The Body Keeps the Score

Our bodies ultimately keep the score…not our minds or willpower.  I first feel obligated to credit  the title of this blog to the author, Dr. Bessel Vander Kolk, MD-but will do my best to translate it over into our athletic arenas.  Dr. Vander Kolk is one of the leading minds and authors in the research on the impact on our nervous systems (neurobiology) by traumatic experiences.  So what’s the connection between trauma research and performance for us athletic folks?  

This blog would be best written with a deep dive into some basic concepts of neuroscience and autonomic nervous system terminology but I’m afraid I’d put many of you asleep or quickly lose your attention.  Unfortunate as it may be, discussions and deep dives into nervous system regulation is not very en vogue or at least attention grabbing, at the athletic dinner table so to speak.  (I believe that this to be cutting edge material that is soon to be at the forefront of performance psychology). But for now my obsession with nervous system regulation and its implication for athletes continues to be the ignored step child, and I’m fine with it.  Grab some coffee-and read on. 

Speaking of en vogue-it’s become quite trendy (which isn’t a bad thing) to discuss or bring up the concepts of brain-training for athletes.  All I had to do today was look at Nike’s new program launching late May, Mind Training…something like 3 minutes a day to peak performance mindset bla bla bla (no disrespect!) to remind me of the trend.  I find  it wonderful that there’s now been a shift to include not only the physical aspect of training but the mental as well.  Great! So, then why do I have a bit of a cynical tone here? 

What I feel is being missed big time is the INTEGRATION of the mind and the body.  Unfortunately, when we split the mind into mind-training and the body into physical training we perpetuate the widely accepted problem in allopathic medicine-the ignorance of lacking to consider a person as a whole.  I propose that the most useful type of mind-training would include both the tracking of our minds, thinking, emotions, but also the teaching of paying attention to our bodies, while they are at rest or without movement.  I’ve often chuckled, and yes again a bit on the cynical side,  when various health or wellness providers say “just listen to your body!”…ha, as if?   As an endurance athlete of twenty five plus years, I was actually taught the opposite!  There’s a well known phrase in the bike world-I’ve even seen stickers placed on handlebars: “Shut Up Legs”.  

And therein lies the complexity or the athletic paradox:  at times we need to push, ignore, or override our body sensations…if we didn’t, we’d never smoke that climb or crush that downhill, but too much of that inevitably leaves us disconnected and discontent…wondering why we are exhausted, fatigued, grumpy or at worse injured or sick. 

So saying to someone athletic  “listen to your body” can be as foreign as a request to speak Mandarin Chinese.  That was my story ten years ago and what ultimately ended my professional career. 

The bottom line is we NEED a road map-we need to learn HOW to listen to our bodies.

It’s time we start to consider both the mind and the body as ONE in our athletic pursuits….

When I delicately bring this up with my athlete-clients, the notion that we are, as endurance athletes, some of the most disconnected of all humans, I brace for what almost always comes next: the death glare or stare-frankly it’s the eat-shit look.  Then I quickly and automatically have to explain myself and beg for some grace.  How dare she accuse me of “not knowing my body”-after all I can run 100 miles, right? Or this one: I work and train my body everyday, of course I listen to my body!  Nice try Marisa, I’m outta here!

I know, I know-this is such a kind of punch-in-the-guts type of statement but it’s also one of those things, that once you know something you can’t really un-know.  I can’t really go back to unknowing the truth or to recommending some corny sports psych exercise in which one invisions themself as a five-pointed star.  Ugh-trust me, at times I wish I could go back there.  It would be a lot easier but I just can’t.  I’ve made it my life’s work to study and work with athletes, through the neuroscience lens and the one of the most basic things I’ve learned is that in our pursuit of excellence in endurance activity most of us have actually lost the ability to know and feel our bodies.  

It’s time we relearn and find that roadmap.  Have I convinced you yet?  I can’t promise that it will make you faster or stronger-sometimes, but I can promise that learning to listen to your body again can provide more enjoyment, longevity, and purpose in your athletic goals…and yes, you just might go faster too.  

In its barest of bones approach, we need to learn to feel our bodies when we are not always in locomotion or movement.  Try this easy exercise to see an example:  Imagine a small child, say age five, six, seven-or insert the image of your dog should you prefer.  They play hard, run hard, jump high, get curious about things, and then quickly and almost effortlessly move to a nap, sleep, rest, or tears begging for some down time.  They eat when hungry-play when curious, run when energized, and then sleep when tired.  It’s kinda that simple, -it’s automatic. 

Children don’t wear devices telling them when they are rested or tired, or stressed-they JUST KNOW.   We have the capacity to do this, but we need to re-learn how. 

It’s amazing that there is actually an entire technological industry booming now offering up all kinds of gigets, gadgets, widgets and wearables promising (or attempting) to bridge this gap between our minds and bodies, but are they actually necessary?  No.  They can be incredibly helpful when first setting out into this foreign landscape of feeling our bodies-but all too often, I fear they aim at replacing and splitting off even more the mind and the body.

With proper guidance and relearning we have an organic internal knowing, that’s generally quite accurate, not subscription needed.  But we must learn (or relearn)

One of the most useful and basic exercises athletes can do is to write down daily (right next to any training metric) thoughts, feelings, body sensations, moods, emotions…ANYTHING anecdotal.  And then, if you must…check that gadget-thingy you wear.  Maybe the numbers will match and maybe they won’t.  But ultimately your Body Keeps the Score and perception reins king. 

As I re-read what I’ve already written, I notice that I almost keep repeating myself without offering up the map.  The map I speak of would far exceed the length of any pithy blog but my intent is to continue to expand and give ways on how to do this through various postings.  No cliffhangers here.

I recently watched an absolutely enthralling and beautiful documentary, “Dirtbag”, about legendary rock climber and alpinist, Fred Beckey, that really got me thinking about this idea of the body keeping the score.   In addition to the classic vintage climbing footage, breathtaking photography, compelling biographical story…the movie brought to head this sublime topic.  Spoiler Alert:  Beckey continued climbing (ropes and all) until he was 93 years old, a year later he passed away.  No joke.  At the climax of the documentary, we see an aged, frail, yet persistent Beckey attempting to climb difficult and long alpine routes that he had at one time done, back in his thirties.   It was so starkly compelling…did I feel sorry for Beckey who so clearly did NOT feel his body and his physical aging, or inspired by the man who seemed to live by passion and persistence alone?  Well, I think that was the entire angle of the movie…and the answer, likely both.  As we see a disenchanted Beckey, four times over, surrendering to the climb-we are reminded that ultimately the body DOES keep the score.  But our passion moves us forward.  

R.I.P Frank Beckey.

You are a badass.  Thanks for reminding us to live big. 

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