Mindfulness (Could Be) Everything

I would argue that the application of mindfulness is the one thing that separates ‘training’ from ‘exercising.’

What do we mean when we talk about mindfulness – or more accurately, what do I mean when I talk about mindfulness? In this training-oriented context, mindfulness refers to two distinct components:

  • Possessing a clearly identifiable purpose for every single workout, whilst having the ability to adhere to the parameters necessary to achieve said purpose.

And perhaps more holistically,

  • Building a connection between the conscious mind and the active body, where useful biofeedback is processed in a neutral, non-emotive manner.

The lack of clear and decisive focus is undoubtedly a common pitfall for countless training protocols. This is one of several explanations as to why so many endurance athletes hit a vast plateau of physical training, where, despite their seemingly best efforts, little improvement is seen for months or years.

If, at any given moment, an athlete cannot simply explain what they are trying to get out of each workout session, and then perform in such a way as to achieve that goal, then they are simply exercising, rather than training.

And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

But with only a very basic understanding of anatomy, physiology and psychology (as I admittedly possess), any athlete should be able to stroll into a gym or onto a track and have a general idea of exactly what they are hoping to cause their body to adapt to, and how said adaptations will be brought on. That can be as basic and broad a concept as just sheer work capacity; the volume of physical work that the body is able to perform and positively adapt to. The desired outcome could be any number of things.

What is important, if an athlete wishes to be far more efficient with their progression, is that said concepts can be positively identified, and training is carried out in a manner that builds improvement in these areas.

This is the mindful training approach.

An all-too common area in which this kind of mindfulness is typically not applied is pacing and heart-rate zones, when training in distance sports. The now-retired American triathlon super-star Mark Allen referred to heart-rate specific training – one of many methods of training with specific focus – as “the single most potent tool an endurance athlete can use … that will allow for long-term athletic performance. He built a legendary career by utilising unwavering diligence in his approach to cardiovascular training, that allowed him to ‘turn it up’ and still remain operating aerobically, even at far greater intensities than most other elite athletes could muster.

Most of us non-superstars are prone to performing our low-intensity distance training at far too high of an intensity to see genuine adaptations to working aerobically, and similarly perform our high-intensity training at too low of an intensity to see real developments in the anaerobic realms of exercise.

What results instead is a blurred mash of competing energy systems and contrasting physiological requirements vying for prominence in all of our workouts – the infamously grey ‘zone three’ – in which no real clear adaptations can take place. The demands on the skeletal muscle and cardiac and pulmonary systems are too great for the body to be able to operate aerobically with relative comfort, while simultaneously not great enough to induce chronic adaptations in the anaerobic function of the body.

In such an instance, the specificity of training is a crucial element that has gone ignored; there is no distinct purpose to each session, and we are able unable to identify what it is that we are asking our body to actually adapt to. Hence, it does not adapt to anything particularly well, and improvement stagnates.

Whilst it might seem to at first glance, I do not believe that this contradicts my writings earlier on the benefits of cross-training in disciplines that differ greatly in physiological requirements. Certain research genuinely supports that the body can adapt to multiple fitness components at the same time, so long as there is adequate time to recover between workouts, and that each workout is delivered to optimally target a certain development. Here, however, I am discussing the pitfalls of individual workouts being performed sub-optimally, with each session not clearly focusing on a specific fitness component and therefore inducing no positive adaptation.


The second, earlier mentioned component of mindful training is the establishment of a deeper connection between the body when under stress, and the conscious brain.

Building a strong capacity for accurately interpreting biofeedback markers from the body – in the form of shortness of breath, a rising heart rate, or increasing muscle fatigue – is arguably the hallmark of successful endurance athletes.

We hear stories of Olympians who can reliably estimate their current heart rate, or pace, or power output, with no electronic gauge to provide feedback. Rather, the information is accurately perceived in the mind, using information provided by the working body. Any reasonable collegiate swimmer would be able to swim a lap of a 50-metre pool blindfolded, and yet execute their tumble-turn at the end perfectly; so ingrained have the pathways between physical action (swimming) and required mental task (turn) become. They would also most likely be able to provide a close estimate of their current heart-rate and lap-speed, with no external monitoring.

Being in tune with your body’s immediate requirements under exertion, as well as predicting its potential future requirements, is a delicate relationship that requires real concentration, honesty with oneself, and practical application.

Aspiring athletes are frequently discouraged from subjectively training by ‘feel’ in this way – in favour of the more ‘scientific’ approach of collecting and analysing training data from electronic gauges and tests, then adjusting workouts to maximise improvements.

Interestingly, a study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance suggests that ‘subjective’ assessments of effort – perceived effort – in an athlete could be just as, if not more, valuable as training data than external sources like Vo2Max measurements and heart-rate monitoring. The argument, closely linked to Noake’s Central Governor Theory, is that the brain enforces limits and regulates physiological output based on its own perception of effort rather than actual maximal capacities, and so therefore perceived effort in an athlete was a useful unit of measurement. This internal perception picked up on more intangible factors like mood and levels of motivation, as well as obvious physical markers like core body temperature, muscle glycogen stores, heart-rate and blood-pressure – and therefore potentially painted a more ’rounded’ picture of an athlete’s current state.

