“An 8 mile mindful run on a grey and misty day. Enjoyed the focus of being in the moment. Re-focused on my breath when I found it getting harder and my mind wandering. Relaxed shoulders down. Noticed pelvis, spine, shoulder and head position. Enjoyed the cool air, the sea, blossom and spring flowers. Clocked up 29 miles running time since Sunday.Feeling strong.😎 ” – Annie Anderson
Last week two articles on a similar theme came through my Facebook feed which got me thinking about a deep principle in any kind of training, whether for the mind or the body.
1. Get Your Running In Focus: Mindful Running
“A half hour before Olympian Elva Dryer goes for a run, she doesn’t just stretch or sip a sports drink. She also lies on the ground with her eyes closed, taking deep breaths. In her mind, she scans her body and focuses on relaxing her muscles, head to toe. This “mindfulness” meditation exercise might look strange to other runners, but to Dryer, 34, it helps explain her success. She made it part of her training routine as she prepared for the 10,000 meters at the 2004 Olympic Trials. “During the race, I felt totally engaged with what was going on,” says Dryer, who took second with a time of 31:58.14. “I believe meditating influenced my ability to focus and run my best.””
This is the opening paragraph of
The article is about mindfulness in running – remaining aware moment to moment of the actual experience of running – here and now.
Various benefits are claimed, not all to do with performance or running goals such as pace distance or time. For example -“Being more connected with your breath can also help prevent injuries. “You get an awareness of your entire body,” says George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation instructor who has taught mindfulness techniques to professional sports teams, including the Chicago Bulls. “You know when you can push it and when you need to back off. A lot of runners already have this knowledge, but they aren’t fully aware of it and don’t pay attention to it.” Professor Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, agrees: “The more your mind is in touch with your body, the more you can know its real limits.””
2. Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face: Mindful Climbing
“One of the great contradictions of climbing writing is that the bigger and deeper the experience the more difficult it is to write about. Soloing the Emperor Face is one of those experiences that can’t be fully summarized in a few paragraphs, but it was such an significant climb that it would also be a shame to not even try to write about it while it’s still fresh in my mind.”
This is the opening paragraph of the young alpinist ‘s recent article in the Alpinist. It’s an account of tremendous skill and performance. But not only that.
“I was deeply happy and in an incredible state of mind. It was now my fourth day alone in the mountains and my thoughts had reached a depth and clarity that I had never before experienced. The magic was real.
I thought to myself that the essence of alpinism lies in true adventure. I was deeply content that I had not carried a watch with me to keep time, as the obsession with time and speed is in fact one of the greatest detractors from the alpine experience.
Climbing routes with an established track simply in order to attain the summit, or keeping time in order to set records reduces the adventure of alpinism to that of a sport climb and strips the route of its full challenge.
As a young climber, it is undeniable that I have been manipulated by the media and popular culture and that some of my own climbs have been subconsciously shaped through what the world perceives to be important in terms of sport. Through time spent in the mountains, away from the crowds, away from the stopwatch, and the grades, and all the lists of records, I’ve been slowly able to pick apart what is important to me and discard things that are not.”
These two articles have a common theme: the focus of these elite athletes is on the internal experience rather than external performance.
An external focus includes the following:
- Training goals (e.g. distance or time)
- Performance hopes or expectations in terms of external benchmarks or standards (e.g. ‘am I above average or not?’ ‘How did I do in this competition?’)
- The need for external validation or reward (e.g. recognition, status or prizes, social media recognition)
With an external mindset, enjoyment and motivation tends to be based on how well you are doing with respect to expectations, performance goals, external criteria or competitions. If you’re excelling with respect to these, you are happy and motivated; if you are falling short, you are dissatisfied, demotivated or frustrated.
Having an ‘external mindset’ includes the idea of ‘competing with oneself’.
External Mindset & Tracking
Goal tracking and self-quantification – using technologies such as heart rate monitors or bio-wearables for data acquisition in terms of states or performance – can work very well with the external mindset. Apps like Endomondo – “The Personal Trainer in Your Pocket” – and tracking apps can be used to set goals and monitor progress, compare performance with others, and get feedback on training performance (such as heart rate zone, pace, milage, etc).
External Mindset & Training With Others
In the context of training with others, an external mindset applies when there is a coach or instructor who provides the relevant external goals to work towards, performance criteria to adopt and validation that one is doing it ‘right’ or making progress. Instructors will typically themselves have certificates, awards or qualifications that set them apart as experts – all external mindset criteria.
It also works when there is competition – either a formal competition, or a competitive attitude during training. Who hasn’t experienced this?
An external mindset works when there is continual comparison with, and judgement of, the performance of others with respect to clear benchmarks and graded criteria. It works well when there are clearly defined ‘top’ performers with various gradations beneath.
