Jogging and ultramarathon from the perspective of Chinese medicine
(If you can’t go on anymore, remove stagnations)
This article was kindly contributed to the site by Miroslav Pospisek who is a member of our Czech branch of Lotus Nei Gong. He is a practitioner of Chinese medicine and an avid runner!
In the company of TCM therapists I have already met several times with the idea that running (and especially endurance running) is activity from the perspective of TCM is strange. Why is he/she running? Running away from stress, problems, from reality. It’s such a fashion. If you know the Chinese tradition (and observe it), you would not run at all.
I must say, that when running, I was never thinking or imagining, that I am running away from something. As far as I remember, the aim is to run or to get somewhere, i.e. looking ahead.
Consider first jogging, a situation, when a person “just goes jogging” because “he feels that he’s doing good,” or “make time relaxing.” If we wanted to describe this activity more accurately:
- the non-competitive nature.
- Does not exceed about two hours.
- Is not done in a bad weather.
- The running person may change the route and duration of activity.I was thinking about what pathogenic factors (from the perspective of TCM) a TCM therapist might find in jogging. Maybe I did not look form the perspective of TCM, but I did not find anything bad. Conversely, if the runner adheres to certain rules, there are some positives.The three rules:”Comfortable” attitude (posture while running). During jogging, one would not feel any tension in the body. Everything is going smoothly, relaxed. Runner does not get into awkward or rigid positions such as too bent forward, head tilted back, pelvis in wrong position, mismatch work of hands and feet, etc. Posture while running is the theme of almost all books about running. For a long time I ran according to the instructions present in the book Chi Running by ultramarathon runner and Tai Ji practitioner Danny Dreyer(Danny Dreyer: Chi Running, A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless and Injury-Free Running, Simon and Schuster 2004) Currently, I am trying to keep a posture according to the rules of Qi Gong called WuJi position, just slightly forward bent (as in Chi Running). In this position, the individual parts of the body nicely, “sit on themselves”, thus minimizing the possibility of creating stagnation and wear from unnatural body usage.
“Reasonable” breath, that is neither too intense nor imperceptible. A good check may be whether the runner is able to talk to their possible running partners. Ideally, the runner breathes through the nose and exhales through mouth.
“Concentrated” mind watching body movement and breathing. There are people who take jogging as a social event, running in groups and talking. Others listen to music, because otherwise they would be bored while running. In my opinion, the main advantage of running is, that the mind can pay as much attention to the body is doing and what is being done in the body. This is unlike other activities, like playing hockey, when the mind is busy with the game, and the body is used only as a tool to achieve goals. Running can be a kind of meditation. I will try to explain this by the quote:
“In traditional monastic environment, there are intertwined stretches of sitting meditation with walking meditation. It’s the same exercise. Walking is as good as seating.
What is important is the state in which we keep the mind. Walking meditation can be exercised at any speed, from slowest to a very brisk. The speed influences the level of perception of each phase of your stride. Exercise means doing the steps as they come, one after another, while being fully present with each step. It means to perceive the very nature of walk in your feet, legs, the manner of walking and posture, as always, from one moment to another moment, and in this case also from one step to another step. You are watching your every move, but you do not look down at your feet. You are watching by means of your inner vision.
You can combine awareness of walk with awareness of breathing." Jon Kabat-Zinn: Awareness of the Presence. p.145
I am not saying, however, that it is absolutely necessary to be constantly immersed into oneself during the run. Especially when the runner is in a beautiful environment (and in virtually every environment you can find something beautifulI highly recommend occasionally “to emerge”, look around and enjoy these things. Then it can even happen that a runner will feel a sense of reconciliation with all the beautiful surrounding it …
So, what can be the effects of jogging according to these three rules?
Improved circulation. Do you know what I hear most often from people who talk to me on the subject of running? “I cannot breathe.” Try to ever watch how you breathe when working at a computer or watching television or reading a thrilling story. Can you feel it?
