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The Athlete's Way
Sweat and the Biology of Bliss
By Christopher Bergland
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Christopher Bergland
All rights reserved.
I would not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
I have spent the past two decades exploring my own motivation and what motivates other people, and I am excited to share everything I have learned here. This book offers hundreds of reasons that will inspire you to exercise. Sport turned my life around and continues to inform my life — I know the power exercise has to improve daily life and to change your life. That is why I am a zealot about this program.
By pushing against my limits every day for more than twenty years, I have been able to isolate the components that go into maximizing the potential of brain, mind, body, and spirit. I have probably logged more miles on a treadmill than just about any other person on the planet. I run about thirty to fifty miles a week, indoors and outside, and have done so for more than two decades. I also bike, swim, lift weights, and stretch religiously. I know the inside of the athletic process very well.
Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!
There is one important caveat. When it comes to exercise, more is not necessarily better. I do adventure and ultra-racing because I love it, not because it's good for me. I know I'm a freak. I would never encourage anyone to become an ultra-athlete unless it was his life's passion. There are tonic levels of fitness that can fit into your schedule easily and give all the benefits of exercise.
THE ATHLETE'S WAY PRESCRIPTIVE FOR A TONIC LEVEL OF FITNESS
Twenty to forty-five minutes of cardio most days
Full-body strength training two to three times a week (twenty to forty minutes)
Stretch-balance three to five times a week (ten to fifteen minutes)
Sleep for seven to eight hours a night
This adds up to a minimum weekly time commitment of three hours of exercise. There are 168 hours in a week. Just three hours of exercise per week will radically change the other 165 hours of your life. Think about it. That's about 2 percent of your week to feel better the other 98 percent of the time. It's an unbeatable ratio. With just three cumulative hours of exercise a week you feel better, look better, and sleep better. The return on investment is astronomical. Our biological design was generous; relatively little exercise reaps an exponentially huge payback.
SWEAT AND THE BIOLOGY OF BLISS
LIKE A SUNNY DAY IN JUNE
No one has ever drowned in sweat.
I came up with the title The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss on a summer afternoon as I was biking in Central Park. If you spend a lot of time in Central Park, you get to recognize the regulars. You see the same faces every day. This June day felt like the first day of summer — everyone was exuding so much energy and a love of life ... walking, biking, running, inline skating, skateboarding, horseback riding. I felt that I was with old friends, even though we were technically strangers. The enthusiasm was contagious, and we were all feeding off one another's happiness.
In looking for the X-factor that connected us, I realized that how fast or slow people were going, or if they were particularly svelte or graceful, didn't matter. What mattered was that we were all in the park for the same reason ... it made us feel good. We were all there because we loved to move, and sport was a chance to feel the excitement of forward movement. None of us were standing still in life. I decided that X-factor was summed up in the words The Athlete's Way — we were all doing it our own way, but collectively it could be called the athlete's way. The key to being an athlete was that athletes seek exercise.
I was a link in this chain. I felt connected because I was sweating, too. I know it sounds simple, but it was an epiphany for me at the time. I still look for the athlete's way in people I observe every day on stationary equipment or whizzing by outside. Often, it is the ethereal bursting out of human spirit in a movement that captures the athlete's way. The move of a wrist or hip, the angle of the eyes, the rhythm and grace. I suggest you look for this effervescent X-factor of the athlete's way in people you see exercising, or doing anything well. Tag it, and extract the traits that go into the fluidity of their performance so you can imitate it. Feed off others and embrace the solidarity you feel in doing so. Know that others will borrow the same from you when you are exuding this fluidity, too. You become a link in this chain.
The light was perfect that day in Central Park. I looked around and all that caught my eye was this very specific quality of Manhattan summer light reflecting off different shades of skin. To be with these fellow New Yorkers, pushing against our own limits, together against the deep green trees, clear blue skies, and huge skyscrapers to the south was Utopia. The Manhattan skyline and the energy of human possibility collided, as they often do on the roadways and bridle paths of the park.