An internal mindset has a different focus:
- An awareness and engagement with the experience of the activity itself as it unfolds
- A non-judgemental attitude without strong expectations
- An ability to develop experience and skill through increased awareness, familiarity, sensitivity, and personal insight
- Confidence in one’s own capacity for self-regulation, experimentation and autonomy
With an internal mindset, enjoyment and motivation is based on the pleasure or satisfaction experienced through the activity itself – which could be about skill & efficiency, or creative self-expression, or adventurous challenge as we saw with the alpinist Marc-Andre Leclerc. Motivation is intrinsic, not in terms of how you are doing relative to your expectations or successes but through engagement with the process and your increasing awareness, knowledge and intimacy with it.
Excellence within an internal mindset does not depend on how you rank relative to others. It is possible to be maximally engaged, mindful, perceptive or creative – with a maximum sense of personal empowerment and satisfaction – simply running cross-country for 10 miles in a remote place. You don’t have to be an international runner on a famous race such as the London marathon for the deepest kinds of rewards. The peak experience that Marc-Andre Leclerc had soloing the Emperor Face could be experienced by many experienced climbers – not just those at the ‘top’ of the sport in rankings, celebrity-status or tick-lists.
Internal Mindset & Self-Quantification
Not all data tracking has to be external mindset based. When self-quantification is set up as an extension of the senses then it can be used effectively with an internal mindset. Falling into this category are heart rate or heart rate variability monitors, and biofeedback technologies giving real time feedback.
Internal Mindset & Training With Others
If there is a shared internal mindset when training, the emphasis is on sharing experience, encouragement and the sharing of knowledge and ideas. Since relative ranking is not paramount, it can be genuinely cooperative rather than competitive.
External & Internal Mindsets in Brain Training
In their meta-analysis of studies looking at the effects of dual n-back training on fluid intelligence levels, Jacky Au and colleagues found that “every hundred dollars a subject is compensated reduces the effect size of the dual n-back training on intelligence”. They argued that financial rewards for training may undermine intrinsic motivation which in turn may undermine training gains.
Financial rewards are ‘external’ motivators, and may encourage an external mindset – as could:
- Game points
- Virtual currency
- League tables
- Competitions or tournaments
- Self-quantified tracking of performance gains
- Social media sharing of achievements
All precisely what is built into our latest gamified dual n-back software IQ HIT!
You might ask: “What would an internal mindset in brain training be?”
It is something more like mindfulness meditation. You focus on the internal experience of the attention control and working memory processes involved in the training games. You learn to ‘tune in’ or ‘listen to’ the process itself while playing the games, learning to perceive distinctions in the ‘phenomenology’ of your brain training -how it feels ‘from the inside’.
It’s not just about getting ‘into the zone’ and being frustrated if you are not in it. It’s about awareness of your cognitive processes. Notice when you feel in the zone or more scattered, where attention is focused or distracted, flexible or fixated, and so on. Try experimenting with different types of attention focus and noticing the effect. Stay curious about your own mental states and processes, without judging them. Over time you should notice patterns and processes in your brain training that may change over time – and which may also be experienced in other day-to-day contexts, perhaps while working, or learning a new skill at home.
The Re-Balanced Training Principle
Drawing from the benefits of both internal and external mindsets, you can experiment with an 5o:50 balance in both your physical training, and mental training – depicted in this schematic.
As an example – for running on alternate runs you could aim for a certain pace or time one day (perhaps with a competitive running partner or running club), and on the other day just use your heart rate monitor and be attentive to breath, rhythm and the sensations of running through your core, while also soaking in the environment around you.
On the ‘mindful’ running days, if your thoughts veer off into another space – you can practice bringing them back to the present moment, perhaps by refocusing on the breath.
On the performance focus ‘external’ days, you could happily drown out your mental life with high-energy music, while on the mindful ‘internal’ days, you would want to turn your iPod off, and tune in to what is going on in your mind and body.
For brain-training using a gamified working memory app like IQ HIT you could alternate between:
- Training with all the game-features active – doing competitions and tournaments for more points and ‘Neuron’ currency, checking leaderboards, aiming to complete your blocks and sessions, and so on
- Training in Solo mode, experimenting with faster and slower speed settings, or emotional vs non-emotional content. Aiming to explore your own cognitive processes and get a sense of expanding awareness and enjoyment of the processes you discover – without being concerned about how you compare to others, yur n-back level, or how many points you attain.
You could also experiment with other training ratios – even an 80:20 ratio where you really dial down the external performance-focus to gain some internal sensitivity – such as shown in this schematic.
It would be great to hear your experiences with this kind of ‘re-balanced’ training in the comments below.