I was running trails in the Sierra foothills on a summer afternoon, years ago, when I realized that I’d fallen into an unusually harmonious, “fine-tuned” state. I noticed that my breathing was perfectly synchronized with my footfall – I don’t recall the exact pattern; perhaps it was three or four footsteps per breath.
I thought, “I wonder if my breath and footfall are also in synch with my heartbeat.” I stopped and checked my pulse, then resumed running and stopped several times to repeat the experiment. Sure enough, my breathing, footfall, and heartbeat were “oscillating” in perfect rhythm.
Researchers at HeartMath Institute have devised exercises that help people deliberately cultivate “coherent” states such as I experienced on that long-ago summer day. For example, “Freeze-Framing” involves taking a deliberate time-out from negative emotions, while holding attention in the area of the heart and dwelling deeply on the memory of an experience of love, compassion, or some other positive feeling. Freeze-Framing and related HeartMath methods have helped children perform better in school, and they’ve served as effective stress-busters for police, business executives, and other people in high-wire jobs.
Could anyone have predicted that the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA), one of the most conservative sports governing bodies, would host articles on its website with titles like “Appreciation and Compassion,” and “Recouping Emotional Energy”? (www.pga.com) The articles were co-authored by leading PGA teaching professionals with Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., president of QuantumIntech (www. quantumintech.com), a company that develops products and services based on the HeartMath research.
An interesting QuantumIntech gadget is the FreezeFramer, a device that connects to a desktop computer and reads heart-rate variability patterns from the subject’s finger pulse. These patterns are displayed on the PC screen, where they provide feedback for video game-like exercises that help the stubject learn to create the coherent state at will.
Another HeartMath tool that’s free, and can be practiced anywhere, is “Quick Coherence.” Rozman and Laird Small, PGA 2003 Teacher of the Year, described it in an article on the PGA site, “Managing Emotions – The Zone”:
Briefly, you focus your attention on your heart, then breathe as if you’re breathing through your heart slowly for a few seconds, then find something to feel appreciation for while you’re breathing through the heart. It’s the positive feeling for what you’re appreciating (not the thoughts about it) synchronized with heart breathing that creates coherence. You can watch how this works if you practice Quick Coherence with the Freeze-Framer heart rhythm monitor and see your heart rhythms change into a smooth and coherent pattern as your emotions and attitude change.
On the run, it takes only a little practice to find your personal harmony zone. Try starting your runs at a slow pace, where the harmony zone tends to occur more easily – say, 65% of maximum heart rate. Or you might try warming up at about 50% of maximum heart rate calculated by the Karvonen formula (maximum heart rate minus resting heart rate, divided by 2, plus resting heart rate).
No need to be rigid – the 65%/50% guideline is a tentative starting point for personal experimentation. The idea is to run relaxed and easy, at a pace that feels completely comfortable and natural, where your breathing is deep and slow.
Another easy way to locate your best warmup pace is by “listening” to the feelings of your heart. Start slowly, and as your pace increases, “watch” your heart. At the point where you begin to feel the slightest disharmony or discomfort, back off and run a little slower. Those feelings of discomfort are the body’s subtle way of telling you that it isn’t ready to run faster. When the body is fully warmed up, assuming you’re fit, rested, and not ill, you’ll no longer feel those discordant sensations when you speed up to a faster pace.
On some days, following a long warmup, you’ll be able to run very hard without any discomfort at all. (See Chapter 17, “The 96% Run.”) Bear in mind, though, that the heart’s feelings will seldom order you to run fast – that decision will be up to you. But the heart will let you know when it’s okay – safe and healthy – to put the pedal to the metal. Your intuition may occasionally even suggest a faster pace. I suspect this happens when, for reasons we may not be aware of, it’s in our best interests to do some fast running – perhaps to break out of physical staleness, a negative mood, or the emotional blahs.
This morning, Mary Ellen dropped me off at the bank on her way to work. I made my deposit and began walking home. I’ve been recovering from a 35-mile run/hike for our school jogathon. I got bad blisters during the event, and it’s been nearly a week since I’ve run. As I walked, I sensed that my body was eager to run, and I took off at a blistering pace, full of the joy of running. No long warmup, no deliberate, careful prayer (though I did keep an ear open for the silent “okay” of my heart). I ran two hard dashes of 200-400 yards and it felt terrific – there wasn’t the slightest feeling of inner resistance or disharmony. I suspect that the higher intelligence sometimes just wants to cut loose and fly!