Furthering this, Zen-practitioner and academic Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research into the application of mindfulness practice in the 1970’s found that both endurance athletes and hardened Marine Corps veterans possessed a more active insular cortex – the part of the brain tasked with monitoring sensory signals from within the body – than an untrained control group. He extended his findings into the development of an eight-week training course, funded initially by the US Department of Defence, that sought to improve athletic performance and further develop body awareness by “cultivating non-judgemental self awareness…. to learn how the body actually feels, while suspending judgement about it.” This was to be achieved through daily meditation exercises, the documenting of regular physiological messages to the brain for pattern analysis, and bizarre exercises like plunging the hands into ice cold water whilst staving off the mounting desire to stop.

Kabat-Zinn’s research results may run both ways – suggesting both that endurance and resilience training can assist in building stronger neurological pathways for monitoring the body, and that building stronger neurological pathways through self-assessment techniques can assist in the capacity for endurance.

Developing the ability to apply mindfulness in training – specifically, how to turn inwards and neutrally assess our needs – enables us to more intuitively recognise our body’s signals, to better manage pace and intensity output, to better respond to unexpected events, to take action sooner when warned of the risks of injury and over-training, and to learn to strip negative emotions away from useful information.

This last factor is key for me, personally. It can be so easy to find myself frustrated by the traditionally ‘bad’ news of muscular fatigue and fuel depletion, or similar late-stage occurrences in an event. A mindful approach to training encourages us to view this information as nothing more than useful information to which we have no emotional connection – and then to act effectively to remedy the situation.


So what do we do with this information? What do I do with this information?

Areas in my own training in which mindfulness can fall by the wayside are pretty apparent, on close inspection. A common experience for me, as previously mentioned, is performing countless swim sessions at far too high an intensity than I should be hitting – purely because someone in the lane over is lapping me. As much as I might aspire to be one day, I am certainly not immune to ego.

Arrogance can overrule discipline, and what began as a targeted workout becomes something of a waste of time. I might have begun the session with a clear idea of the various aerobic and muscular endurance related adaptations that I was seeking to implement, and the necessary levels of intensity to build them, but then ended with nothing more than ego-stoking to show for my efforts.

It is a remarkably easy trap to fall into.

By employing mindfulness techniques, by properly engaging in each and every process, and distancing ourselves from external sources of motivation or distraction, a far more efficient state of training can be reached. It takes diligence, honesty with ourselves, and constant practice, but it is attainable for all of us.

This ties us nicely to the Misogi-central adage “process over outcome, both in the small-picture and big-picture.

In the long term, many focused and diligent workouts (process) bring us gradually closer to our own grand goals (outcome), in a far more efficient manner than can often be experienced.

In the short term, executing every element of each workout with a real connection and genuine attention (process) causes each workout to be far more useful to us (outcome). Nailing the delivery of every stroke or dead-lift, and carefully maintaining the appropriate levels of effort, intensity and technique ensure that the scope for potential improvement is maximised, every day.

So now I’m putting these methods and approaches into play more than ever. I’m starting a workout with a heart-rate monitor, closely observing how an intensity feels – what my mind, lungs, heart and muscles are communicating to me at such an effort – before ditching the monitor and training on intuition. I’m performing a mental breakdown before every session – “why am I in the gym today, and what am I trying to achieve here?” I’m being far more diligent on pacing, and paying less and less attention to unnecessary external distractions during training.

Here’s hoping.

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The Central Governor Theory, and The Science of Suffering

It’s so very easy to toss around the idea that “we are all capable of so much more than we realise” with little critical evaluation but exercise physiologist Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Theory offers genuine scientific credibility to the mantra.

Noakes’ summation that the human body stores levels of endurance and strength that are seldom (if ever) truly called upon is foundational to this modern interpretation of Misogi. Central Governor Theory details that the brain acts primarily as a regulator of the physiological system as a whole, limiting exercise output to safe levels of exertion in an act that was once a powerful evolutionary survival mechanism. The brain ensures its survival by limiting potential risk factors such as core body temperature, blood lactate levels, muscle recruitment and available fuel stores to non-debilitating levels.

If a hunter-gatherer on the Serengeti were able to push themselves, in the chase of a kudu, to such levels of heat exhaustion that death was a very real threat, then the human species may have been severely hamstrung in their efforts to feed themselves. Imagine how many tribesmen would run themselves into an early grave in the pursuit of a meal – or in modern times, how many Olympians would drop dead in the pursuit of glory?

Noakes argues that, in the tribesmen’s instance, the brain itself deliberately restricts the body’s ability to produce excess heat in a range of methods – by restricting muscle fibre recruitment, or by redirecting blood flow away from demanding skeletal muscle – well before a critically dangerous level of core temperature is reached. This theory is often used for an explanation as to why the occurrence of heat exhaustion is relatively common, and yet death from heat stroke is markedly more uncommon. The body is far more likely to ‘fail’ well before such a truly mortal threshold is crossed – with passing out from heat exhaustion serving as the brain’s last ditch attempt to get you to respond to its hints.

