Actively Relaxed – The Key To Sustained Effort?

By Simon Hartley, Be World Class.

At first glance, those two words look as if they are in direct conflict don’t they. Surely we can’t be active and relaxed at the same time… can we?

You may have noticed, from my previous blogs, that I’m embarking on a rather ridiculous endurance event next August in aid of charity. The event involves Andy McMenemy and I kayaking from London to John O’Groats (around 800 miles), then cycling from John O’Groats to Land’s End (around 1000 miles), before running from Land’s End back to London (just over 300 miles). You can follow us on twitter – @ChallengeIn2013.

As part of the training, I am doing a fair amount of cycling, running and kayaking. Being a novice in all 3, I’m on an almost vertical learning curve. One of my many challenges has been to make the kayak travel in a straight line. I guess it’s pretty fundamental! During my last session in the pool, I began to realise that the only thing which was dictating my direction of travel was me. In the pool there are no waves, no tidal forces, no wind and no flow. If the boat is not travelling in a straight line it’s because I’m doing something to make it turn. So, what am I doing?

The stupidly simple answer is that I’m transferring force from my body into the boat – through my feet, legs, core and paddle strokes. I am not only transferring force deliberately, I’m also transferring it unknowingly. When I took a moment to feel how my body was affecting the boat, I noticed that I was tense. In fact, part of my body was battling to stabilise movements that I was making with another part. I was generating power in my arms, and then fighting it with my core, legs and feet. I started to realise that I was using far more energy than necessary AND failing to control the boat.

How does this realisation translate to the bike and run?

I’m not just working too hard in the kayak. When I did a session on the turbo trainer (the static bike), I also noticed myself ‘trying’ really hard to maintain a high cadence with a high resistance. My face was contorted with effort, my breathing was forced and my legs were tense. Am I using more energy than I need to here as well?

So, I set myself a challenge. Could I maintain the cadence and resistance but relax? Was it possible to reduce my breathing, relax my facial muscles, allow my feet to guide the pedals smoothly but keep the same tempo?

For years I have been telling athletes that ‘effort’ and ‘trying’ are not the same thing. I guess it’s time I learned to apply this to my own performance. It is obvious that being efficient is important if you’re embarking on an endurance challenge of over 2000 miles. However, this same mind-set applies to most of us in modern life. It’s probably applicable to anything that requires sustained effort. Business is arguably a marathon and not a sprint. How many people in business approach a problem by ‘trying harder’? How many of us work by the principle that you simply need to dig in and grit your teeth to get through something?

Does effort always have to feel harder? Or, as I’ve found, is it possible to maintain the output but to relax at the same time? This morning I tried my new found philosophy on the bike again. I put my iPod on with some chilled out tunes and found myself smiling and breathing easily as my legs spun around with the resistance turned up.

Maybe ‘actively relaxed’ is not contradictory after all.

Oh… Don’t forget to treat yourself to a copy of How To Shine this Christmas.

Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year!