On days when your body is ill, tired, or stressed, your harmony zone may remain quite low. The best way I know of to tell if you’ve truly been running in the harmony zone is how you feel afterward. Running the way the body “wants” nearly always generates good feelings.
It may be hard to hold a slow pace, on those days when the body announces that it just wants to loaf along. But the heart knows best. Occasional slow days are a small price to pay for steadily improving fitness and the option to do runs of truly high “quality.” On the slow days, I find it helpful to remember that Frank Shorter ran all but about 20% of his 140 miles per week at around 7:00 pace, which for him was an easy, aerobic jog. (Shorter’s marathon pace was 4:59.)
Another way to locate your harmony zone is by watching your breath. If you’re breathing slowly and evenly, and if there’s a pause at the end of the out-breath, you’re probably running at a pace that’s compatible with the harmony zone. If you’re well-trained, you may find, after a thorough warmup, that your breathing slows noticeably, even as your pace increases. You may have had the experience, toward the end of a long run, of barely breathing at all while you sailed along at a fast clip.
A heart monitor can help you get a feel for the harmony zone. The monitor will keep you honest; but the most reliable gauge is ultimately the subjective feelings of the heart.
At one point, I tried relying 100 percent on intuitive feeling to guide my training, but after several months I had to concede that the experiment was a complete bust. My training was a mess – I was often overtrained, and I could seldom feel exactly how fast or far my body was ready to run. I wondered if my intuition simply wasn’t sufficiently developed to serve as a reliable guide. But I also realized that intuition needs to be balanced with common sense.
In fact, there’s now solid scientific evidence that feeling and reason work together, and that one without the other isn’t trustworthy.
Roughly 70 years ago, researchers became aware that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is the “control center,” where raw emotions are restrained and modulated. In certain spiritual paths, the primary meditative practice involves holding attention gently in the prefrontal cortex, at the point between the eyebrows, a technique those traditions claim has a powerful harmonizing effect on the emotions, and calms and focuses the mind.
In his bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman writes:
A. R. Luria, the brilliant Russian neuropsychologist, proposed as long ago as the 1930s that the prefrontal cortex was key for self-control and constraining emotional outbursts; patients who had damage to this area, he noted, were impulsive and prone to flare-ups of fear and anger. And a study of two dozen men and women who had been convicted of impulsive, heat-of-passion murders found, using PET scans for brain imaging, that they had a much lower than usual level of activity in these same sections of the prefrontal cortex. (Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. p. 314)
In 2002, scientists at Duke University used brain scans to verify that raw emotions interfere with concentration, and that mental focus and emotion exist in a mutually exclusive relationship. That is, not only does emotion distort our ability to focus, but deliberately focusing attention is an effective way to calm and “neutralize” raw emotions. As the Duke news release put it, “Surprisingly, an increase in one type of function is accompanied by a noticeable decrease in the other.”
This is interesting news for runners. And it’s especially relevant for competitive runners, because it confirms the age-old maxim that deliberately focusing attention before a race tends to calm pre-race jitters, while uncontrolled emotions are dangerous, because they can interfere with concentration and good decision-making.
Consider the experiences of two runners at the 2002 US Olympic Trials:
Everyone gets nervous before races. “If you’re not nervous, you’re not excited,” says U.S. 5,000m Olympian Brad Hauser. But poorly managed pre-race anxiety can undo months of training by misdirecting your energies away from the task at hand – racing your best. Case in point: Hauser’s fifth-place finish in the 10,000m trials. “I made a rookie mistake,” admits Hauser. “I was too excited. When the running got hard I was too focused on the result, on making the team.”
Nick Rogers, who finished third in the 5,000m after a DNF at 10K, admits, “Anxiety is the reason I didn’t make the 10K team. I knew I was one of the top contenders and I just let the pressure get to me. I didn’t have fun. For me, anxiety can make me almost focus too much on the race.”1
Distracting emotions led Hauser and Rose to worry about results, instead of calmly focusing in the moment, on running their own best race.
