here's a simple explanation.

Whenever you're doing any type of physical activity, your body is primarily burning one of two types of fuels for energy:  fat or carbohydrates.  Your carbohydrate stores are limited and break down quickly, whereas your fat stores are significantly more replete and break down slowly.  Theoretically, even a skinny person with relatively low body fat has enough fat stores for days of energy.

Because your carbohydrate stores are limited, an endurance athlete cannot realistically complete an endurance event by burning just carbohydrates.  Instead, the endurance athlete needs to train the body to burn primarily fat, for longer, sustained energy release.  This type of training is accomplished by training in your aerobic heart rate zone, which will teach your body to burn more fats than carbohydrates.  Thus, heart rate zone training focuses on determining your aerobic zones (where your body is burning primarily fats) versus your anaerobic zones (where you body is burning primarily carbohydrates and producing lactic acid - the painful burning you feel in your muscles after shorts bursts of hard efforts).

Heart rate zones can be calculated based on your maximum heart rate with different methods and metabolic testing that I won't get into.  For this simple explanation, all you need to know is that there are basically 5 heart rate zones:

Zone  1:  50-60% of your maximum heart rate.  Base aerobic zone that is typically used for warm-ups and is a pace where you can easily hold a conversation.

Zone 2:  60-70% of your maximum heart rate.  Aerobic training zone where you can exercise comfortably at this pace and still hold a conversation.

Zone 3:  70-80% of your maximum heart rate.  There is debate over whether this is still an aerobic zone or is an aerobic/anerobic combination.  This is a more challenging pace and isn't typically used for training, with the thought that it "confuses" your body as to whether it should be using fats or carbs.

Zone 4:  80-90% of your maximum heart rate.  This is the first aerobic zone, at which point your body begins to lack in oxygen and primarily use carbs rather than fats.  You can only spit out a few words at this pace.

Zone 5:  90-100% of your maximum heart rate where you'll be gasping for air after just a few seconds.

The idea behind calculating your heart rate zones is to teach you to train predominantly in the aerobic Zone 2, so that your body learns how to burn fat more efficiently to keep you going for longer periods of time.  In other words, by training your body at this Zone 2 pace, you develop better endurance.  Moreover (and somewhat contrary to what you would think), training at this slower Zone 2 pace actually helps you become faster.  Thus, your body not only become more efficient at burning your primary energy source for endurance, but you also become faster and, consequently, can run a quicker pace at the same lower heart rate.  Don't believe me?  Then check out the story of arguably one of the best Ironman champions in history, Mark Allen.  By training in Zone 2, Mark Allen went from running an 8:15 minute/mile pace, to a 5:20 minute/mile pace in a matter of weeks...all while still functioning in that easy-going, fat-burning Zone 2.

So what on Earth does this have to do with functioning in a fast-paced urban setting and me trying to figure out a game plan for moving to Boulder?  Everything.

Quite simply, this concept of slowing down to become faster and more efficient translates just as easy to your mind as it does to your body.  

It seems that we think the faster we can go each day, the quicker we can plough through our never-ending "inbox" of things to do, and the happier, more fulfilled, more productive we'll feel.  But does that really work?  Is what you're doing really working for you?  Does your inbox ever empty?  Sure, there are times when you have specific deadlines that must be met, where once they are, you feel that sense of accomplishment and completeness.  But those days likely are the minority.  For most days, your schedule consists of little "goals" that you feel must be accomplished:  walk the dog; workout; get ready for work; commute to work; work; commute home; do laundry;  fix dinner; feed the kids; do dishes; pack lunches for tomorrow; walk the dog; go to bed; get up & repeat.  Then somewhere in the midst of all that hurrying around, you also have to find time to pay the bills, see your friends, spend time with your family, clean the rest of the house, run errands and, oh yes, just sit and relax.

Unfortunately, it's that last bit - the relaxation - that often gets kicked to the curb (along with other self-maintenance "luxuries" like working out).

But what I'm here to tell you is that my Papa Norman was right all along:  just sit down and wait 'til your hurry is over, because before you know it, your life will be over.  What you need to understand is that your "life" isn't your commute, your house chores, or even your job.  Your life is what happens in between all the self- and society-imposed obligations. Your life is what happens in the seconds and space between all that...when you're not looking.  So the trick is this:  teach your mind to see the space in between.  Teach your mind to slow down time.  In doing so, you will find that precious gift of time, along with peace, happiness, and love.

