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The Sweet Spot: Walking The Talk (or in this case: Running the talk!)

I also could call this post: Hey, this sh*t really works!

Many of you already know that I teach what I call Finding The Sweet Spot Of Healthy Biomechanics… It is a process based on a crazy idea that the qualities we are seeking such as balance, elasticity, and freedom of movement, should feel good (even to the horse), and be unmistakable when we find them. The idea is that for each horse, on each day, in each movement there is a 'just right' combination of relaxation, energy, and balance that has the most qualities we are seeking. The more willing we are to experiment and search, the more likely it is we are going to find that oh so sweet spot.

OK, now that you are caught up to speed, I can share what I really wanted to share with you which is how I got a chance to experience the power of this method and there wasn't even a horse in sight.

Stretch and Grow

People who know me know that I enjoy experiencing new things, continually learning, and to, in general, be in a never-ending state of improvement in all areas of my life. One of my current personal challenges is running. I started consistently running almost a year ago, did my first half marathon 5 months later, and now am in training for my first full marathon. Right now the distances are getting into the upper teens. Today was my first 18 mile run. At these distances there is no more 'faking it'. If you are not prepared, or not in a consistent training plan those long runs are going to be really NOT fun.

Now, to all you experienced runners and exercise physiologists out there: I am sure I will say some things that aren't really 'correct' or are so blatantly obvious that you will be thinking: 'well, DUH.'… Just bear with me. This is just a story about my experience, and how I can relate it to what I do with horses.marathon

In my last few runs (16, 17, and 18 miles) I was realizing that I was working really hard, and I was pretty useless for the rest of the day after. My heart rate seemed way too high and many steps felt more like trudging, especially when I was running next to my trainer who seemed to glide over the pavement on roller skates. I had let him know that I was eager to go through a gait analysis, but it hadn't happened yet. I almost found myself feeling frustrated by that, thinking I wouldn't be able to improve without it… How about that for a limiting belief! Then I thought about what I tell my students all the time: Have a clear picture, experiment, and trust your instincts…. So for today's run, I had a plan to practice my Finding The Sweet Spot Of Healthy Biomechanics method on myself!

Strategies I had in mind:

1. Use others to get ideas for biomechanical possibilities

2. Power = Relaxation + Energy

3. Find the combination of Relaxation, Energy, and Balance that is best for this moment

4. Don't judge, just do my best.

The plan was for my trainer to run with me for the first 5 miles, then I was on my own for the other 13 miles as he went on to do some road biking. Time for Strategy #1 (use others to get ideas for biomechanical possibilities): One thing I do in my live clinics, is I have students practice mirroring each other's walks… I do this so they gain more awareness of themselves and the possibilities, but also so they can explore movement patterns that they might otherwise not have. It also helps students be aware of and feel their horse's movement.

So the first 5 miles as I ran next to Jake (my trainer) I did my best to mirror him. I tried to feel his posture and balance. Our legs are about the same length so I was also able to match his cadence at times. I scanned my awareness to his arm movement and length of stride, yet I didn't force myself to be exactly like him; I just wanted to sponge off of the essence of how he runs and make it my own. I felt great! Miles ticked by and I was at ease.

He later peeled off, and I was on my own. As I was out around mile 10 it started to feel like work and it was feeling labored, so… Time for Strategy #2 (Power = Relaxation + Energy), and #4 (Don't judge, just do my best.). Up to now I had been keeping a pace I was happy with, but around mile 10 keeping the same pace started to feel harder, and harder. The run was degrading into a trudge. I was feeling the opposite of powerful. I ask my students to think of adjectives that they would like to use to describe how their horses move, and compare them to the adjectives they use to describe how their horses actually move… This way they can notice when they are heading towards what they are looking for, or away… I definitely felt the moment when I switched from using adjectives like: smooth, light, powerful and into using adjectives like: heavy, un-powerful, and trudging. I knew I was working too hard so I decided to focus on relaxation. Instead of thinking about keeping my pace I decided to focus on my heart rate and ease of moving, and not really care about my pace. I just backed off until I could run with the adjectives I wanted.

Thanks, but no thanks, Ms Brain!

 Right about then, my over-achiever brain chimed in with some thoughts of: 'Look how SLOW you are going!' (yeah, thanks a lot, Ms Brain). As I have learned to do, I told my brain: 'Thank you for that really useless, uninspiring, and frankly, MEAN comment. How about you just take a rest and I will let you know when I need you, like later if I need to balance my checkbook or something.' I learned long ago that Ms Brain is not always my friend. I tell my students all the time that we need to be free from the fear of making mistakes and the rest of this run was going to be challenging enough without beating myself up from the inside out at the same time.

So instead I reminded myself that this run I was doing is called a LSD (not because of the runners high you get) because it is meant to be a Long SLOW Distance. I made it a mantra: Long SLOW Distance, Long SLOW Distance, and focused on not over-pushing. I realized Jake had told me that earlier. He said: "Don't go for a PR, just do the distance." I was thinking: 'PR? Press Release? No, I thought, I was not planning on doing anything news-worthy on this run. So I asked: Oh, PR stands for Personal Record. Yeah, I get it. He was telling me not to over-push. 

After all this run was about increasing my stamina, and just like I tell my students when developing their horses: When you want to increase stamina you don't want to be at full effort; you need to be one or two notches below maximum, you need to sustain it longer, and you need to do it in a more inherently fun and interesting place. I had already made it more fun and interesting by running in a new location, and by having someone to run with at least part of the way…. So now I just aimed for the best, sustainable aerobic zone for ME, and committed to not judging myself about it. My pace did slow down a bit, but interestingly, when I got rid of the negative thoughts, and focused on ease of movement rather than on pushing myself, my pace did come back up again a bit!

In my Sweet Spot!

Now that I was no longer trudging along beating myself up, I could think about strategy #3: (Find the combination of Relaxation, Energy, and Balance that is best for this moment). WOW! There are a LOT of ways to run! I had already experimented when I was mirroring Jake, but he wasn't here and I needed some ideas for how to run in miles 15-18. I changed my arm position, I changed my general balance, leaning a little forward or back, playing with my posture, my focus… I played with different ways to use my legs and feet. I don't know if any of it was 'right' or 'wrong' but I discovered a lot. It made those last few miles much more fun and interesting and I gained a lot more awareness of what I can do… It wasn't my sweetest spot ever, but it was the sweet spot for me on this day on miles 15-18 of my first 18 mile run!! Ta Da!!!

And just like I tell my students: "If you take responsibility for gaining as much awareness of your own body as you can, and changing the things you know you can change, then when someone does come along with 'eyes on the ground' for you, you will be better able to absorb and implement what they tell you.

So later on the drive home, as I was happily enjoying my ice-coffee and nibbling on Fig Newmans, I smiled and thought: "You know, this Sweet Spot stuff really DOES work!

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by Karen Rohlf

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Need help with your horse? Click HERE to watch three of Karen’s training videos that give unique solutions for 3 of the most common challenges horses and riders face.

Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.