Monday, December 18, 2006

The "Breakout Principle" and Trail Running

I always feel great after a long run, and for about an hour afterwards, I feel like I'm at my creative peak for the day. Isn't it always the case that you come up with your great idea in your warm down or in the shower afterwards? I had always assumed this rush of clarity was due to the runner's high, breaking a sweat, or the pleasant distraction of nature. But Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson has a different theory which he tested and documented in his book, The Breakout Principle: How to Activate the Natural Trigger That Maximizes Creativity, Athletic Performance, Productivity and Personal Well-Being. In short, he says that it's the point that we back off from a stressful event that triggers our creative peak, thanks to a transformative "relaxation response" that pumps nitric oxide through the body and helps get into the right train of thought.

(Click on the book to get a sneak preview of the text with

In the book, he outlines four critical stages of the relaxation response:
  • First, you must undergo hard mental or physical struggle. A trail run would be a perfect example of such a physical challenge. A period of mental focus, like knitting or a crossword, is an example of a mental challenge.
  • Second, during the period of stress, you pull out the "breakout trigger" that eases the mind away from the day-to-day stresses. Hanson's research shows this is more than just your mind drifting away - it is a biochemical reaction that pumps nitric oxide through the body. Nitric oxide counters the negative effects of the stress hormone (norepinephrine) that comes with step 1, thereby reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and in general lowering the metabolism. Nitric oxide is also associated with increased levels of endorphins and dopamine.
  • Third, your mind makes a clean break (referred to as a "breakout proper") and in that moment, you have a peak experience. What is the peak experience? In general, it's a positive connection of some sort, such as a new way of looking at a problem, a new idea, or perhaps a personal best athletic performance.
  • Lastly, your mind acheives a "new normal state" of mind and body, with improved performance and new brain patterns. I think this is the hour of creative bliss that I feel after my long runs.
One thing that Dr. Benson notes in his research is that it's important to ease off your stressful event before it becomes too stressful. Citing the Yerkes-Dodson Law, formulated by Harvard researchers Robert M.Yerkes and John D. Dodson in 1908, he says that efficiency and performance increase as stress increases, but only up to a certain point. When stress becomes too great, performance and efficiency tend to decline, the researchers discovered. So for optimizing your mental game, going reaaaallly long may not be the best thing.

My Breakout Lesson

I had a life-changing breakout moment on one of my long runs a few years back, and I continue to reference it regularly to keep my life in balance. It happened around mile 9 (where it almost always happens) on a Thursday morning run in Huddart Park, when this thought entered my head:

"There is no such thing as work/life balance. There is only life balance."

It was a simple thought, but profound. At this time in my life, all of my fun actitivites were largely to balance out the stress of my job. I needed to to run to stay fit for long days at work...I had to take vacations because I was of the verge of exhaustion...I had to interact with my family to tether me back to reality after talking about the future high tech all day. It hadn't occured to me think of work as a cohesive part of my life - it was always at odds with everything. Is there a job out there that doesn't create unneeded stress, has respect for my personal life, and embraces who I am? Is it possible to get peace of mind FROM work? Absolutely. I resigned from my job soon afterwards.

I still think about "life balance" regularly, especially in this time of the season when my running is purely for fun and not for an upcoming event. Everything contributes to balance, and probably nothing more than finding an easy way to reach your creative peak regularly.

How about you guys? Any breakout thoughts or experiences that have helped you? Feel free to leave comments if you would like. I hope you are all enjoying the holiday season.

Thanks, SD


  1. The best time to handle stress is when there is little stress in your life, or your perception of feeling stressed.

    Of course most of us tend to try and deal with it when it crops up on us unexpected, but then it is an uphill struggle.

    Your running helps your stress levels before it crops up on you.Chances are you will feel less than others, but when life does become difficult, you are much stronger than most of us to deal with it.
    I respect anyone who chooses their life that way.


  2. I would be happy to share my work situation in hopes it might help.

    I love working in the high tech industry because it changes so fast. But I would often fall in love with a company/concept and take a job, only later to find out that the work culture was brutal. Since I regarded work as work, and life as "the rest", it didn't even dawn on me to ask questions during the interview about how a job might help me achieve better life balance. To no surprise, 90-hour work weeks with regaular 2am calls from assholes became my life. It was my own fault.