It's no secret that our stressed out lifestyles are killing us.  So stop accepting that.  Stop thinking there's nothing you can do to change that.  Stop treating yourself like you're just another burnt-out, typical American.

Start slowing down.  Start training your mind to function in Mental Zone 2.

Think of it this way:  if an athlete tried to go out and do a marathon or an Ironman at a blistering Zone 4 or 5 pace, she wouldn't last more than a few miles.  If she tried to push through that burning pain of lactic acid building up in her muscles, she quite likely could cause a heart attack, collapse, and die.  Best case scenario, she'd just pass out or fall to the ground.  Athletes know better than to do this.  So why can't we, as normal, every-day humans, know better than to do this on a daily basis?

You may think you're winning your race by functioning in Mental Zone 4 or 5 every day just because you're still waking up every day.  You think this pace is sustainable simply because it allows you to keep slugging through each day.  Truth be told though, the race of life obviously (and hopefully) is vastly longer than any marathon or Ironman.  So the fact that up until this point in your life you've managed to function at Mental Zone 4 or 5, really only means that by comparison, you're only a few feet or maybe mile past the start line.  Trust me, your breakneck pace is catching up with you.  You will collapse in just a few miles...and it will be ugly.

I've said it before and, indeed, the entire theme of this blog, is that life is an endurance event.  Let go, right now, of any notion that you'll be able to get through this endurance event by continuing to function at Mental Zone 4 or 5.  If you refuse to let go of that notion, then you will fall well short of your finish line.  By that I mean, what should be a long and happy life for you, will be dramatically cut short by precious years.

So what's the solution?  Sit down...and wait.  Better yet, sit down, and meditate.  Yes, I said it...that lofty, weird, new-agey word:  meditate.  I'm not going to go into the benefits and in's and out's of mediation right now (I'll save that for a future post).  Right now, I'm just going to leave you with my experience the past couple weeks....

Since returning from vacation, I set out to start meditating.  It's been on my "to-do" list for quite a while now.  But given my burning compulsion to make some dramatic changes in my life, I finally realized that the only way to do that was to slow down and open myself up.

I started by downloading an online course from MIndBodyGreen by vegan Ultraman Rich Roll called The Art of Living With Purpose.  If you're not familiar with Rich Roll's life-transforming story, I highly encourage you to check out his website, podcasts, and book, Finding Ultra.  The dude will inspire the hell out of you...seriously.

His online course is all about how to set goals and achieve them.  Perfect for a Type-A, goal-driven person like myself, right?  Well, his approach is a little more holistic than just writing down some goals on a piece of paper and carving out time every day to devote to them.  Yes, his course starts with the "assignment" of meditating twice a day for 20 minutes for 30 days, and journaling for 20 minutes once a day, by hand (not computer).  Ideally, you do your journaling right after one of your meditation sessions when your mind is more free.  You can journal about anything and everything.  Just let the words and emotions flow.  

I can hear you now:  that's dumb.  That'll never work.  My mind is too busy.  I can't mediate.  This is crap.  And journaling?  Who has time for that?  I'm going back to how I normally set and achieve my goals.

Well just hear me out.  I was right there with you.  My head is as twirling as the spin cycle in the washing machine.  I'm sure yours is too.  But like training your heart to slow down in heart rate zone training, you also have to train your mind to slow down.  Yes, it's really true: your brain is a muscle that you have to train.  If you'd been eating McDonalds every day, living an unhealthy lifestyle, and filling your body with crap, you wouldn't expect your heart to be able to go out and run a marathon, let alone a 5k, with no training would you?  So why do you expect more immediate results from your brain?

I took my task to heart, put faith in the process, and began meditating twice a day.  It's not easy by any means and I've only been doing it for a little over a week.  I missed a couple days of meditation and journaling, and there were some days where I only meditated once.  But that didn't derail me.  I was gentle and forgiving with myself and just started anew the next day.  Mediation isn't about perfection.

My mind still wanders during meditation, but that's ok.  Again, training yourself to slow down - physically and mentally - takes time.  But I'm certainly better than I was when I first started.

Admittedly, it's hard to carve out essentially another hour of my day - 20 minutes of meditation in the morning, followed by 20 minutes of journaling, and then 20 minutes of meditation before bed.  Interestingly, however, I haven't felt like my "inbox" has fallen behind.  Whatever can be accomplished in my remaining time for that day gets accomplished, and what can't, will wait until tomorrow.

