How Gregorian chants helped me find my running rhythm

It's a question of belief whether divine intervention can help your fitness program, but I can attest that God's music can make you  a faster runner.

A little more than two years ago, I made the decision to become a healthier person. With the eating habits of a teenager (and a journalist who works the night shift) and the body of a reader, physical health was truly a foreign concept. I had reached my 30s, and it was time for a change. I wanted how I looked on the outside to match how I felt on the inside.

So in early 2012, I ran a third of a mile in a D.C. park. It was awful. But it was a start. Then I ran in a 3-mile race, a half marathon and, on a dream trip, my dad and I traveled to Argentina last October, where I ran the Maraton de Buenos Aires. It  is South America's largest, with more than 8,000 people running through the famed neighborhoods of Argentina's capital. My goal was to finish, which I did in a time of 4:55:11, averaging nearly 11 minutes per mile.

I also adopted the paleo lifestyle and took up CrossFit. I've lost 60 pounds and kept it off,  dropped six pants sizes and become more mindful about the decisions I make, and what it means be healthy.

When it came time to train for my second marathon, I turned to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Palestrina wasn't a running coach but a 16th century composer of  sacred music. His compositions, still sung in Masses worldwide, helped revolutionize choral music in religious settings in the Western world.

Palestrina popularized polyphonic music, the use of two or more vocal melodies incorporated into a single song, in the Latin rite. After much debate (and a few charges of heresy), polyphonic music was added to the Latin Mass and helped start a musical renaissance in the Middle Ages.

Before this, most hymns and liturgical songs were sung in what is known as "plainchant." The most famous of this style are Gregorian chants. Said to originate from Pope Gregory the Great in the 7th century, the chants are monophonic, the singing of a phrase or verse as one melody in unison, with no accompanying harmonies.

When I first started running, I would listen to whatever was on my Internet streaming station, and to podcasts for longer runs. I  found that I had to choose between focusing on what I was hearing or my running. I wasn't getting faster or more consistent and I couldn't summarize the main points of the podcast.

A friend recommended I listen to jazz, because the improvisational style can aid in finding rhythm. It didn't help. On a whim, I switched over to the Palestrina station and heard the Gregorian chants. Soon I would find them, well, instrumental to my fitness program.

The simplicity of the Gregorian chants helped me focus on that one melody. And unless you know Latin, the words are mysteries. So, you concentrate on the rhythm, rather than the interpretations of the words.

Palestrina's motets and hymns enveloped me, completely drowning out the outside world. It was like stepping into a vast cathedral or concert hall and becoming surrounded by the harmonies. They create a meditative experience whose purpose isn't to finish at a certain pace, but rather just to run.

After I started listening to the chants on my Sunday morning endurance runs, I told friends that I was attending the "Church of the Long Run." Running became worship of sorts.

I found that once I stopped thinking about getting faster and just focused on the moment, I became faster. I finished my last marathon in 4:11:46, an average of 9:37 per mile. I had shaved more than 40 minutes off my Buenos Aires time, with lots of room for improvement. And yes, I was chanting the whole race.

Read more: Music: Your best workout buddy.

Mike Plunkett is a designer on the Washington Post's Presentation Desk.

Mike Plunkett is a designer and MisFits columnist.
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