The opposite of speedwork


My greatest lesson in relaxation began as I engaged in the exact opposite of relaxation.

A few weeks ago I was at a running clinic practice where we were doing speedwork. Speedwork is one of those things you really, really hate while you’re doing it, but you’re glad about it after. Like employment. And like most jobs I’ve had, it consists of brief intervals of furious, boundry-mocking, vomit-inducing labor interspersed with long stretches of jogging-through-the-motions indolence. To extend the metaphor further, it’s rarely the jogging part that brings out the complainers.

“Robin (huff puff),” I gasped to the running coach, “why are we (dry heave) doing this?”

“Because your body learns to go faster (perfectly even breath) by…um…going faster (negligible perspiration).”

Which only made more than tautological sense when, a short while later, my running clinic ran a 10k race. Most of our practice sessions were long slow jogs, relative to the wind-sprints of speedwork night. I felt much more confident to kick the pace up above my usual jog, knowing – from experience – that my body was capable of withstanding and executing the harder work for a finite period of time. I finished the 10k in just under an hour, with an average pace of 9:36 per mile, versus my usual workout pace of around 10:30-11:30 per mile.

Yeah, John. Good story. Really relaxing.

I’m getting to that. A short while later, I was on my honeymoon in Colorado. (You think I run for my health? I did it to get into a tux.) A whole week of zero office work and no access to e-mail or the internet. I can say with certainty that this was my longest period of sustained care-free relaxation in more than fifteen years…since those lazy, aimless summer vacations of my grade-school days. Somewhere between simmering in a hot spring and savoring a seven-course dinner at a five-star restaurant, it occured to me that this was also like speedwork, only, you know, slow.

Periods of intensive relaxation teach your body and mind how to relax. Whether you meditate daily, chill out at church once a week, or take a vacation (a real, crackberry-free vacation) once every ten years, it is these intervals of peace that teach you to be calm when you feel like stressing out, just as speedwork teaches you it’s okay to go fast when you feel like going slow. You can handle it.

Following this epiphany I resolved to remember that feeling of totaly relaxation so that I can tap into it when I’m in a stressful work or family situation and remember that it’s okay to be calm, that I’m capable of it, and that I might perform better if I incorporated the calm into the situation, rather than trying to win with a stress feedback loop. So far it’s working beautifully.

Call to (in)action: next time you’re in a stressful situation, take just a moment to remember the last time you were totally calm, totally relaxed. Think about it for a few minutes, and take that feeling back into the stressful situation and resolve it.

If you can’t remember such a time, then for heaven’s sake, take a vacation. You owe it to yourself and to everyone who has to put up with stress junkies like you.


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