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It all started when Theresa Winterhalter introduced yoga into her training routine. The 49-year-old Army Reserve soldier, marathoner and Tri-Fitness obstacle-course competitor had long taken care of her body, but with yoga, she quickly saw the benefits of also training her mind. Winterhalter took the mindfulness techniques she was learning in yoga, such as breathing, setting intentions and focusing thoughts on specific bodyparts, and applied them to her workouts.
“Before each workout, I take a few minutes to think about what I want to get out of that time,” Winterhalter says. “Just that simple act of reflection and intention setting has helped my performance tremendously,” she says. Now when she works out, Winterhalter doesn’t just think sets and reps, but she also focuses on cultivating a stronger meditation practice. “Go through the motions and you’ll get a physical response out of it,” Winterhalter says, “but the more that you can put your mind into your muscle, the better athlete you’ll come out on the other end.”
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From world-class athletes who employ meditation practices to Google employees enrolled in “neural hacking” classes that teach meditation as a means of unlocking productivity, meditation has become the newest oldest secret weapon in strengthening focus and improving performance.
Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of the meditation program Headspace, hears stories like Winterhalter’s all the time. A former high-level competitive gymnast with a circus arts degree, Puddicombe spent several years as a Buddhist monk, studying at a Tibetan monastery. He left the monastery to found the Headspace program, with a mission to demystify meditation by introducing techniques that take just 10 minutes a day. He now works with people from all walks of life, including the British Olympic team. “It’s all about how to make this amazing skill that anyone can do practical, relevant and accessible to everyone’s life,” he says.
One reason meditation works is because it calms the body. “When we meditate, rather than getting involved in stress response, we get a relaxation response,” Puddicombe says. “The body doesn’t produce the harmful chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline and lactic acid.” By decreasing the harmful chemicals, you’re better able to benefit from the training you’ve done. When you make it a regular practice, meditation helps you approach exercise and performance from a different place. “It’s about being more able to relax and be in the moment rather than getting caught up in negative thinking,” Puddicombe says.
Focus On The Moment
There’s mounting evidence supporting the benefits of mindful meditation — that is, paying attention to your mind and noticing when it goes off into tangential thoughts about the past or future. “You bring [your mind] back to the present by focusing on physical sensations, your breath, or whatever you choose,” explains Tonya Jacobs, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, Center for Mind and Brain.
Her team found that when people can direct their attention to present thoughts using mindfulness training, it’s correlated with lower resting cortisol levels. Short-term increases in cortisol help us to adapt to stressors, Jacobs says, but if cortisol remains high, it can increase the risk for various diseases, accelerate the aging process, and exacerbate the bodily wear and tear caused by daily stressors.
Better Your Brain
New research is also showing that meditation doesn’t just have a temporary effect on your brain but can actually alter the brain’s pathways. “Meditation increases neuroplasticity, which is the capacity for the brain to change itself,” says neuroscientist Gaelle Desbordes, Ph.D., a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her 2012 study demonstrated that meditation training helped people better manage their emotional response when faced with things that would usually cause stress.
Desbordes and her team found that after eight weeks, participants had a less active amygdala (the emotional center of the brain that’s responsible for the fight or flight response) during stressful events. Participants practiced meditation training once a week in a group session for two hours. They were then asked to practice every day for 20 to 30 minutes. (On average, they reported doing about 15 minutes a day.) “We used to think you would need more time for that kind of rewiring,” Desbordes says, “but just eight weeks was enough to see changes in the brain.”
Women who are very active sometimes discount meditation because it feels lazy, but Desbordes maintains that the opposite is true. “It’s an active break that promotes regeneration and helps you recapture your own strength,” she says. It’s not just about deserving a break from working out — it turns out that to perform at your best and to reach the highest levels of focus, you actually need one.
Preworkout Meditation Techniques
1. Do a body scan.
Sit or stand (eyes closed if sitting, open if standing) and move your thought from the bottom of your body to the top. Start by becoming aware of the sensation of your feet on the floor, then scan up and become aware of how the different parts of your body feel. Once you reach the top, scan back down. “Often, we’re not even aware of tension in different parts,” says meditation expert Andy Puddicombe. “It’s amazing the difference it makes in helping you feel more grounded and present and ready to begin.”
2. Hydrate mindfully.
Sit down with a glass of water in front of you. As you lift the cup, feel the weight of it as you bring it to your mouth. Instead of swigging it back, really taste it. Take four to six mouthfuls, and be aware each time. Follow the path of water down into your stomach. “Essentially, you’re using the water as a focal point, to bring mind into body,” Puddicombe says. “The effect is that as the mind slows down, you start to feel more grounded and mentally prepared for your workout.”
3. Try a breath of reflection.
Before a strength-training or cardio workout, sit in a quiet spot and take deep breaths in through your nose, advises meditation practitioner Bernice Haro. Living in Germany as a military wife, Haro started meditating when her husband was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 and she found herself stressed (even while working out). “As I breathe, I reflect on the positive that I can include in my life to be able to create a better mind, a better body and a better soul,” she says. “I reflect on how I can be a humble and positive example for others. And I reflect on my weekly weight training and nutrition and how I can improve these two aspects for the betterment of my body.”