Recently, I am increasingly noticing that mentally working people essentially cease to breathe. Of course, one reason is, that, in the rest there is not so large energy consumption and metabolic processes requiring air and blood do not work at high performance. But I think that’s just one part, and there is another significant factor: “detachment of the mind from the body.” But if this happens too often, then the body simply stops to be used to a regime of intensified air exchange, it will “forget it”. On the other hand, circulation of air, blood and fluids in the body is the base for its internal body balance. In Chinese medicine, blood stasis is considered to be one of the main factors for developing serious diseases:
“Contrary to the prevailing view, according to which the disease of the elderly are characterized primarily by a lack (although older people usually have deficiency states) modern diseases, that are significantly contributing to mortality, are largely characterized the state of fullness. Most pathogenic factors (and those that result in severe states) are: phlegm, blood stasis and internal wind. ”
Dr. Giovanni Maciocia: Geriatrics, On-line Course http://www.maciociaonline.com/course_geriatrics.html, p.35
While running, you are forced to breathe harder. Suddenly, everything moves. Tissues need “to supply fuel” and “to exhaust fumes”. Circulation as a flowing river releases blockages and stagnations.
Are you not able to breathe? Slightly slow down the pace, but continue on. You will see that in less than half an hour, the body adapts. Suddenly you notice that you’ve stopped “panting”. Eventually, however, you can get into the opposite state: you can find that you are actually stopping your breath. This is also a mistake, it’s actually the initial condition in the formation of stagnations and fatigue.
Reinforce the body’s structures. One of the key characteristics of living tissue is its adaptability to the surrounding environment. It’s a natural process: if a certain part of the subject demands, the tissue is adapting to the demand, if there is no stimulation, tissue stagnates and degenerates. For example, if the
digestive system is exposed to constantly increasing dosages, it adjusts so that increases in volume When the skeletal system is stimulated, it adapts by reinforcing its structures. If the load is missing, the system “has no reason” to develop and maintain state, it adapts to the state of low load.
If someone regularly sits virtually motionless at a computer for several hours a day, it is perfectly logical that the bodily system creates some stagnation and starts a series of degenerative processes, and that this system responds “gruffly” to occasional physical stress. Conversely, if someone moves regularly every day, then, when circumstances force to limit the activity, the system will feel “uncomfortable”.
Total harmonization. By aligning the activities of the body, breathing and the mind focus, one can achieve total harmonization. Besides, this is nothing new, and it’s actually the basis for a series of Qi Gong exercises. Quoting professor Zhang Guangde:
“The heart is calm only when the mind is relaxed; breathing is balanced only if the body is relaxed. It is only when all concerns are driven out, when all distracting thoughts are eliminated, that the movement of energy and blood can be free and correct. A calm mind and a relaxed body influence each other to produce greater effects than either one would without the other.”
Thus, if a person performs running exercises in a manner consistent with the above three rules, then a TCM therapist may even recognize this activity as a kind of Qi Gong exercise. And, he may even recommend such activities to their clients
Okay, but what about the endurance running? This could be characterized as follows:
- Activities span more that about three hours (normal races tend to be 100km, 100 miles, 12/24 hours, but there are races for several days).
- It is necessary to supplement food, at least the fluids, during the activity.
(Attentive readers have noticed that the above endurance running specification not includes eithercompetitive nature of the event, or increased heart rate of the runner) In such a case, TCM therapist surely finds something:
TCM point of view
Prolonged and repetitive one-sided strain
Shortening of tendons. Wear and tear of the joints. Stress on the heart.
Loss of Qi, blood, essence. Weakening of Zang Fu organs.
Exposure to wind, cold, moisture or dryness and hot
Rheumatic problems. Mycosis.
Improper diet, consumption of “stimulants”
Disruption of metabolism and autonomic system balance
Disruption of the balance of Zang-Fu.
Sudden extreme load
Fatigue, arrhythmia, complete disruption of the body balance.
Loss of Qi, blood, essence. Qi disharmony.
Unnatural body posture held for long time
Problems with cervical and lumbar spine, worn out joints of the lower limb
Creation of stagnations and blockages.
Such situations occur frequently and, being an ultramarathon runner (individual that runs distances longer than a marathon, i.e. 42,195 meters), I have experienced many of them personally and I am noticing their symptoms in people that I encounter at these events.
