Relaxation is better than tension

What story do I want to tell today? I want to tell about yesterday, when I learned a lesson on my run and then forgot this lesson as soon as I stopped my watch, walked inside, and began the real part of my day.

My run started out okay, not great. I was a little sluggish and uncomfortable as it seemed that everyone in my neighborhood decided to cut their grass at the same time, leading to massive amounts of grass particles in the air. My skin itched, my eyes burned, breathing was an exercise in itself. On days like this, when the air is filled with grass and allergens, all I want to do is hide in bed. It feels like the flu but more annoying because I am not actually tired or sick, but my immune system is working extra hard, leaving little energy left for other activities.

But, I made it out the door and was running along, feeling like crap, when I noticed my mile times were actually pretty acceptable. Not record-breaking, but on-par for my current fitness and certainly faster than I had expected, given how awful I felt. This realization, unfortunately, morphed immediately into self-competition (because being what fun would there have been in contentment with my accomplishment ). My attention locked on my pace.

I had not been preoccupied with my mile splits until I looked at my watch; my time was not part of a conscious effort, it was organic, an expression of my current level of fitness. The moment I became conscious of my speed, however, I was worried I might slow if I were not vigilant. And this possibility, that I might lose a few seconds per mile because I was admiring the design of a house, or staring at the clouds, or becoming preoccupied with my non-running thoughts, strangled my stride with fear. I did not trust myself to maintain my pace.

My shoulders tensed as I focused on each step, my legs became heavy, and what had been an uncomfortable but manageable run became, in the course of a few minutes, unbearable.I began to fantasize about stopping, coaxing myself to make it just a few more feet. As my shoulders crept closer to my ears, my arms swinging more tightly across my body, my hips straining to move my legs forward, my body heading toward total shutdown, a tiny but annoyed voice in my head shouted “NO! STOP! RELAX!” Relax? Relax.

I thought back to the countless races I have blown, in which I allowed fear and tension to cripple my performance. And I remembered the countless successful workouts I have run (I was always better at training than performing), in which I relaxed my body and was rewarded with faster times. I remembered the lightness and power that come when I have fun with running. And I remembered that even if the trick of relaxation did not work in this moment, and I slowed by a few seconds because I let down my guard, there was zero consequence. This was an easy run, I have no race on my calendar, I am running for no one but myself. I have the choice, in each run, to find joy or struggle. Yesterday, in that moment, I chose joy.

And that next mile, in which I relaxed and moved my focus from my pace to the stunning blue of the sky and the almost-fall coolness of the air, was four seconds faster. I went on to run two miles longer than I had anticipated. I finished feeling strong and happy, my allergies a footnote to the successful run.

And then, I walked inside and the magic and wisdom of the run evaporated. I remembered my to-do list. I remembered to feel shitty about myself for being unproductive, for sleeping in fifteen minutes and being behind schedule. I remembered to be snappy with my boyfriend for not being enthusiastic about our day of chores and family obligations. As I had been on my run, I focused only on the immediate result and made each task harder than it needed to be. My shoulders tensed again. I tried relaxing, but dismissed the endeavor as indulgent and slow. I had a mostly shitty day. (Of my own making, I should note.)

Thank goodness I have a boyfriend who hates feeling stressed and who openly acknowledges he needs to take breaks to recharge. Thank goodness I have been doing some hard work on myself so I understand (although I do not always accept) I need breaks as well. Thank goodness I was convinced (after a bit of a fight late in the afternoon and some sputtering on my part) to meditate.

As I slowed my breath, and focused my thoughts, my morning run came to mind. The ease, the increased stamina and speed that had come from throwing away expectation. I relaxed and, therefore, I performed.

The experiences I have while running often provide a framework for understanding the rest of my life. I don’t want to sound preachy, nor do I want to generalize or simplify, but I do hope that maybe I will be able to keep this lesson close and relax when I am inclined to tense.