Stu’s Somatic Approach to Exercise
In 1983, Stu entered his first six-day race on a whim. He had never run for more than 24 hours at a time, and was by no means prepared for this race. He planned to run for as long as he could, and when he couldn’t run anymore, he’d stop and rest. After resting as much as he needed, he’d again run until he couldn’t run anymore, then stop and rest. This was Stu’s approach to life as well. He quickly found out that it wasn’t sustainable. By the second day, Stu was completely burnt out and ready to quit.
Luckily, a fellow runner joined Stu as he plodded around the track and gave him some life-changing advice. He pointed out that the leading runners all had a structure to their day, in which they would run for a predetermined period of time and then rest for a predetermined period of time. They would then repeat that pattern over and over. The leading runners never let themselves get depleted; they would rest before they felt worn out. This allowed them to stay in control and be productive for the entire six-day race.
Stu immediately applied this approach to his own race, creating a repeatable schedule that worked for him. And at the end of the six days, he finished the race in second place, setting a new American record.
This experience led Stu to develop a new approach to training. He began to focus not on the pace he was running, but on the experience he was having as he ran. Stu’s new priority was how effectively he could manage his state, not how fast he could run.
“Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and you must prepare accordingly. Unlike sprinters, who focus on how fast they can get to the finish line no matter the cost, endurance athletes have no finish line. There is only the present moment, in which they must remain connected to their body, in tune with their every move, in a place that feels comfortable and productive and that they are able to maintain indefinitely.” -Stu Mittleman, Slow Burn
In the book, Stu emphasizes that in order to get through a marathon—whether it be running or the marathon of life—you must develop a relationship with your body. You should treat your body as your partner; listen to its messages and don’t force it to do things it doesn’t want to do. Work with your body instead of against it. Stu advises that it is more effective to take the path of least resistance instead of ascribing to the rule of “no pain, no gain.”
It is through this process of continually paying attention to what your body is telling you that you become the expert in your body and your health. Stu writes that there is no health professional out there who is better able to make decisions about your health than you. We should learn from the experts and become as informed as possible; that knowledge, combined with a highly attuned sense of what is going on inside our body, allows us to make the best decisions about our health.
Another aspect of Stu’s training approach that’s completely in line with somatics is focusing on the process rather than the end goal. This can be a difficult thing for many people to do when they first start practicing somatic exercises. To slow down and simply focus on what you’re feeling as you move, rather than on how many repetitions you have to do or when you’ll be finished, can be extremely challenging at first. But for those of you who practice somatic exercises and have felt profound changes in your body, you know that those changes can only be achieved by focusing on the journey and allowing a process of gradual change to occur.
Taking this approach to fitness training is even more challenging. How can you get faster or stronger if you don’t set specific goals? Stu recommends setting “process oriented goals” like maintaining awareness of your breathing, your form, your comfort level, and your heart rate. This advice was one of the most significant takeaways from the book for me. For all my somatic training, I still approached my runs with the mentality that faster was better, and that I should always be pushing myself harder. There were judgmental thoughts in my mind as I ran: “Why aren’t you going faster? Why can’t you keep going? Why aren’t you in better shape?”
I’m happy to say that applying Stu’s approach gave me immediate results. By slowing down my pace and focusing on my maintaining my breathing and heart rate, I’m able to do longer runs easily, am burning more calories, and am enjoying my runs much more. I feel zero pressure to achieve anything and am able to just relax and enjoy the experience. Stu includes case studies of his clients throughout the book, and they all have this same experience.
Stu also gives helpful advice on running form. He describes imagining that the earth is rotating toward you like you’re on a giant treadmill, and all you have to do is lift up your feet just enough to let the earth pass under you. To me, this feels very much like the ChiRunning form of leaning forward slightly so that you’re falling forward as you run, rather than reaching forward with your legs. Whether the imagery of the earth rotating toward you or the idea of leaning forward makes more sense to you, either one will result in you using less effort to move forward. Stu also recommends keeping your hands and face relaxed, but not slack, and focusing on diaphragmatic breathing—inhaling down into the “ball” that he describes being inside of the triangle formed by the hips and belly button.
Stu is partial to running as a form of exercise because our bodies are designed for bipedal movement; running and walking are the most natural forms of movement for us. But as I mentioned earlier, if you don’t enjoy running and walking or you’re physically unable to, don’t worry. You can apply Stu’s principles of slow, conscious exercise to any type of movement that you enjoy.
Yet another aspect of Stu’s approach that’s in line with Clinical Somatics is that he does not advocate stretching. He says “A tight muscle doesn’t need to be stretched; it needs to be relaxed.” I agree wholeheartedly!
Note: If you read the book, you’ll learn that Stu is an advocate of muscle testing and applied kinesiology as developed by Dr. George Goodheart. This method involves the supposed connection between muscle function and internal organ function. Whether or not this connection is true is not for me to say; but, I believe that pandiculation is a far more effective method of releasing muscle tension and relieving pain.
So now let’s get into the topic you’ve been waiting for: How do I burn more fat?