Speeding Up By Slowing Down

Twice in my life, I trained extensively for serious long distance running. When I was still a pre-teen, I joined my family in informal training with a former Olympic miler, and ran my first half marathon when I was 11 years old. Eight years ago, I began working towards my own marathons (while also finishing up my doctorate and adjunct teaching six days per week). Each time, the coaching I received derived from the basic belief that the only way to learn how to run fast is to run fast. I enjoy competition, especially its ability to allow me to push myself beyond what I had perceived previously as my own limitations, and I thrived on this speed and distance regimen. Until, as invariably happens, I got injured.

Similarly, my impatience and internal competitive drive has increased the level of difficulty involved in my learning to perform new musical repertoire. My will to push myself paradoxically left me covering the same ground year after year without improving my basic skill level on the instruments I studied. Instead of working to play pieces correctly, I would increase the speed until my mistakes would force me to stop. I also would practice for hours after sitting idly for days, leading to hand soreness that would re-set this unhealthy cycle. In short, my internal need to be good immediately had exactly the opposite effect over time.

As I researched techniques for distance training, I kept coming across stories of world record setters whose regimen consisted of huge daily doses of very slow jogging—or, in the case of the early 20th-century marathoners, walking—interspersed with limited and focused runs at race pace, and the rare bit of speed work at faster speeds. The slow work builds the endurance that allows them to maintain their fastest tempo on the rare occasions when speed is an absolute necessity.

Over the past few months, I’ve begun the process of re-learning how to run. Instead of the well-cushioned trainers of yesteryear, I’ve been wearing minimal shoes that have forced me to recalibrate my stride in order to reduce the wear on my knees. The resulting gait is quieter, more efficient, and—at least in my present condition—significantly slower. While each run is at a pace that I would have considered embarrassingly tortoise-like a few years ago, I believe that I’m building the sort of endurance that will eventually allow me to cover more ground than before while needing less recovery time between excursions.

When watching sporting events, the most successful athletes seem to be floating above the others, moving calmly and with directed purpose while the others flail about them. After performing exceptional feats, they often describe their process as being that of relaxing and letting things come to them. The famous “zone,” the state of mind that allows them to do things that appear superhuman, seems to be a place where things slow down.

I’m trying to apply this relaxed and steady approach to many different aspects of my life, and am finding that it’s allowed me to progress farther and faster than I had thought possible. I’m trying to put myself into a state of mind that will allow me to focus on the tasks at hand, to proceed at pace without feeling like I’m rushing myself. I’m trying to tend to those things that need immediate attention while allowing myself time to let everything else slowly percolate in the background. I’m hoping that there is an artistic equivalent of the zone and that the key to entering it is to move slowly.

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2 thoughts on “Speeding Up By Slowing Down

  1. Michael Robinson

    Here are a few musical examples of slowing things down to enter into the realm of “the zone” that came to mind after reading this insightful piece:

    Beethoven taking the time to hand copy the entire scores of Handel’s Messiah, including the libretto, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, in order to fully experience the details and complexities.

    Charlie Parker listening to Lester Young’s recorded improvisations at half speed in order to learn to play them himself. (Lee Konitz, whose friends included Leonard Bernstein, once told me that Parker was easily the most intelligent person he ever encountered.)

    The opening alap of Indian ragas, without tempo, where traditionally, the musician endeavors to “touch a color’ with a musical prayer for the deity of the raga to descend from heaven to earth, and give blessings.

    Reply

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