Earlier this week, Spanish Ultrarunner, Kilian Jornet smashed all records as he ran/walked/climbed Mt. Everest unassisted (no oxygen,fixed ropes or guides) in 26 hours.  For perspective, most experienced climbers spend 4-7 days doing this same thing and have teams to assist them.  Ultra runners are just crazy.  Let’s all nod in agreement.

My first introduction to ultra running came when a local girl ran the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler.  As I was struggling to finish a 5K (3.1 miles) my brain could not fathom how someone could run for 50 miles–or more.

Here was my problem:  I thought people ran an ultra the same way they did the mile–an all out effort that leaves you tired and breathless.   I was so wrong.

Danny Dreyer, the creator of Chi Running has finished over 48 ultras (any distance greater than a 26.2 mile marathon) and typically finishes in the top 3 of his age group.  He explains that the secret to ultra running is learning to operate within your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  We are about to get a little nerdy here.  You see, our autonomous nervous system (the thing that makes sure our body functions without us thinking about it) can operate along two different paths.  The first, the PNS keeps us in homeostasis.  Think calm.  It controls the “rest and digest” functions of our body.  It’s counterpart is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is what we need when a tiger bursts free from the circus van and decided to chase us around the block.  With this system, our heart rate rises, sugar from the liver (quick energy) floods our system in conjunction with adrenaline, cortisol and all the other natural stress responses start taking place.  SNS gets you fired up!

There are times in life where we really need the SNS–like during sprints or when our toddler decides to practice flying by jumping off the countertop.  The problem arises when we start pulling from that system for everything in life.  Our body can’t tell the difference between the stress of rescuing our toddler, the box jumps in cross-fit or the stress of trying to finish a project at the last minute.  Do you worry a lot?  Yep, you are activating SNS.  All of this is translated to stress.

Stress comes at a cost.  American Psychological Association CEO Norman B. Anderson PhD explained during a panel discussion, “Seventy five percent of health-care costs are associated with chronic illness.  What’s a key driver in chronic illness?  Stress.”

Dr. Bruce S. McEwen of Rockefeller University explains that stress weakens the immune system, strains the heart, damages memory cells and deposits fat around the waist where it encircles vital organs which creates major complications.

You get it.  Chronic stress is bad.  If so much of our life keeps us in the SNS, how can we ever follow Dreyer’s secret of operating in the PNS?  You could spend thousands of dollars on programs created by bio-hackers.  However, a free answer is probably laying somewhere in your home.

You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Isaiah 55:12

He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.  Psalm 23:2

The stress of modern life is no surprise to God.  He created solutions before we even knew there would be a problem.  So, how can you quickly transition from SNS to PNS?

 1.  Get outside.  You may not have green pastures or still waters readily available, but the Lord can still restore your soul when you surround yourself with His creation.  Study after study shows the power of just 10-15 minutes of sun exposure each day.  Studies show that smelling pine needles naturally lower cortisol levels in the blood.  Look at a tree and think about all that God put into the creation of that single tree.  Look at the bark or the individual leaves.  This helps redirect your mind.

2.  Give thanks.  Secular studies show the power of gratitude.  Even if you don’t list something you are thankful for, just thinking about being thankful starts to release anti-stress hormones and enzymes such as prolactin and oxytocin in the body.  It’s no surprise that scientific research backs up what the Lord tells us to do over and over–give thanks.

3.  Are you ready for the quickest most sure fire way to bring peace to your body?  Pray.  When we directly connect with God, it’s like His lifeline is reaching down to us and filling us with His power and peace.  Researchers talk of the Vagus nerve and yoga experts will say you can stimulate it by making sound–the whole “oooommmm” thing.  Back in High school I quickly learned that if I spend for a few seconds or minutes praying in the Spirit before a test or competition, my heart rate would lower, I could concentrate and a feeling of peace would descend upon me.  People are spending thousands of dollars to learn to meditate when all they really need to do is ask the Holy Spirit to dwell in them and then learn to tap into praying in His language.  Confused?  Check this out or if you are in Lubbock, TX, visit here.

In order to stay in the PNS while running, you have to run slow (relatively).  For example, when running a mile, Suzy may run a 7 min mile.  When doing a half marathon she may run a 9 minute mile.  When doing an ultra she may be running a 14 min  mile.  For an ultra you SLOW DOWN.  You take walk breaks.  You breathe and you let your body relax.  It’s not uncommon in ultras for people to be doing 15-30 minute miles because the goal is to enjoy the journey and do it in a way that doesn’t overly stress the body.

Isn’t that our goal in life as well–to enjoy the journey?  Today, let’s embrace our PNS and celebrate the things that bring peace.  For me, I’m pumped because I have another ultra coming up soon–mountains, waterfalls, old train trestles and a two mile tunnel through a mountain.  How could life get better?  Summiting Everest isn’t anywhere on my list, but I bet Jornet sure enjoyed the view.

What about you?  What is bringing you peace?

Deanna is a wife, mother and life group leader who daily lives in the Grace of God’s Goodness. She also loves alliteration and a good, long run.