By Michael Collier
One of my favorite outdoor experiences is to run a few hundred yards ahead of our dog on a trail in the Berkeley hills as my wife holds her back. Then I wave my hands and call for our terrier to come to me.
In the next minute or so I watch in awe as the dog burns up the trail, her front and back legs galloping in perfect rhythm until she gets to me.
We humans have such moments, too.
Such a state is like a dance, where we are in a world absent the mind’s endless interruptions. It is known in popular psychology today as being “in the flow.” The subconscious mind leads us and we seem to float above the normal fray of life.
I have been in the flow, usually when riding my bike. At such times, my body is completely in sync with itself. It is something like bliss.
Focus in action
A few days ago, I went to UC Berkeley to listen to best-selling author Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and former New York Times science writer, talk about his new book, “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.”
Goleman and others are taking their message about the importance of “flow” to workplaces to help create the conditions for workers to experience those states more often.
These states are marked by little or no anxiety, and acute attention to the task at hand. Goleman gave the example of a mathematician who spent considerable time trying to solve a particularly difficult problem. He tried and tried again but he couldn’t crack it. But when he let go of his quest for a while, the answer came to him — as he boarded a bus.
Information overload in our data-rich world today conspires regularly to interrupt our attention, Goleman writes, making excellence in our most important pursuits feel fleeting. Most of us have had a grand vision that we could not make real.
One of my most precious goals was to complete three 200-mile, one-day rides in a calendar year — an accomplishment known as the California Triple Crown in cycling circles. I began my pursuit in 2006 but never finished more than two of the long rides.
This year I not only finished three rides, but four. Next year I aim to finish even more.
The difference for me this year? The right kind of practice.
I consistently rode lots of miles, as I have done almost every year. But I left out one very important element: Conditioning more than just my legs. Cycling is a whole-body exercise, which includes the core, from the pelvis to the shoulders. Strong legs are great, but they will wither in a long-distance ride with lots of climbing if the core is weak.
My Pilates workouts this year were the game-changer, not the miles or the legs. While my legs got kinky at about 100 miles in my first two doubles this year, they did better in the last two events — after I started the core training.
Without the recurring distraction of sore body parts for the better part of 12-16 hours on the bike, I cruised to the finish. And the best times were when I was riding in the flow.