Mindfulness and Maximal Effort

There are two things that are proven to improve your life and make you a better person, athlete, student, spouse, parent, etc.

  • Exercising
  • Mindfulness

These two are proven to be the best things you can do for yourself and for the world at large (along with being in nature and being with friends – so ideally do your exercising outside with friends). They have also been primary obsessions of mine for more than 20 years. So the attempt to merge the two has been of specific interest to me.

Exercising can mean many things, from running marathons to strength training. I am, of course, partial to the latter, and more and more science is proving that resistance training is the best thing you can do for yourself. But I also like to hike or ride my bike. And many people prefer running to lifting weights for a variety of reasons, even if many of them are not really true (like you have to do cardio to lose weight, weightlifting will make you bulky, etc.).

Now mindfulness has been a real buzzword of late. It has gained so much momentum and popularity that there are now backlash articles talking about how it doesn’t deliver. I have been practicing and studying mindfulness for more than 20 years.

The point of mindfulness is similar to the point of weightlifting. It is a training. You do not sit down and “empty” your mind.

You simply train your mind to come back to the present moment. And for most people this means a lot of “reps” as the mind continually wanders off, and we bring it back to the present moment, to our body and our breath, to the here and now. That is the training of mindfulness.

And here is where the marriage of mindfulness and exercise becomes tricky. I find that my “aerobic time”, my hiking and biking (at a casual pace) is where I do my best thinking. That is when I get my greatest ideas and work out problems, as opposed to worry about them. While I certainly could be mindful, and try to be (and you have to be depending on where you ride your bike!), I find that I enjoy letting my mind wander on such outings.

The other extreme is when we are thinking too hard. This unfortunately happens to me in certain bike races (I am a track cyclist), where I am worrying about other riders taking me out with their sketchy riding. I also see it in people trying to learn the Olympic lifts as they try to remember all the cues and technique so they can get a good bar path without knocking their teeth out.

What is needed is something that allows for maximal effort, but without worry. That can be hard to find. But sleds are one way that I do get it. I can load up a sled and put everything into it, without fear of dropping something on my head, getting stuck at the bottom of a lift, or otherwise hurting myself (anyone else have some low back issues from lifting heavy for years?)

Just look at Michael Phelps face in the picture above. That looks like max effort. He is not thinking about what he is going to have for lunch, or about his next, or his last, gold medal. He is in the process, in the moment. There is nothing but him and that sled. Actually, there is nothing but the pulling.

Most of us spend most of our time not being mindful, not being in the here and now. One of the beautiful things about sled work is that it is one of the few things where mindfulness is essentially a necessary condition. If you are thinking about lunch when you are pulling the sled… Pull Harder.

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