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March 18, 2016

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan on his “2016 Road to Kona.” Yes, you heard correctly, Mike is taking another stab at the World Championship Ironman, assuming he is selected to participate through the Hawaii Resident Lottery on May 5, 2016. Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his 2016 races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest.

Up first, Mike’s reflections as he prepares for the Hilo Marathon this Sunday:

By Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Mike Sullivan raceIt turns out that I ran 300 miles during the month of February – something that came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I wasn’t entirely aware that I was putting that kind of mileage on my body during the month. I ran the stats on my computer and learned that my total running time was­­ 40.5 hours, a significant commitment to say it lightly. It begs the question, and I hear this all the time, “What do you think about during all those hours?” The truth is, although I have been asked this question many times, I don’t exactly know how to answer, as it isn’t entirely clear to me.

Mindfulness Training and the Brain

This much is clear though- I have observed my personal thought process and studied the neuroscience of exercise to better understand my experience. I seek to find if my experience may be congruent to others. In fact, my Peak Self project analyzes various athlete’s mental experiences by interviewing them and featuring an “Athlete of the Month” on the Peak Self blog. I have learned that many athletes encounter similar mental phenomena in training.

Here are the top three phenomena I’ve noticed in myself and the mental tools I have employed to maximize the experience:

Mindfulness Training and Perseverance

My mind tends to ruminate on unwanted thoughts or uncomfortable emotions. Without distraction, the mind is left to its own devices to latch onto thoughts or feelings that are left unaddressed, and become a point of focus. One naturally assigns judgment and in my case perseverates, allowing unwanted thoughts to persistently gnaw at me.

Similar to advanced meditation practitioners, learning how to deal with the minds tendency to latch onto negative thoughts is critical, and a necessary step in reaching a higher level of calm and feeling of contentment. In fact, this process of allowing thoughts and feelings to emerge and dealing with them, is a healthy process of mindfulness practice, and supported widely within the therapeutic community. I have enjoyed the process of incorporating mindfulness into running:

Mindfulness Training Tool #1

Tool 1: the practice of acknowledging when certain thoughts appear (or reappear), refrain from assigning judgment (just noticing that the thought is there), and letting it go. Developing this practice has allowed me to find larger moments of calm and content, increasing the spans of attaining a presence in the moment. When one asks me what I think about on those long runs, the reality is that it is an ongoing project, where I continually practice this basic mindfulness technique.

I often find that a wandering mind and “mindless” running leads to sloppier running and less effective workouts. It also leads to dissatisfaction with the experience, as running starts to feel more like a hamster wheel, than actually getting anywhere. For many, the process of becoming present requires more than just acknowledging thoughts and letting them go, it requires one to focus attention on one simple thing (Tool 2). I hone focus on the rhythmic nature of my breath, as well as a mental cycle of checking in repetitively on my running form. This is a cycle starting with my head and working my way down to the bottoms of my feet. I first notice the angle I am holding my head, the tension in my shoulders, how I am holding my abs/core, the rotation within my hips, the size of my strides, and the nuances with my feet (foot strike, roll, etc.). This mindfulness technique engages focus in the experience.

Problem Solving & Mindfulness Training

As the miles add up in any particular workout and I find myself in longer stretches of “being present,” which in turn seems to lead to another important aspect of “what I think about” during all those training hours. The combination of endurance exercise and the mindfulness techniques leads to increased problem solving and clarity in my thinking. I find myself regularly encountering “aha” moments, where I will encounter a novel idea or solve a problem I haven’t otherwise been able to solve. With a clear mind my subconscious is able to make connections that it isn’t otherwise able to.

It seems that the unique chemical environment produced in the brain, catalyzed by exercise and mindfulness, fuels problem solving. According to Bruce Perry, MD, Ph.D., and founder of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), the higher level operations of the brain (i.e., the neocortex and the limbic system) are only functional when the more primitive parts of the brain are regulated (i.e., the brainstem and diencephalon). Patterned, rhythmic behavior stimulates and soothes the lower parts of the brain (responsible for nervous system functioning), establishing a critical foundation for the more complex aspects of the brain to fire. Running is a perfect medium for problem solving! The nervous system is nurtured from the bottom up, allowing the brain to problem-solve in a more effective manner.

While I utilize endurance athletics to access a higher level of mindfulness and problem solving, others seek out a parallel experience through other activities. Gardening, yoga, walking, painting, writing, and other hobbies serve to find presence in the moment and soothe the nervous system. Through working at Pacific Quest, I’ve recognized the powerful role that gardening can play in regulating the nervous system and problem solving. Tending to a garden requires patterned, rhythmic behavior of tilling the soil, weeding, pruning, and planting. There is also significant exercise-like movement in tromping around with tools, building garden beds, hauling wheelbarrow loads, and stirring the compost. Mindfulness and problem solving opportunities abound!