Body temperature is only one of countless variables that the brain seeks to restrict, in an effort to preserve the physical body. Noakes argues that the subconscious mind enforces similar ‘overrides’ in efforts to control maximal heart rate, the strength and power of muscular contractions, and the function of the pulmonary system in the event of lowered oxygen saturation.

One of the most glaring anecdotal examples of this theory in action can be seen at the thirty-to-thirty five kilometre mark of any urban marathon.

Observe closely the now-slowed pace of the average long distance runner at this point. While a limited pace and feelings of exhaustion are fairly typical here, as the body begins to switch its primary fuel source from muscle glycogen to stored lipids (fatty acids) – something remarkable occurs next.

The running speed is reduced dramatically, and the runner may feel as if they cannot continue – and yet soon the forty kilometre mark is reached, and friends and family begin to line the road to the finish line. All of sudden, a surge of energy shoots through the formerly struggling marathoner, and they find themselves blessed with a brazen restoration of stamina, and able to muster a quick finish into the chute. What has happened here at a physiological level, to cause such real struggles and desires to quit a mere five kilometres earlier, and then a staggering return to form near the end of the race?

Noakes argues that this is Central Governor Theory at work. The athlete’s brain, sensing varying and potentially alarming levels in the body of various crucial measures – including low muscle glycogen stores, a high core temperature and high blood lactate levels – unconsciously begins to enforce its own will on the body. This causes the intensity of exercise to unwillingly drop, bringing the aforementioned biological measures to safer levels – followed by a resurgence in intensity as the finish line, and biological safety, nears.

Crucially, this occurs on an unconscious level – meaning the whole process takes place autonomously, with no willing input from an athlete. Central Governor Theory is explored in depth in Alex Hutchinson’s aptly titled Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. The book offers consistently fascinating insight, with strong scientific credentials, into the sheer power that the brain yields over the human system.

One notable experiment explored in the book sees a team of research scientists in Chile evaluate the effect that altitude has on the production and accumulation of lactic acid in the skeletal muscle at high efforts. The theory was that, as lactic acid is produced and accumulates at an exponentially increasing rate with lower levels of oxygen in the body, then working at a high intensity at altitude (where the oxygen in the atmosphere is less dense) would surely see a rise in measurable blood lactate.

Despite this intuitive assumption, the results were rather astounding. Rather than a predictably higher level of blood lactate in the muscles of the cycling athletes in question, a surprisingly low (almost non-existent) level of the byproduct was produced. This was later found, in subsequent tests, to be due to the fact that fewer and fewer muscle fibres in the large muscle groups of the cyclists legs were being recruited with each contraction, the lower the saturation of oxygen became – despite the cyclists’ own conscious efforts to work at a maximal intensity. The research team concluded that the brain was unconsciously limiting the ability of the muscles to function by restricting their output, to the point that lactic acid simply could not be produced at a ‘dangerous’ (unable to be dissipated) level.

This sort of research, and that comprising Noakes’ theory, lend genuine credence to the infamous Navy SEAL maxim – “when you think you’re done, you’re about forty percent done.” The brain will call for us to stop and rest, or to slow down, or to get warmer, well before is is truly necessary to do so.

While the restrictive processes of the brain are, as stated, unconscious and occur without any input, the allure of an early finish can clearly be avoided and ignored – as any endurance athlete can attest to. We have all felt the very real sensations of “hitting the wall” – nothing more than our body both changing fuel sources, and encouraging us to rest – only to continue for hours past this point.

This is, in essence, the science behind the concept of Misogi – there is a huge well of untapped endurance and physical potential within us, protected by well-intentioned survival mechanisms, that we are slowly learning to carefully and temporarily ignore in the pursuit of loftier goals.

It is a balancing act, for sure, as the risk of true overuse and overexertion can be real – yet we seldom ever find ourselves nearing that point.

We rarely make demands of our physical bodies that genuinely push the limits of its capabilities – often for good reason. When a person makes contact with a high voltage of electricity, they may be launched across a room. There is no explosion taking place, and no external source of acceleration – rather, every muscle in the body is being forced to contract, and the victim is essentially jumping a huge distance of several metres, entirely unwillingly. Obviously, tendons and ligaments will rupture, and entire muscle groups may be torn – but it highlights the sheer kinetic potential stored within the skeletal muscle.

Misogi reminds me of this, every time I am faced with the inevitable pangs of “what the hell am I doing?” The will to stop at the eighty mile mark of an ultramarathon, or the unshakable desire to get the hell out of near frozen water, can seem unstoppable. Now, however, I take five minutes when on the brink of throwing in the towel to do a deep and thorough assessment of my hierarchy of needs. Am I developing frostbite, or kidney failure, or muscle cannibalism, or am I simply just uncomfortable and my brain is prompting me to make an adjustment?

This is a learnable skill.

We can learn to become more enduring, and more resilient. By throwing ourselves into difficult situations, we can build the necessary neuro-pathways to develop a level of familiarity with them.

We can improve our capacity for discomfort, and Misogi is the best way I have ever been shown.