At first brush, they may appear at opposite extremes, the runner and the meditator. The one pounds the pavement or hops the rocks on a trail for mile after mile, the other sits, and makes a study of doing nothing. But first appearances are deceiving.
I have been lucky enough to work with some incredible runners over the years: Gold Medallists at Commonwealth level, World Record holders, people on the podium either outright or in their division in a huge swathe of races. In the ultra-running world, the events I have helped runners in preparation for are legendary: Tour de Geants, Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, Western States, Sakura Michi, Coast to Kosci.
These are people who realise that their minds play an important role in their success. And the mind is not important only to the record-breakers, the medal-winners - it is important to anyone who wishes to succeed to their peak. The definition of an elite athlete is anyone who gives of their best on the day - whether their best is a podium or a record, or a place in the pack, having pushed themselves to their own targets and done it well.
The mind is central, critical, essential. A runner who wishes to perform at their peak must have a focussed determination, an unwavering eye on the goal. Distractions can and will detract from performance.
Lets us start pre-race: the night before. A good night’s sleep is essential, not one broken by niggling worries and pointless doubts: a properly trained mind realises that by now the training is done, and the race will be as it will be (even if it cannot stop the dreams about missing the start!). A properly trained mind not only realises this, but is calm and placid about it: it stays on track.
And before the race, lining up: the untrained mind looks around and panics - surely, it says, all of these magnificent, lean, fierce runners, they are all so fit, they look so good, what am I doing here? Doubt creeps in, takes hold.
During the race the untrained mind allows the body to go off too quickly; it forgets its race plan, it worries about other runners, even the unknowns; it bothers deeply about old injuries coming back, slowly allows doubt, having taken hold, to take over. It allows sadness to come with tiredness, then hopelessness, then defeat.
All this can happen.
The trained mind on the other hand remains focused on the task, on the race plan. It monitors others around sensibly, it keeps a careful but balanced attitude to injury; it recognises the pain, it understands the sacrifice, in place of sadness and hopelessness it focusses singly on the goal - it knows at all times that the pain, the hurt, all of this is nothing: it is not about today, it is about tomorrow, the overwhelming sense of achievement.
The body can run. It is designed to. But to test just how hard and how fast it can run requires training: the absolute limit can only be touched with training. So, too, the mind: the mind can think - but for it to think in as disciplined a manner as it is capable of requires training.
Journalists often ask me of the ultra-athletes, ‘But, what do they think about?’ Now, there are lots of techniques and lots of visualisations to help, but the bottom line is it is not all that important what you think about: the two rules are, no negative thoughts ever take hold, and whatever you think about, concentrate on it. Make it your thought.
This is focus.
This is the essence of meditation for a runner. Thoughts that are as focussed and disciplined as the running.
And it takes practice and training to achieve this - mind training through meditation.
Running may seem far from meditation, but meditation is a key to top performance.
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