As for how I feel...almost indescribable.  I started this journey with the intent of freeing up my mind to ways of developing a game plan for moving to Boulder and, in the process, of opening myself up to great joy and happiness in my every day life.  Cosmically, however, another purpose has emerged.  My dog, Addie, was diagnosed last week with lymphoma.   While I obviously had a day of sadness and many, many tears -- and still have moments of sadness -- I also feel an extreme sense of acceptance.  As my Uncle Bud used to say when he was battling cancer, "It is what it is."  Another somewhat baffling saying that seems to now have more meaning.  I've accepted Addie's diagnosis with a clear head, recognizing that I can only control what's within my power - like her diet, her exercise, how I react to this illness, and what I ultimately decide is in her best interest.  I can't control how she'll react to the weekly chemotherapy treatments or how this disease will play out.  So we'll just take it a day and a week at a time, while enjoying every precious minute with her.

I know that I wouldn't have embraced this mindset if I hadn't started calming my spastic mind and opening it up to other feelings, emotions, and messages.  I feel a sense of calm determination - not just about Addie, but about everything.  Each day I now awake without a dread of the looming "to-do" list.  I simply wake up, walk and feed Addie, mediate, journal, do some yoga, and start about my day.  I feel more efficient - almost as if things are in slow motion like in the movie, the Matrix.  Life isn't about trying to get a certain list of things accomplished during the day.  It's about just moving through the day, unhurried, yet efficient.  It's something you have to experience for yourself to fully believe it.

Believe me, I'm nowhere near living in some zen-like state.  But the small amount of meditation and journaling I've been doing has opened my eyes to the vast power of our mind and what lies beneath.  We can be guided by something more powerful than our self-made drive to tackle our daily to-do list.

I am beyond excited about the infinite possibilities that will emerge as I slow down my mind.  It's even more exciting than the prospect of being able to run better than an 8-minute mile at a Zone 2 pace.  It's actually very fortuitous that I'm having to re-start my run training at the same time that I'm starting my mental training.  Due to some injuries, I've had to re-start my run program, so I'm slogging away at a very slow Zone 2 pace right now.  Yet, I know with time, that pace will improve, my heart will become stronger, and my body more efficient and faster.

Likewise, with time and training, by bringing my mind into more of a Mental Zone 1 or 2 pace, it will become stronger more efficient, and more open.

Many of you probably don't believe me.  Many of you may believe me, but think you're somehow different and that this won't work for you.  Trust me, you're not different, and trust me, it will work for you.  It won't necessarily work within the first day or even the first week.  But again - if you're out of shape, you won't go run a 5k within a week's time.  Accept the fact that right now, your mind is out of shape.  Commit to giving it the time and training it needs to get into shape, just as you'd made the same commitment to get your body into shape.

I'll post some resources on the Helpful Links tab, but here are some meditations and other resources that I've found most valuable in starting this practice, training, and journey:
  • The Headspace website and app and guided Take 10 Meditation with Andy Puddicombe:  This guy is amazing and his website and app are great resources for beginning mediation.  I became interested in him through his 10-minute TED talk, which you can watch on YouTube.  His app and website have wonderful visual aids, and his Take 10 series - a series of 10-minute guided meditations for 10 days - are an excellent way to break into meditation.  
  • Deepak Chopra:  That's right - the man, the myth, the legend - Deepak.  Seriously, his stuff is the bomb!  His website is a wealth of meditation and wellness information, as well as downloadable guided meditations.  I've recently been doing his 21-day meditation experience, which is almost over.  You can access meditations in this series for 5 days after they post.  But I'm hoping he'll have other series after this.  His voice is so calming, and the messages and mantras he delivers with every meditation are so powerful that I find myself repeating them - without even knowing it - throughout my day.  
I know many of you will use the excuse (let's call it what it is, it's an excuse) that you don't have time to meditate.  Don't elude yourself into thinking that you're any busier than the next person.  If this is your excuse, then check out these ways to squeeze meditation into your busy day.  

Even more of you will probably cling to your self-limiting story that for some reason, you are unique and you won't be able to mediate or that your problems are too insurmountable for something as silly and simplistic as meditation.  But ask yourself what is truly holding you back.  Whatever story or facts you're telling yourself isn't the "truth" - it's only the version you choose to see.  Ask yourself:  is my desire to hold onto whatever is holding me back more powerful than my desire to slow down?  A desire or need is only as powerful as you make it.  Only you can choose which one you want to give more power to.  

Are you meditating?  If not, what's holding you back?  If you are meditating, what helpful resources or tips can you share?