One Long, Creative Conversation

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March 16, 2015 on 3:57 pm | In Life at TriSports.com, Random Musings, Sponsorship, Training | No Comments

This blog brought to you by TriSports Champion Jake Greenwood. Feeling like you need a break to get your head on straight? Spas and vacations are overrated…just do what you already do – train!  Check out Jake on Twitter – @GWoodJCG.

Recently, as I often do, I was on the spin bike watching an old Kona race video.  In the 1995 video, Paula Newby-Fraser made a quote that has become synonymous with triathlon training.  Frasier quips that triathlon “is one long, tedious conversation with yourself.”  Others have often asked me what I think about on long training rides and runs or during an Iron distance race.  Surely, anyone who does triathlon training and racing has spent hours alone with nothing more than their thoughts.  During this time the mind wanders to quiet, repetitive places.  The repetition becomes a mantra where counting breathes, pumping the cranks, or turning over your legs fades into the background as your wandering mind takes over and you think deep and hard in a type of dream-like state.

I started thinking about Newby-Fraser’s quote and identified with her sentiment.  I have often produced, solved, and forgotten about problems all in one training session.  After stressful days at work or when I’m feeling distracted, I use exercise as a mental break.  I’ve always felt that exercise has left me mentally fresher and allowed my mind the needed time to seek creative solutions to problems.  And so, a question arose for me, does triathlon training yield increased creativity?

In the article “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” Jabr (2013) argues that the brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas.  A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future.  Mental idleness is indispensable to the brain.  We obsessively check and respond to emails and even feel obligated to get work done in the evenings, on weekends, and while on vacation.  Personally, between my job, family, and household chores, training remains as the only quiet time I have in a week.  During my training, the space and quiet that mental idleness provides is necessary to make unexpected connections and leads to strikes of inspiration.  Mental downtime has been described as an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what has been recently learned, to surface unresolved tension, and to reflect internally.  During these moments of mental quiet we craft fictional dialogue, mull unfinished projects, and catapult ourselves into different hypothetical futures.  Often while training, I have found myself role playing through deep conversations that determine how I ultimately handle sticky or stressful life situations.  These moments of introspection help foster a stronger sense of self, which is the story we continually tell ourselves.  It seems my consciousness is awakened by the unconsciousness of the repetitive movements.  During a race it is often said you will go to “dark places” within the recesses of your mind.  But what is in that dark place? Perhaps the darkness is the key to light, or better yet, enlightenment.

Long training rides give you loads of time alone with your thoughts

I choose to use my endurance training as an opportunity for much needed brain breaks.  However, I often find myself almost obsessively pondering life situations at home or work as the miles tick by.  I’ve often run through the door and quickly jotted down potential solutions to problems or pulled my bike over to make a quick voice memo in my phone.  Opipari (2014) commented that a single workout can immediately boost higher-order thinking skills, increasing productivity and efficiency.  Science supports this claim due to the fact that specific brain proteins move across brain synapses with increased blood flow that comes directly from exercise (Tomporowski, 2003).  These brain proteins facilitate the growth of new brain cells and nourish existing ones.  The result is improved executive functioning and higher-order thinking that allows people to formulate arguments, develop strategies, and creatively solve problems. In this way, exercise unleashes creativity.  Therefore, it seems the mental idleness and increased blood flow in the brain during endurance training both physiologically and biologically yields a more creative mental space within which to solve problems.

The link between endurance training and creativity may well exist.  Maybe Paula Newby-Fraser was making a deeper statement about this link in her famous quote, or perhaps she was simply using an eloquent metaphor for Jens Voight’s more concise “shut up, legs.”  In any event, the next time you’re mentally stuck, stressed, or fatigued, don’t reach for caffeine or energy drinks.  Grab those running shoes and leave your phone at home.  You already possess the key to increased mental acuity and productivity; your legs.

Increasing creativity post-IM Lake Placid

References

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Retrieved September 25, 2014, from Scientific American.  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/

Opipari, B. (2014, May 27). Need a Brain Boost? Exercise. Retrieved September 26, 2014, from The Washington Post.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/need-a-brain-boost-exercise/2014/05/27/551773f4-db92-11e3-8009-71de85b9c527_story.html

Tomporowski, P. D. (2003). Effects of Acute Bouts of Exercise on Cognition. Acta Psychologica , 112, 297-324.

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