Contrast that with, say, your last 10K race — jostling bodies at the starting line, loud music propelling you past every mile marker, muscles flexing, sweat beading, fist pumping as you cross the finish line.
At first glance, these disparate scenarios don’t seem related, but recent research on the subject finds that they actually go hand in hand and that practicing one could improve performance in the other.
Control Is an Illusion
The mental aspect of athletic performance has been studied extensively over the years and experts used to promote mental power as a way to close out negative thoughts and ensure competitive success, but that position is now outdated. “Rather than trying to control your thoughts, mindfulness helps you choose how to react to those thoughts,” suggests meditation expert Jamie Price, co-founder of Stop, Breathe & Think, an app that promotes mindful meditation.
Price points to several studies that link this practice to athletic success, including one published in the journal Behavior Therapy wherein mindfulness techniques led to a significant reduction in distracting thoughts and worries, as well as an increase in the athlete’s enjoyment, training intensity and overall performance.
Another study, led by Harvard-affiliated researchers and published in the journal Psychiatry Research, demonstrated that eight weeks of meditation literally changed the brains of participants by improving their learning ability and memories, increasing awareness while reducing anxiety and stress — all benefits for those chasing better performance.
Yet another study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience found that participants trained to increase mindfulness during activities demonstrated higher activation in the parts of the brain responsible for processing pain and internal stimuli, such as hunger, shortness of breath and rapid heart rate. “Such increased activation allows the body to more adaptively deal with stressful situations,” Price points out.
There’s no firm consensus as to how often or how long you need to perform meditative exercises in order to elicit a positive training benefit, but as with anything, practice makes perfect. “Daily practice will create the foundation needed to apply those skills in a high-pressure situation,” Price says.
Her recommendations: Begin and end each workout with a couple of minutes of meditation, focusing on your breath and body to help create an intention for that workout and to bring your attention to the present moment. During your workout, maintain that mind/body connection by remaining conscious of your breathing, focusing on the contraction of your muscles, and being mindful of your exertion to eliminate distracting thoughts and stave off fatigue.
“Bringing mindful attention to bodily sensations is an effective way to redirect [the mind] from any internal dialogue around flagging energy or fading concentration, which often makes that negative condition worse,” Price explains. “Substantial research shows that when we focus on what we shouldn’t do — like give up — our tendency is to do the exact thing we are avoiding.” This means that meditation isn’t just helpful before and after training — it also could be your secret weapon in the heat of battle when you need to push yourself just a little harder to cross the line before your adversaries.
The bottom line: Meditation is readily accessible to everyone and can be called on anytime as an effective performance enhancer. Best of all, you have all the tools to master this practice inside your own head, whenever you need them — in the starting blocks, across the finish line and all those exhilarating moments in between.