    After I quit that job, I started asking the right questions in 2003, and got a job at Avolent. Really nice people who still loved a tough mental challenge. They also loved the fact that I was a trail running fool, and would often modify my work travel schedule to help me hit races I wanted to do. Can you believe that? I returned the favor by being respectful of the life goals of my co-workers, and kicking in to cover for others when it made sense. Our work relationship was based on trust and communication - I didn't even know that was possible in Silicon Valley.

    I ended up taking the example to the extreme with NearbyNow a few years later. We started a company in a growing field, and built the blueprint for company culture from scratch. Why not start a company that is respectful of life balance, fill it with the right people, make it "family friendly", and lead by example? If Avolent proved anything, the company could be far more productive than any sweat shop.

    It turns out to be right. With less than a dozen employees, NearbyNow has created more value than I ever thought possible in a start-up. Plus it's a lot of fun to work here. Many of us still work crazy hours sometimes, but not because it's forced on us by crazy deadlines - it's because it's what we love to do, and being creative here helps balance out our lives.

    When I've shared this with others, some of them had gone back to their existing bosses and asked important questions about life balance. Much to their surprise, their boss would say "perhaps you could have more time with your kids if you can come in at 10am every day - just keep the great work coming, and I have no issue with that". If you are performing well for your company, just ask - you might actually get it!

    Hope that helps...


  3. Hi Scott,

    Long time reader, first time responder. Love your blog! And thank you for this post. After reading it, I felt compelled to share a recent experience that relates to this concept (I think).

    A couple of months ago, I moved to a new place, and I had to do it largely by myself. The night before the move I was standing in my apartment, staring at a pile of boxes, and wondering how I was going to do it. I felt completely overwhelmed.

    I had to get away and went for my run. About a mile in, this odd feeling of warmth and calm came over me. I am not sure what triggered it, be it the run itself, the cool, quiet evening, or the combination of both, but I started feeling energized, and began to develop a sense that everything would be OK. I felt strong, running faster and faster, and was incredibly emotional afterwards. The run was an absolute gift.

    When I got back into my apartment, I had a completely new outlook. For some reason, the prospect of moving didn't seem so bad, now (and it wasn't...I got everything moved in half the time I thoguht it would take me!). When I read your description of the four stages of the relaxation response, I could picture them in my experience.

    Anyhow, thanks for letting me share, and keep up the fantastic work. I am continually inspired by the things I read here.

    Kind regards,

    Jean in MN

  4. Hi Scott,

    I didn't know there was science behind walking and getting ideas. Its absolutely true. I often walk back and forth like a hamster pacing around its cage and I come up with solutions to problems I have with work, domesticity,blah blah...That's when i decide...yes I'll write this particular line...

    Great obeservation!

  5. I have run at Huddart ... however for me nothing tops running at Forest Park.
    The lush forest, free access, trailside berry patches, wonderful variety of trails, incredible amount of trails (>75 miles including some pedestrian-only), and sparse visitors make it idyllic as far as I'm concerned.

    Earlier this year I was ramping up my trail running miles and doing a 13.5 mile run along a trail there, which would set a personal best for the year and probably my life (I contend with a variety of injuries that are a barrier to longer distances). I was at about mile 10, not doing bad, but getting a little tired when I noticed a brass plaque embedded in a rock low along the trail. I had been by this section before but never noticed it. I stopped and read it:

    "Be Free Where You Are" -- Thich Nhat Hanh

    and I was bowled over... this was such a perfect message for me at that moment... I smiled as it felt like I was totally free. I practically floated down the trail, totally appreciative of whomever put the message there and all the ramifications of taking those words to heart.

    Trail running this year has made all the difference in my life... I'm am so much more balanced in every aspect of my life when I can do a few trail runs a week. The breakout principle may have inspired me at times, but the hardest part is getting to the trail when work has a big commute element, or when people in your life are suffering and need lots of loving attention.


  6. This is very interesting. Does this imply that shorter distance running is better for reaching a creative peak than long distance running? I couldn't tell by your quote.

  7. I can definitely relate to what that book says. I've found that after school (I'm only in high school, so I don't have a job yet) I feel really drained from all the teachers yabbering. But then I go for my run, and my brain just feels so much better, and I get things done way more efficiently than any other time.


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