No pain, no gain.
I grew up with that slogan and it seemed to work pretty well when I was a kid.
When I aged a bit, however, the pain sometimes lead to injuries instead of gain, so after several long recovery periods I started investigating the benefits of relaxed effort.
That concept is one of the main features of yoga, Pilates and the martial arts, and very simply it means finding a way to work without trying too hard so that you avoid using muscles that are not needed for the task.
The reason I’m writing about this is because over the years I’ve realised the benefits of relaxed effort extend beyond playing sports and keeping fit.
I first started jogging when I was in high school, and in those days my only interest was to be fit enough to play football and basketball on the school teams so I took the pain for gain approach.
When I got to university, however, I started to enjoy running for its own sake.
Interestingly, the more I had to study, the more I wanted to run and I put in the most hours a week just before and during exams.
That may sound undisciplined as far as my studies were concerned, but at the time it felt like the right thing to do and looking back on it I believe the running helped me get better grades.
What I did was study for a few hours and then I went out for a run.
I didn’t try to work anything out – I was just looking for a break from the studying – but my brain seemed to sort out the new material all by itself… as long as I was in good enough shape for the experience to be relatively effortless.
I think when I didn’t need to use my will power to keep going I slipped into a meditative state that allowed my brain to defragment the way our computers do today.
John Bingham describes another mental benefit to relaxing into your running – although it could apply to other forms of exercise as well – in No Need for Speed: A Beginner’s Guide to the Joy of Running.
“It was being a runner that mattered, not how fast or how far I could run.
The joy was in the act of running and in the journey, not in the destination.
We have a better chance of seeing where we are when we stop trying to get somewhere else.
We can enjoy every moment of movement, as long as where we are is as good as where we’d like to be.
That’s not to say that you need to be satisfied forever with where you are today.
But you need to honour what you’ve accomplished, rather than thinking of what’s left to be done.
But here’s the thing, when I wasn’t in good running shape I had to use my conscious mind to keep my body moving and instead of slipping into a meditative, defragmenting state it focused on the discomfort in my legs and chest and how nice it would be to just stop.
And when that happens I’m not sure what else you can do but run through the pain for a few sessions until you get to a place where you can run with relaxed effort.
I guess that means there is a place for both approaches.