Deliberately focusing attention in the prefrontal cortex can help the mind become relaxed and one-pointed – a definite asset for runners who want to race well, or simply to improve the quality of their runs.
“We’ve known for a long time that some people are more easily distracted and that emotions can play a big part in this,” said Kevin S. LaBarr, assistant professor at Duke’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and an author of the [above-mentioned] study. “Our study shows that two streams of processing take place in the brain, with attentional tasks and emotions moving in parallel before finally coming together.” The two streams are integrated in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which is located between the right and left halves of the brain’s frontal portion and is involved in a wide range of thought processes and emotional responses.2
I find that holding my attention persistently but with deep relaxation in the area of the anterior cingulate (behind the point between the eyebrows) more or less automatically soothes any troubling emotions I might be feeling, and helps me become more calm, positive, and concentrated.
In fact, researchers now suspect that feeling and reason work hand in hand. Contrary to a longstanding prejudice of our western culture, which assumes that reason is the superior faculty, the researchers are finding that reason is deeply compromised unless it’s balanced with the feelings of the heart.
Consider…the role of emotions in even the most “rational” decision-making. In work with far-reaching implications for understanding mental life, Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the prefrontal/amygdala circuit [the link between important reasoning and emotional centers in the brain]. Their decision making is terribly flawed – and yet they show no deterioration at all in IQ or any cognitive ability. Despite their intact intelligence, they make disastrous choices in business and their personal lives, and can even obsess endlessly over a decision so simple as when to make an appointment.
Dr. Damasio believes their decisions are so bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning…. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past – everything takes on a gray neutrality….
Evidence like this leads Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.3
Economists have begun to study how people’s brain scans reflect their financial decisions – whether their decision-making is based on clear reason or emotional factors. An article in BusinessWeek Online described the research:
For decisions about the far-off future, the prefrontal cortex takes a long-term perspective. But for decisions such as whether to buy another chocolate bar right now, the limbic system takes over and demands immediate gratification. Last year the journal Science published the research by [Harvard University economist David I.] Laibson, Princeton University neuroscientists Samuel M. McClure and Jonathan D. Cohen, and Carnegie-Mellon University economist George Loewenstein….
Even believers in neuroeconomics aren’t sure just how far to take it. Should economic policy satisfy the farsighted prefrontal cortex? Or should it sometimes indulge the impulsive limbic system? By peering into the brain, economists are making discoveries that will keep them arguing for years to come.4
When I tried training purely by feeling and intuition, my decisions were often prejudiced by personal desires and emotions. My heart wasn’t sufficiently calm and detached to be trusted.
My feelings were more reliable when I checked them against my reason, common sense, and experience. Were my heart’s feelings truly calm and dispassionate? Or was I telling myself what I wanted to hear? Was I actually listening to a higher guidance, or was I tuned to some lower, more personal frequency? Cool, clear reason helped me decide. My sense of the right training was more often correct when I held myself in a state of “reasonable feeling.” It often helped to imagine that I was centered in an axis of energy between the prefrontal cortex and the heart.
In fact, during my deepest intuitive experiences, there was a powerful sense of the physical centers of reason and feeling being activated at the same time. My attention was strongly focused, with a sensation of energy gathered in my forehead, in the prefrontal cortex where concentration is localized, but my heart was energized with calm feelings. The interplay of these two centers was deeply enjoyable. It was a profoundly integrated, zone-like state.
The HeartMath researchers have discovered that it’s surprisingly easy to prove that intuition actually exists, and that its accuracy increases when the heart’s feelings are deliberately harmonized.
HeartMath researchers found that we can actually be aware of an event five to seven seconds before it happens. In the recent study, subjects were shown a series of images. Most of the images were peaceful and calming, such as landscapes, trees and cute animals. Other photos, randomly dispersed in the succession, included violent, disturbing and emotionally stimulating images such as a car crash, a bloody knife or a snake about to strike. The subjects were monitored during the viewing for changes in respiration, skin conductance, EEG (brain waves), ECG (electrocardiogram) and heart rate variability. Participants’ physiological indicators registered an emotional response five to seven seconds before an emotionally disturbing image would appear on the viewing screen.
