The Power of Counting

How to stay present in tough situations, hard effort activity or even when stress is high.

Presence is a difficult state to be in especially when pushing into harder efforts or even tough life circumstances. 

The great thing about doing hard things in fitness, athletics or even just a hard recreational hike is that it often parallels life. The roller coaster of thoughts from “this is impossible” to “wow I cannot believe I did that!” give an intense emotional ride. And I would argue this will only help you for the next tough fight that life throws at you. 

Longer distances and harder pursuits require full attention in the present moment. Worrying about your life circumstances, if you are prepared enough and if you will make it to the finish only make your effort feel harder. 

The best examples of pure presence are in children. Watch them jump, play and run and you can tell they are only thinking about completing that moments task. 

As adults our blessing and our curse is the ability to reason and multitask. We may even pride ourselves on being able to do something hard while still considering plans for a future date. But when it comes to real performance we have to make quick decisions by staying in the moment. We all know the feeling of being our own worst enemy and imposing self limitations. 

So if you want a tried and true means to stay present, try counting. The next time you feel yourself slipping into thoughts about the past or future, simply count up to four breaths, and then start back over at one. Repeat this process, and be in tune with how it feels to breathe. 

An alternative to this is the count every other step or every time your right foot hits the ground. It’s not a competition so you don’t need to continue counting upwards. Instead count to 10 and when you get there start all over again. It sounds easy enough, but it can be quite challenging to not let your mind drift onto something else even as you continue to count. Even if you do drift, simply  acknowledge that you’re drifting, and just start over counting again while experiencing the feeling of your feet hitting the ground.

This is also a great way to hone in on your breathing as you push harder paces, come up the top of the hill, or finish a sprint and begin your recovery lap. Drawing out your breath can help you bring your heart rate down and recover to a lower heart rate zone.

Do not be surprised as you get better at this that miles and time really seem to slip away. Anecdotally, I have had many runs which turned from bad to good simply by ignoring the mental chatter and focusing on the count. I have found that this can be the difference between wishing the run was over to finishing strong and feeling like you gave it your best solid effort. 

If you would like to hear how other endurance athletes are using the power of presence - Check out this TED Talk.

Strength training enthusiasts and athletes of all backgrounds can benefit from this style of presence. Whether you are downhill skiing and making your next series of turns or on a breakaway with the ball in hand you can time your next moves with the power of counting. 

Give it a try on your next hard effort and see if you find some room to relax and settle into the present moment.