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Concentration, Play, & Running — Whisper Running | Sport Psychology

The flame of a candle, the perfect inhalation and exhalation of the breath, the trickle of a stream, or a gentle breeze as it plays off the leaves of a blossoming tree, each provide welcomed moments of peace and calm.  Even time spent in a heightened cardiovascular state can produce a quiet mind, although these moments can also be quite busy in critical and productive thinking. 

In running, the feeling of being in complete control, with movements coming naturally and without effort, can lead to a feeling of being in a flow-like state.  This flow state is achieved when fitness and the field merge, when an athlete achieves the challenge-skill balance.  Many factors play key roles in achieving flow, but one thing is for certain: runners must be ready to sustain the heightened level of meditation while in their state of concentration on the task at hand.

Equipping runners with concentration tasks is one of the more fun activities performed at Whisper.  Last Wednesday, during the cross-training (of the mind) night at Clark, we explored fun ways to enhance concentration.  First, we shut off the phones, which helps immensely.  Next, we played games.   It really was that simple.  In the book, “Sacred Hoops,” Phil Jackson discusses the practice of quieting the mind off the (basketball) court, so the athletes are better equipped to mentally handled the noise and tasks on the court.  Per these suggestions, along with activities practiced over the years, we played a numbers game, we played with mazes, and a dots game in teams. We attempted Sudoku, but not everyone knew how to play, so we pressed on.  It seemed that no matter the task, the kids had fun, and the objective was met – provide a task to concentrate on and identify where focus lies during these activities.  The stress level in the room resided at a 1 on a scale of 0-10, with the only stressor being a neighboring teammate one was trying to best.  Even in defeat, smiles were observed and giggles were heard. 

Taking these activities to the track, where there is clearly more skin in the game, stress levels rise merely due to the emotional and physical desires to attain lofty goals.  Stride after stride, each tap of the foot provides input.  And runners know when the input duration lasts longer – the difference between strides lasting .24. and .34 seconds in a 5k, where runners may take between 3,300-4,000 steps – their brain calculates the difference in pace based on the duration of the contact time.  The longer the stride remains on the ground generally means the muscles in the leg take on greater eccentric load, leading to earlier fatigue. 

Just as physical conditioning will help with this fatigue, so will spending time in thought on particular patterns of movement during the time of concentration.  Whether it’s exploding with great force out of the starting blocks, perfecting the foot strike in the middle of the race, or positioning the arms correctly for greatest efficiency, the mental energy centered on constructive thoughts can grow stronger with time and practice.

So, what can one do to strengthen the ability to concentrate well?  A quick Google search will provide with plenty of suggestions, but here are the ones I subscribe to most:

  1. Put away distractions.

  2. Quite the space – a “white noise” is okay, but music, Podcasts, or TV is ill advised.

  3. Read – even if you do not consider yourself a reader, just a few minutes each day will help.

  4. Play games and puzzles.

  5. Meditate.

  6. Create a checklist and accomplish tasks one at a time.

  7. Get adequate sleep.

  8. Take timed breaks.

  9. Exercise using a guided (intentional) workout plan.

  10. Go away – get out in nature.

  11. Meal prep healthy options with whole foods (preferred), unprocessed, and rich in fiber.

As I tell our runners, when you work, really work, and when you rest, really rest.  The same goes with play and responsibilities. And if you are like me, a person who sees squirrels at every turn, more than half of the tips listed above will serve you quite well.

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