The main findings show that the heart receives and responds to intuitive information. Significant changes in heart rate variability occurred prior to disturbing and emotionally stimulating images appearing on the screen, compared to calm and serene images appearing. The fact that the heart is involved in the perception of future external events is an astounding result. The classical perspective assigns the brain an exclusive role in information processing. This study opens the door to new understandings about intuition and suggests that intuition is a system-wide process involving at least both the heart and the brain working together to decode intuitive information.
Another noteworthy finding of the study was the fact that there were significant gender differences. Women appeared to have a greater sensitivity to future emotional stimuli. Female participants demonstrated a significant heart rate variability pre-stimulus response, whereas the males’ pre-stimulus response was smaller. [HeartMath researcher Rollin] McCraty says, “Based on our study and other research findings, we believe that the greater the emotional significance of a future event to the individual, the larger the intuitive response will be prior to the actual experience of that event.”5
As we saw in the last chapter, people who practiced the HeartMath techniques were more likely to report “spiritual” experiences. (“Subjective reports from numerous individuals practiced in self-generating states of psychophysiological coherence indicate that this mode is associated with increased spiritual experience.”)
What does this mean, in terms of traditional religious beliefs?
In this book, I make a distinction between religious belief and spiritual practice. To my way of thinking, religion is a formal system of prayer and worship, study and conduct, aimed at pleasing God and increasing human happiness through expansive actions such as love, kindness, generosity, etc., while spirituality includes practices for directly experiencing God’s love and guidance inwardly. Some religious teachers would have us believe that it’s presumptuous to try to commune with God before we die. But for those who feel a present need for guidance, love, and joy, perhaps it’s a worse desecration to suppress that loving desire.
I think the point, for runners, is that expansive thoughts, actions, and feelings have been scientifically shown to boost fitness, health, and happiness. This much, at least, we can test in the laboratory of our own bodies, hearts, and minds. And if our “quality experiences” appear to come from a higher power that’s concerned for our welfare, well and good. But, if not, equally fine. Speaking for myself, I’d rather pour my energy into experiencing the harmony zone, than waste time arguing about whether my experiences jibe with someone’s personal interpretations of scripture.
The debate between religious people and scientists over issues of equal concern to both groups is fiercely polarized today – for example, evolution versus “intelligent design.” It strikes me that the fundamentalists and their critics, the scientists, are both applying inappropriate methods to decide such questions as the existence of God, or the reality of spiritual experience.
Where the fundamentalists rely on inflexible (and highly diverse!) interpretations of scripture, the scientists dismiss the claims of religion altogether, based on cold rational analysis. In short, the scientists “think about it” and decide that because there appears to be no logical or physical basis for the existence of God, He-She-It doesn’t exist.
But reason is not the primary instrument of scientific investigation. Science is wedded to the experimental method. It applies appropriate instruments to test its hypotheses. True scientists don’t detachedly stroke their beards and conclude “This isn’t logical, therefore it cannot exist.” (If physicists had done so, they would never have discovered the decidedly illogical behavior of light, which behaves sometimes as a wave or a particle; or the ability of the same subatomic particle to occupy two positions at once.) Scientists seek empirical results. The core principle of scientific inquiry is not “Is it reasonable?” but “Does it work?”
The best tools for investigating the truth of religious experience is neither abstract reason, nor the colorfully varied scriptural interpretations of the fundamentalist believers. They are prayer and meditation. The only individuals who’ve earned the right to speak with authority about spiritual truths are those who’ve taken the experiment to its ultimate end and verified religion’s claims empirically – namely, the saints.
Well, end of rant. I’ll be using the word “God” in this book, but I won’t mind if you choose to interpret it as shorthand for the source of the greatest joys I experience when I run.
2Duke University press release, August 19, 2002
3Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1997. pp. 27-28.
4 BusinessWeek Online, March 28, 2005. Downloaded from http://www.businessweek.com/print/magazine/content/05_13/b3926099_mz057.htm?chan=mz& on on March 22, 2005.
5 “The Sixth Sense–More and More, Science Supports It,” Gabriella Boehmer, HeartMath Institute; the study referenced is: Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 1. The Surprising Role of the Heart. McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Feb 2004, Vol. 10, No. 1: 133-143; Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 2. A System-Wide Process?McCraty, R., Atkinson, M., Bradley, R. T., Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Apr 2004, Vol. 10, No. 2: 325-336.