So, why do I run? My TCM teacher Dr. Jozef Lucky would say: “There is a missing line in the preceding table: Running becomes addiction, it is actually a drug.” Yes, there’s something to it. But there is also something, that to me it’s just fun. And it’s probably something in me, an introverted man with the sign of the bull (Chinese year-of-birth zodiac animal ox), it can be assumed that he prefers running before for example table tennis. But why not to end with jogging and why do I run ultras?
Ultra is always self-transcendence. And the theme of self-transcendence occurs in virtually all Eastern spiritual systems, here I quote my Indian Guru Sri Chinmoy:
First things first. You do not have to know The secret of peace. You just have to know The secret of self-transcendence. Your self-transcendence Will surround your entire being With peace.
Sri Chinmoy, Peace-Blossom-Fragrance, part 6, Agni Press 1994
"Self-transcendence gives us joy in boundless measure. When we transcend ourselves, we do not compete with others. We do not compete with the rest of the world, but at every moment we compete with ourselves. We compete only with our previous achievements. And each time we surpass our previous achievements, we get joy.”
Sri Chinmoy, The Vision-Sky of California, Agni Press, 1980
Self-trancendence in the form of ultrarun can really bring feelings of peace, joy and satisfaction. But I would like to point out that “surpassing its previous achievement” from the above quote does not mean achieving a better time or a greater distance for me, even when these values are certainly important control indicators. I feel that the best definition of success for me is the inner feeling of the event. Whether and to what extent I have managed to cope with more or less expected events and crises that in such a run occur. Whether and to what extent I was able to run the way I describe here. Because, if run so, it’s lightweight, it’s happy, it’s inner experiences.
As it can be seen from the following text, this definition is consistent with the traditional Chinese values:
“The ideal way for a human being to relate to Heaven and Earth is for them to become a conduit for their movements and activities. A balanced human being free of tensions and blockages within their energy body will simply allow the Qi from above and below to flow through them and meet within their centre. The free-flow of Yin and Yang energies will serve to nourish the mind and the body.”
Damo Mitchell, Heavenly Streams, Meridian theory in Nei Gong. Singing Dragon 2013, p.35
OK, let’s say, says the reader who has read this article up here. But what about those harmful factors, how to eliminate them? Proving to me are these balancing factors:
Ensure free flow of Qi. In areas of free flow of Qi stagnation are not created, there is no feeling of fatigue and injuries. On the contrary, free flow of Qi ensures good metabolism, supply of “fuel” and elimination of “waste products”. However, there is not a complete absence of muscular tension, the situation seems to be quite similar to Dao Yin exercises. (I refer to workshops and seminars with Vlastimil Kroupa)
“The key principles of Dao Yin are the principles of extending the Yi (the aspect of human consciousness), opening the Qi Men (the gates of Qi), lengthening along the Jing Jin (tendon pathways) and utilizing Dao Yin breathing”.”
Damo Mitchell, The Four Dragons, Singing Dragon, 2014, p.101
So, how do I ensure the free flow of Qi? Let’s start with the above three rules for jogging (Qi Gong):
comfortable position, adequate breath and concentrated but relaxed mind.
- In posture I am trying to achieve maximum relaxation, while, according to Dao Yin, directing Qi in appropriate directions (e.g. in the flow of the run, or to some acupuncture points, such as ST-30 QiChong, ST-31 BiGuan or GB-30 HuanTiao)
- Breath cooperates with the mind and activates areas of all three areas Dan Tien areas. This has me so far proves best: Simultaneous concentration to all these three areas for me proves best, as it helps to maintain a straight posture and that each region contributes with its specific perceptions (e.g. the area of secondary Dan Tien brings a sensation of light float the body …)
- The mind is not engaged in disturbing influences. Try to run while mentally being at work and trying to solve some problem. After a while you will notice that your rhythm slows, that your breath is stopping, you are being “knotted”. Try another thing: when running, imagine that you have trekking poles in your hands and that you are using them. See some difference?Run like this from start to finish would be nice, but mostly it is not the case. And so, I at least try to get into this state or return to it again and again. There is a well-known statement by Emil Zatopek: “If you cannot go on any more, run quicker.” To recover from the various crises during the run I propose this modification: “If you cannot go on anymore, remove stagnations.”.Patience, or long-term customization to exercise. In the long-distance running, there are indeed many opportunities to learn patience, the quality that is often overlooked in modern fast days. The success (whether measured only by the numbers or as described above) will only come after some time, filled with small, little steps.
