- Quiet your mind and let your body take over.
Quiet your mind and let your body take over.
🤸♀️ Stretch 66
Have you ever been on a run where suddenly your mind stops struggling, your body takes over, and you’re just along for the ride?
It’s the best feeling in the world.
The second best feeling is when someone recommends a book I would’ve never picked up myself, and it changes my life.
The Inner Game of Tennis, a 1974 bestseller by Timothy Gallwey, is ostensibly about tennis but really applies to anything in life. It’s about mastering “the inner game” that’s always taking place in all of us—played against obstacles like lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation.
This is something I struggle with quite a bit. An overactive, whirring mind pulling me away from the present moment and creating unnecessary tension. In this newsletter, I’ll share how I’ve been applying ideas from the book to improve my running and how these strategies can help you in any area where your mind might be holding you back.
THE BALANCE BETWEEN SELF 1 & SELF 2
The book introduces the key players of this Inner Game:
Self 1: the conscious, judgmental mind; the “teller”
Self 2: the unconscious mind and nervous system; the “doer”
Self 1 is always calculating, judging, worrying, fearing, hoping, trying, regretting, controlling, jittering or distracting.
Just observe your thoughts for a while. It probably won’t take more than 10-15 seconds before a thought pops up that can be classified under one of the above buckets. It’s not always “negative” per se but there’s always some kind of instructing or planning going on.
While Self 1 means well, this constant stream of thoughts deprives Self 2 of its innate ability to perform well. And that’s a shame because there’s so much power and joy to be found in relying less on our thinking mind and trusting more in our natural capabilities. As Tim writes:
“Self 2—the physical body, including the brain, memory bank (conscious and unconscious) and the nervous system—is incredibly sophisticated and competent. Inherent within it’s an inner intelligence that is staggering. What it doesn’t already know, this inner intelligence learns with childlike ease. It uses billions of cells and neurological communication circuits in every action.”
To start mastering the Inner Game, we need to learn how to create balance between Self 1 and Self 2.
HOW TO QUIET SELF 1
The best way to do that is not by telling it to shut up, or by arguing with it, or critizing it for critizing you.
Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.
In the book, Tim describes how he gets his students to focus on the lines on the tennis ball as it comes bouncing towards them to help them focus on the ball and where those lines will hit the racket.
He then goes in further and gets the clients to listen to the ball’s sound when it hits the ground and the racket.
See what he’s doing?
He’s asking his clients to use all of their senses and focus on the details—to get out of their head and into their bodies.
I’ve been experimenting with this on my runs. Especially in the first 15-20 minutes, Self 1 is working hard. “You’re not feeling it today. Just run less. You don’t need to do 9k. 5 will do.”
I bring my focus to the sensations of my feet hitting the ground, the rhythm of my breath, the wind against my cheeks and the sounds around me. It takes effort and constant re-directing but as I keep doing this over and over, Self 1 slowly loosens its grip.
HOW TO TRUST IN SELF 2
To really get into that feeling of flow, the aim is to fully let Self 2 take over.
Self 2 understands visuals and images, more than words. Instead of giving it constant verbal instructions (“don’t be weak, just keep running”), you use sensory images. You mentally imagine what you want to accomplish.
Before going out for my run, I visualize the entire experience. I see myself running through the streets of Lisbon, feeling light and joyful. Glancing at my Garmin, “9 km” on the display fills me with pride. I imagine jumping under a hot shower, with tired and happy legs. I mentally run through this entire process as vividly and viscerally as possible.
Sounds wacky? Perhaps… But it works! Research shows that our bodies can’t distinguish between real or imagined events: to the body, it’s all the same. There are even wild studies showing that practicing movements in your mind is to the brain like doing the actual movements.That’s why visualisations are such a big thing for athletes.
Here’s a cool clip of Candice Burt, who has run an ultramarathon for 200 consecutive days (!!), explaining how she used visualizations in the beginning of her journey.
The goal of these mental images is to provide a clear and engaging target for Self 2 to aim for, so we can relax our mind and let the body do its thing.
A MIND SO CONCENTRATED, SO FOCUSED, THAT IT’S STILL
When we can do that—quiet Self 1 and trust in Self 2—it is truly the best feeling in the world. And we’ve all felt this at some point in our lives. Whether it’s when we’re cooking, painting, gardening, or having a meaningful conversation.
That’s being in flow. That’s being “in the zone.”
You’re not thinking about how, what, where, how long. You’re not trying hard to do anything at all. You’re just doing.
Getting into these states more easily is one of my core “aims” for this year. Developing a quiet and focused mind. Trusting in my body. Not just while running, but in all areas of life. What a joy that would be!
🔬 Let’s Experiment…
Identify 1 area where Self 1 dominates. When and where is Self 1 loudest? It could be at work, while on a date or while cooking. Recognizing these moments is the first step in learning to quiet Self 1.
Quiet Self 1 with detailed attention. Try the technique of focusing your mind on specific details to quiet Self 1. For instance, if you're cooking, focus on the textures of the ingredients, the sizzle of the food in the pan, the aroma of spices, or the rhythm of chopping vegetables. This detailed focus helps shift control from Self 1 to Self 2.
Visualize your goals with sensory images. Before you begin cooking, take a moment to visualize the process and the final dish. Imagine chopping the ingredients with ease, the perfect balance of flavors, the presentation of the dish, and even the satisfied reactions of your friends or family. Use all your senses to create this mental image, which gives a clear and engaging target for Self 2 to achieve. (Remember, visuals over words. Telling yourself that “you need to get this right!” only creates tension.)
Practice. Practice. Practice. Self 1 is persistent and doesn’t quiet down as easily (especially not after years of having run the show.) There will be days when quieting Self 1 feels natural and others when it's more challenging. Be patient and persistent.
If this piece spoke to you, read more. “Incognito” by neuroscientist David Eagleman (he describes the brain as a “team of rivals”) or this incredible essay by Isabel on getting out of your mind and into your body.
P.S. Next week’s Stretch is all about caffeine, how to drink it strategically and if you’re up for it: experimenting with decaf. 😱 If you think someone else may be interested in taking a closer look at their caffeine habits, invite them to sign up here.