Zen and the Art of Running


If you are as old as I am then you will remember the title even if you have not read Robert Pirsig’s seminal work, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In it Pirsig describes a journey he and his son make from Minnesota to Northern California and the book among other things explores the meaning and concept of "quality".  A term he conceives ultimately as undefinable but he feels is a sensation that exists between the subject and the object.  His hypothesis being that to truly experience qualitywe must both embrace and apply it as best fits the requirements of the situation. So what has this trip down memory lane of books I read in the 1970’s have to do with running or triathlon? 

 As a Coach I often hear athletes effectively talking about the quality of their workout. “That was a great run” or “that was an awful swim” but what are they using to define that quality? More often than not they are looking at times and distances. If the set workout was an 8km run at 5 min per km pace and they run at 5:10 per km that can be viewed as lesser quality - and even for some athletes as failure. However if they ran it at 4:50 min per km they may view that as success - however it is as far from quality as the 5:10 if the aim was to run at 5:00. To consider the quality of our workout perhaps we need to look not at the subject and the object but to consider the sensation in between. I’d counter that if I go for a beautiful run down by the River Tay, and enjoy the experience but run 5:10 then argueably that has greater qualitythan going out and battling to maintain a 4:55 min per km pace.

 Whilst we are on the Zen pathway we should consider the concept that almost every martial artist knows something about, the Chinese theory of yin and yang.  Chinese philosophy perceives the universe as the interaction of complimentary opposites such as day and night, male and female, hard and soft, life and death, yang and yin. The dynamic cycle of creation and destruction, embodied in the life cycle of a flower, is seen as a continuous process of change. I believe it is helpful as an athlete if we can view our workouts as this continuous process and to allow for and accept this ebb and flow without fighting against it.

 So if you are fixed, as many westerners are in concepts such as black and white then starting to grasp the theory of yin and yang will help to serve that gap and to allow you to see the flow that exists in your training from time to time as the natural order of things. The next time you do a workout consider that space between the subject and the object to truly comprehend the quality of the session and allow for that yin and yang flow.