I came up with the subtitle after doing a few more laps in the park. I was coming down the West Side from the reservoir toward Tavern on the Green, which is mostly downhill, and I was flying. I looked down and saw the sun beaming back at me from the beads of sweat on my own shoulder. I lifted my wrist to my nose and smelled the Coppertone mixed with the chlorine of my swim earlier that day, the delicious smell harbored in my watch wristband of the musk of a year's worth of sweaty workouts, and thought, that is the essence of sport to me. Sweat is the common denominator in every workout and every athlete. It is egalitarian. Sweat creates an unspoken bond among all athletes. We get on to the same wavelength.
I always felt free when I ran. I suppose that's what was good about it.
BETTY CUTHBERT (OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST)
In soaking in the rapture of sport, I am always reminded of Joseph Campbell, who said, "Follow your bliss," and who often refers to the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss or rapture. Ananda is the root used to name anandamide, the endocannabinoid released during exercise, linked now to runner's high more than endorphin. Anandamide is called "The Bliss Molecule" by neuroscientists and is the key to feeling good when we sweat.
I was biking along, and suddenly the idea of sweat and anandamide came together into the words sweat and the biology of bliss. It is very basic, but summed up the impetus for my motivation to get a glow on every day and has been a mantra for me ever since. These words reflect my message, too. Sweat on the outside represented anandamide and other brain chemicals pumping on the inside. It was a eureka moment. Sweat=Bliss. The universality of that equation became the foundation of this program. I have never looked at a sweaty person the same way after that day. All I picture now when I see people sweat is the joie de vivre radiating from them in the form of neurochemicals pumping inside their brains symbolized by sweat streaming from their skin.
Sweat and the biology of bliss are human experiences accessible to everyone. The same anandamide, serotonin, and dopamine that flow through you flow through me, too. Anybody can experience this bliss through sweat. My advice is to chase your bliss by breaking a sweat every day. Don't just follow your bliss; reach out and grab it. Chase it down. It's at your fingertips ... just a few heartbeats, deep breaths, and paces away. Anytime you want bliss, you can come and get it by breaking a sweat.
ONE ATHLETE'S WAY
MY LIFE TAKING SHAPE
Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, "I've never seen anyone run like that before." It's more than just a race, it's a style. It's doing something better than anyone else. It's being creative.
STEVE PREFONTAINE (AMERICAN LONG-DISTANCE RUNNING LEGEND)
I started running when I was seventeen and never stopped. It was the summer of 1983. At first I was running away from many things — dysphoria, substance abuse, my parents' divorce, and typical teenage angst. If I was running toward anything, it was the hope of changing my looks. I was initially driven by a teenage mix of despair and vanity, but running became my sanctuary and my salvation. I would go to another place when I ran — as if a trap door unlocked and opened to a magical wonderland in my brain. As I got more and more into running, I would lace up my sneakers every day and run toward this magical place. It became a destination. Over the years running became less about escape and more about adventure and exploring my human potential and bonding with other people. It was, and still is, my daily refuge.
Boarding School Daze
This Is Not Camelot
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
My parents had a really bad divorce. Boarding school was the best option for all parties involved, offering a sort of diplomatic immunity for us — an adolescent "Switzerland" — while judges made decisions. My two siblings and I were sent off to different boarding schools — it sucked.
I went to a boarding school in Connecticut called Choate. The place was a magnet for Holden Caulfield types and party animals from wealthy homes. JFK was an alumnus of Choate, and seeing his portrait peering down every day was a constant reminder that my own life could not be further from Camelot. "Peacefulness, Tranquility, Enlightenment" were not a way of life for boarding students in Wallingford, Connecticut. I found a bunch of like-minded kamikazes at Choate, eager to party hard, rebel against authority, and derail our own trains.
Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.
Stuck in a stodgy, preppy, Brooks Brothers and country club society, I was coming to grips with being a gay teenager. In the early eighties being gay or "heteroflexible" was in no way considered to be cool. Rather than deal with it, I shut down and used drugs and music to anesthetize myself. I hung out either on the fringe or by myself. Headphones in ears at all times at full blast, Ray-Ban aviators glued on to block out the world. I was either drunk or stoned. I felt dead inside. I was never blatantly ridiculed, but I made myself an outcast. The good news is feeling like a black sheep, like an underdog, has served me well as an athlete, making me more of a trailblazer. I will always fight harder and dig deeper to prove that I'm not a sissy.
