What I think about when I run or ride

People who run or cycle have lots of different reasons for doing it.  I’d guess that one of the most common reasons is mental or emotional.  It’s good to just get out and clear your mind of all the stuff that floats around in there while you’re going through your life.  It might be physically tiresome, but most would say that running or cycling is mentally and emotionally invigorating.

I’d agree with that.

A few years ago I worked for a guy who knew I liked to go on long runs.  The day or so before I ran long (usually on a weekend), he’d literally sit down with me and throw a few ideas out there.  He was hoping I’d spend some time on them while I ran.  He eagerly looked forward to the following week when he’d sit down with me again to get my thoughts on those ideas.  That worked pretty well as I usually had a handful of suggestions to make his ideas better.

For a while now, though, I really haven’t been getting those mental or emotional benefits.  Why?  It has a little something to do with what goes through my mind as I’m out there.  Most of the time my brain gets hyper-active when I’m out running or riding.

There are so many ideas bouncing around my mind it’s hard to actually control it.  Typically those ideas fall into one of the following categories:

  • Obsessing about something that happened during the day.  I churn and churn on something that happened, trying to figure out why it happened and what I should do about it.
  • Self-analysis.  “Wow, I’m really out of shape.  How did I get this far out of shape?  How did I let this happen?  I’m just feeling really heavy right now and I can’t stand this.”
  • Planning big things for the future.  “Here’s how I’m going get back into shape.  I’m going on a strict dietary program.  I’m going to work out every single day for the next 30 days.  If I do all that, I should be able to drop X pounds every week, so I can probably get back to normal weight in Y days.  That isn’t too bad.  I can do that.”
  • Checking the data.  “What is my heart rate right now?  How many miles have I gone?  What is my pace?  I’d like to be able to kick the pace up, but I really shouldn’t right now.  How far do I still need to go?  When should I kick up the pace?  What time is it?”

It isn’t too hard to figure out why I’ve struggled to get out there consistently with these kinds of things rumbling around in my head.  When I get back from a workout I’m mentally and emotionally drained.

I should say that the occasional insight still pops into my head.  Every now and again I come up with an interesting idea, but those have been few and far between over the past few years.

Today I got on my bike for the first time in 2 months.

I decided to change the mental approach — to go for mindfulness as a primary goal.  That meant letting all those random thoughts that typically bounce around in my head just float away.  Instead of fostering the typical incessant dialogue, I decided to make it as much of a sensory experience as I could.

  • Sight.  What new things could I see that I haven’t seen before?  The sky in the southwest was filled with clouds, but in the north it was clear blue.  Someone installed new roadside cameras on Rt. 173 in Bloomsbury NJ.  I saw a section of I-78 that I had never seen before.  I saw hundreds of American flags, an 800-pound pig and open fields that had been full of corn the last time I passed.
  • Smell.  Lots of people burning fires — I love the smell of fireplaces burning (not forests burning).  Each one has a different smell.  I passed lots of farms — distinctive smell there too.  I smelled some dead animals; luckily I couldn’t see most of those.
  • Sound.  Mostly the wind in my ears.  I also pay attention to the sound of cars on the road — it’s the best way to know when one is approaching.  But I also heard the sound of trees and reeds blowing in the wind.
  • Feel.  The wind was different depending on the direction I was going.  At times it was straight in my face, and at other times it was at my back (much better that way).  My hands were cold until I changed gloves.
  • Taste.  Not much here … water, that’s it.

Making it a sensory experience had a dramatic effect on my overall enjoyment of the ride.  Taking an outside-in approach helped me avoid the brain overload that I’ve experienced in the recent past.  It reminded me of some of the mindfulness meditations I’ve been exploring in the past 6-8 months.  Whenever I found myself drifting into one of the negative cycles, I tried to re-center my focus on the senses.  I was really happy with the outcome, and when I got back I felt much more mentally and emotionally recharged.

It’s going to be a focus for me in the coming weeks and months.