Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Thoughts... or the lack thereof

One of the best things I've found about running, biking, or skiing is the chance it gives me to A. do something good for my body, and B. hang out with either myself and my own thoughts or socialize with friends. A long weekend ski is a great time to catch up with friends, talk about the week, the weather, whatever. It beats sitting in a bar (although there should still be time for that afterwards!... just don't make it the center of your experience). But I also like the times when I'm just out by myself for a long run. I can listen to music or a podcast, or just hang out with my own thoughts and the sound of my feet hitting the ground. In any case, it gives my mind time to clear out. I've noticed that I can't think about anything too serious or needing too much detail (like complicated work-related things). and I've also found that if I think about negative thoughts or things that stress me out (relationships, the future, etc), it affects my running, so I push those thoughts away as quickly as they come up. So without any deep, complex thoughts running around, I'm just left with the good stuff. I often think about time spent with friends, or I notice how beautiful the day is; I look at the houses I jog past and wonder which one I'd live in if I had the choice. You know, nice carefree thoughts. So not only am I working my heart and lungs and muscles and benefitting them, but running also holds some psychological benefits for me, too, by forcing me to think happy thoughts. Of course, on days when I'm doing speed intervals or a tempo run, my thoughts tend to focus more on the run itself, as I'm demanding a bit more from my body, and my mind has to get with the program.

I noticed in the pool last night that my thoughts while swimming never seem to be about anything but swimming. For the most part here lately, I've been working a lot on my technique. So most of the swimming I do is in short lengths-- 50 to 100 yards-- and I'm specifically focussing on one aspect of my stroke or another. So my thoughts are often "keep your head down, keep your head down" or "elbows high, grab the water" or "1-2-3-breathe, 1-2-3-breathe." This will continue for 1 to 2 minutes, then I stop and take a break, and go again to work on the next focus point.

But yesterday I did a workout that focussed more on my swimming endurance. After warming up, I did a ladder of 100, 200, 300, 200, and 100 yard swims at a nice sustainable pace. Right now 100 yards takes me a couple of minutes or so to do. So the 300 took around 8 minutes. That's a long time to be thinking the thoughts that I usually think while swimming. So I starting thinking about what I could think about while swimming. It was the first time I'd ever been A. comfortable enough, and B. swam for long enough, to start thinking about anything other than swimming.... But I couldn't think about anything to think about. It was funny-- I knew I had time to let my mind wander a bit, but I just couldn't think about anything except what I should think about. I wondered what the high school swimmers doing sprints in the next lane were thinking about. I wondered what the lady doing the breast stroke in my lane was thinking about. What do people think about when they swim? What should I think about?

What do you think about when you exercise? Think about it. Experiment with thinking about things that stress you, make you sad, make you worried. Notice how that affects your body's performance. Then change your thoughts to things that make you smile; remember good times you've had; imagine yourself as a sleek performance athlete. How does that affect your physical dispositon? Your psychological disposition?

Exercise isn't just for the body. Yes, you'll reap numerous physical benefits-- increased heart health, lower risk of multiple diseases, increased metabolism, decreased body fat. But there are more benefits than just those. The mind and the psyche have much to benefit from exercise, too. So think about your thoughts... or the lack thereof... the next time you work out. And give yourself an extra "atta-girl" for all of the physical, emotional, and psychological goodness you're giving yourself.

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