A month or two ago, in circle, I was reminded of  something Nick Crossley wrote. Nick is a circuit training enthusiast who happens to also be a sociologist. One of his many insightful observations about circuit training, an exercise regimen involving ‘circuits’ of exercise—two minutes swinging a kettle bell, rest, two minutes holding a plank position, rest, etc.—is that this ritual involves a “lived temporality.” Participants in class learn how to gain a feel for the effort required and how to distribute that effort over time. This is called ‘pacing yourself’.  To know how to pace yourself, you need to know three sorts of things. You need to know how to perform an exercise, you need to know how much effort it takes to perform that exercise, and—just as importantly—you need to know how much effort you are capable of exerting overall.[1] To ‘find your pace’ is to divide your total capacity for effort according to the precise needs of the exercise in question so that you are never doing too much or too little.

The class prior had resembled a circuit. We had alternated ‘sparring’ and wrestling over a forty-five minute period. It was a lot of work. Then, after that difficult circuit, we had some time to do ‘free work’ involving grabs. At the end of class, during circle, many fellow students expressed frustration at their performance during the final drill. They were breathing heavy, faces still reddened by elevated blood pressure. Their frustration, so far as I could see, was not due to a lack of skill or general ability, but due to a lack of pacing. They had done too much during the circuit and now their bodies and minds could not find comfort.

Keeping your pace, in my experience, involves being able to remain yourself when presented with a conflict. While sparring, for instance, I sometimes feel that I am exceeding my overall ability. My breathing starts to get away from me and a wave of something resembling panic begins to flood the system. During such moments I have to be willing to throttle back even if it means expending less effort than my partner. I have to let him ‘out work’ me. Similarly, with wrestling, I try to find relaxation and efficiency even while my partner tries to smother me with their higher effort. I let myself lose so that I can win a more important contest. This is finding and keeping your own pace.

When you learn how to find your pace and to keep it, to give yourself over to it as a discipline, everything is less frustrating. Moreover, learning goes deeper because you can ‘stay inside yourself,’ not letting the exercise steal your consciousness.

Try this: next time you are sparring or wrestling with someone and you start to feel your breathing get away from you or start to hear your heart beating in your ears, take a moment to turn down the volume of your effort. Make it your goal to keep working but recover at the same time. You may find yourself at a momentary disadvantage in some sort of mock combat scenario, but that’s okay. You’ll be learning a much more valuable skill. You’ll be learning how to endure.

Learning how to endure is probably the most important thing anyone can do in the contest of life.

[1] Nick Crossley, “The Circuit Trainer’s Habitus: Reflexive Body Techniques and the Sociality of the Workout,” Body and Society, 10.1 (2o04): 48-48

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