When you're training for an endurance race, spending endless hours on your own in repetitive motion, there's plenty of time to let your mind wander. As I do the same loop on the Griffith Park bike path every Tuesday morning (MIND. NUMBING.), I've had plenty of time to think lately about how mental down time is used. Sometimes, it's basic to-do list planning. Other times it's used in the always popular "woulda shoulda coulda" mode. You know, "I could've done this, should've done that, would've if only if. ..." This often results in a downward spiral that doesn't result in anything but frustration and an inability to look beyond the past. Which is too bad on mornings like this one where the sun finally decided to make a reappearance.
A third (more productive) option is to monitor the "Now." "How am I feeling on this ride?" "How is my technique?" "Is my heart-rate in check? If not, what can I do to fix that?" I've found this kind of thought is especially effective in longer-duration training where looking ahead at the long day can cause dejection or a heart-rate spike.
Of course, focusing on the "Now" is difficult. It is easy to get distracted and to get back to idle wandering. When that happens to me -- usually after a long duration of consistent output and no real change in my energy levels -- I try to focus on what's next: planning. Or visualization. I ask myself how I might respond in a race under similar circumstances as I'm experiencing in that moment. Or thinking about something my coach told me that requires some deeper analysis. Often, this is the second-most productive kind of mental output I can create. There's a tangible "product" in terms of a solution to a problem, and the value associated with knowing I may not have attained that solution had I not invested the time to think about it in a substantial manner.
Now hopefully you read the paragraph above and wondered how something as beneficial as planning or visualization can only be the second-best kind of thought during training.
In my opinion, here's the best kind of thought.
Ready for it?
It's that place where the "zone" exists. You know you've been in the zone when you snap out of it, wondering how you got from Point A to Point B because you honestly don't remember any conscious thought during that span. It often happens to us while driving, but while training? It's rare. There can be too many variables at play between physical sensations, weather, terrain, navigational thoughts and so forth.
When it does happen, I'd call it "active meditation." Empty mind through repetitive motion.
But how is no thought valuable? For me, I find it extremely valuable because the trick is there's really no such thing as "no thought." Our minds are always racing. Doing something. Even when we don't know it. That "doing something" may just be so far in the back-burner of our brain that we don't actively perceive it.
But here's what really happens.
Five hours after that "zone" experience, you're sitting in a brainstorm meeting at work. You walk into the meeting wondering what in the hell you're going to say because you don't have a damn thing prepared. It's not like you didn't think about it though. You did! It just seemed that nothing quite stuck.
Then, in the middle of the meeting, you start spewing ideas like Old Faithful. Heads nod. People write stuff down. You feel good, but can't help but wonder yourself...
"Where did that come from!?" It seemed like those thoughts came out of nowhere.
In fact, they did.
This happened to me today, in fact.
For me, this is the clear connection between the benefits of training and work performance. I can't always quantify it, and lately my work hours have been somewhat sacrificed to cram in additional training. But I feel like when I need to come up with an answer on the spot, or make a decision under pressure, I'm able to do so more easily and with less stress. It's the epitome of "less is more."
Maybe I have nothing to thank for that.
23 days and counting.