Be bold. If you're going to make an error, make a doozy, and don't be afraid to hit the ball.
BILLIE JEAN KING
Obviously, all the components of my life make up who I am. I will always overcompensate and push harder than most to prove to myself and others that I am tougher than the rest, which is my trump card for winning races. I will always have something to prove. I can tap a deep source of raw power and block out pain simultaneously. I can be intrepid and introspective simultaneously in daily life and have mastered walking this tightrope as an endurance athlete. And that is my winning formula.
The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.
There's a place inside me that's always safe. It's surrounded by Kevlar-coated one-way glass — I can see out, and I can feel the emotions inside — but nothing can touch me or hurt me when I'm inside that place, unless I decide to let it in. Otherwise, it is deflected, and no one or nothing can penetrate that fortress.
Bright Lights, Big City ... Igby Goes Down Acquainted with the Night
And when night, darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.
When I finally hit rock bottom as teenager, I landed on a rock in Central Park. The same place that would months later and for the past twenty years become my Bliss Station, Sanctuary, Oasis, Pinhole ... you name it. That night in 1983, Central Park inspired me to change my life.
Central Park is the lungs of the city, our metropolitan Fresh Air Fund, but this night it was a suffocating place, a netherworld. I was staying at a suite in the Pierre Hotel just off the park with some classmates during an illegal off-campus weekend. I had been out all night at Mudd Club, Paradise Garage, and Save the Robots. We were drinking, smoking, doing cocaine and psychedelic mushrooms. I think it was the psilocybin that pushed the wheels off my bus.
I ended up curled up in a ball, hands to chest, rocking back and forth — alone — having a classic bad trip on a rock by the Rambles just off the boathouse, listening to my Walkman. I don't know if you've ever had a bad trip, but it feels like all the tumblers in your brain are turning and reconfiguring, unlocking doors that should stay shut, closing windows that should stay open, all the while re-etching the blueprints of your psyche and the foundation of your soul, fusing your synapses into new configurations, permanently rearranging the architecture of your mind.
I sat on the rock and watched the water. The sky began to take on light. I was definitely spooked and strung out. I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. Suicide seemed like a viable escape plan.
Most of the people in the park were up early for morning jogs. They seemed so together, but they were like gnats to me, buzzing around in their Nikes and Lycra. I wanted to swat them away or squish them. I resented them for not having been up all night, but of course, I envied them, too, and wanted to trade places. I found my way back to the Pierre and staggered in like a stray dog. This scene had played itself out many times before in one way or another, but this was the last time for me.
Empty and Aching
If you think dope is for kicks and for thrills, you're out of your mind. There are more kicks to be had in a good case of paralytic polio or by living in an iron lung. If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you're crazy. It can fix you so you can't play nothing or sing nothing.
I was only seventeen but felt as if I'd been dragged around the block a few times. I had.
And I knew I never wanted that razor-blade feeling in my mouth again. I never wanted to be comfortably numb. That was the turning point for me. I haven't done drugs since. In many ways I was probably self-medicating for a tendency toward depression, and some chemical imbalances in my brain. I medicate with exercise now. I am vigilant about my mental health and don't take it for granted. The endocannabinoids, dopamine, epinephrine, and opioids that I pump through my system now make my life force stronger and more resilient. I try the best I can not to be self-destructive and not to fear success. I refuse to sabotage my life in any way.
Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error of judgment.
PHILIP K. DICK
Hitting rock bottom was probably mostly about feeling stuck or trapped in a life that I didn't like and not knowing how to break the patterns. I could have been stuck in some cubicle in an office park somewhere and probably felt just as desperate over time.
Hitting rock bottom often tends to be more of a fizzle. I don't think people realize sometimes that they've bottomed out if there hasn't been a trail blaze to document the downward spiral. We all hit lifetime lows, and when it happens, exercise is a way to pull ourselves up by our sneaker laces and take charge, to break the cycle and get back in the game.
Yippee! That may have been a small one for Neil, but it was a big one for me.
PETE CONRAD (ON THE MOON)
Growin' Up ... What a Feeling A Chemical Reaction
A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he'll never crow. I have seen the light and I'm crowing.
Excerpted from The Athlete's Way by Christopher Bergland. Copyright © 2007 Christopher Bergland. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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