- It is good to run for a number of months, rather years.
- It is good to be all the time without any health problems, at least only so that one is able to run.
- It is good to be all the time not only without any health problems, but also adhere to the principlesof lifestyle, such as diet, sleep, stress management, avoiding extremes, because in this way the whole system is much more stable and better manages-balances the load and disturbances.I mention avoiding extremes and at the same time I speak about endurance run. What is extreme and what is not extreme? There are big differences of stress effects both among individuals and on one person at different times. Extreme must always be evaluated according to specific situations. Extreme refers to a given state organ or tissue, and the way of actual load, the same load once may be the extreme, and it does not need to be the extreme a second time. To me, avoiding extremes means:
Compliance with physical and generally natural cycles (see for example Chinese calendar, organ clocks, etc.). In the long term view, I try to move (or at least maintain) my physical limits. My experience tells me, that in order to make the borders shifted, it is not necessary to cross them.
Just go sufficiently close and repeat this several times while aligned with the seasons and the
natural cycles of the individual.
- Tissue relaxation/tonus state according Dao Yin style Dao Yin
- Warm up before the race (Qi Gong breathing exercises) and relaxation after the race (Dao Yinexercises to remove pollutants)
- Changing modes of motion during the race (the so called Indian march and various stretching or”shaking”)Good, i.e. appropriate clothing. As you are getting more running experience, you will notice that your resistance to weather influence has increased. The reason is not only that the quality of your defensive Qi has increased, but also that you are more experienced in selecting suitable clothing, as it is always the foundation. TCM therapist point of view makes me particularly:
- To protect myself against the wind “the producer of hundred diseases,” either by clothing or even by lubrication.
- To use quick-drying clothes, so as to avoid places of concentration of heat and dampness.
- Not to dress too much, to avoid retention of generated heat leading to total overheating (this was my frequent mistake in early times), but neither too little to prevent the contraction of tissues dueto cold (this error often see a lot of running with his colleagues).The easiest way to choose dress is according to in what I feel well during a few days before the race. If the race makes it possible to change clothes during the event, I almost always use it. This is also some way of avoiding the extreme.A frequently discussed topic among runners are, of course, shoes. Own experience and also TCM point of view say to me:
- I am not inclined to extreme running barefoot (particularly on asphalt or pavement).
- The opposite extreme of too suppressive shoes (“slippers”) or shoes supporting pronation etc., isalso not suitable.
- I use neutral, relatively hard shoes that protect me against the surface roughness and too hardimpacts. They provide a sense of contact with the surface and running in them is like “a long gentle massage” of soles.Non-consumption of “stimulants”. By this I mean all the “supplements” that runners commonly use, for example ionic drinks, various energy gels and the like. On the other hand, I am totally not against, for example, to a moderate consumption of Cola-like drinks since I drink them only on race and especially because in small amounts they in addition to encouragement also settle the stomach. But I guess I have some on this field and I should rather cook a good soup …Yes, I use and recommend using Chinese Yao:
In the period of preparation and rest I use Yao to improve blood quality, nourishing Yin and tissue systems connected with kidneys and liver.
The same during the actual race, or Yao harmonizing activity of the heart, lungs, or the entire system Yang Ming, according to my current status.
Hereby I submit the opinion that at present, a Chinese can do at least some jogging, on condition that certain principles (the three rules above) are respected. Perhaps I have also answered the question, why do I run. And perhaps I have also inspired someone …
I must admit that the study of Chinese traditions helps me to look in a new way at things that I am intuitively already doing much longer time before I ever knew about Chinese medicine. Jogging and endurance running in conjunction with the principles of Chinese tradition gets extra dimensions. For me they are a kind of Qi Gong / Dao Yin exercises, meditation and means of personal development.
"My spirituality is my sleepless self-trancendence"
Sri Chinmoy, My Spirituality, Agni Press 1999, p.3