The mind is a powerful tool, and building your mental game is an important facet to becoming the best athlete you can be. After all, you can be as physically capable as you want, but if you lose focus, can’t keep your head in the game, or succumb to feelings of defeat before you even begin, you’re naturally going to have a cap on how well you can perform.
But that then begs the question — how do you train the mind as you would the body? What’s the equivalent of deliberate, accurate practice? And how does it apply to other facets of your training, like cross training?
Approaching the mental aspect of athletic training can sometimes feel overwhelming. There are countless tactics you can use to get your mind in shape for peak performance, ranging anywhere from employing personal mantras to seeing a sports psychologist, and every athlete responds differently.
That said, there’s one approach in particular that’s recently been growing in popularity: meditation.
What Is Meditation?
Let’s start with the very basics so we’re all on the same page about what we’re talking about.
When we think about meditation, it often conjures images of someone sitting in an upright, cross-legged position with their eyes gently shut and their face content. In reality, this is only one of many traditional forms of meditation, but it’s not a completely inaccurate visual to represent the skill.
The image of meditation represents the peace, serenity, and acceptance intended to come with it — but the practice to achieve that true state of presence comes with time and practice (not unlike athletic movements and training, right?).
In mindful meditation, practitioners are working towards presence in the current moment, and acceptance of it exactly as it is, without judgment or desiring to change it. It’s about noticing — observing your thoughts, internal desires, emotional responses, external stimulus, and nearly anything else that goes into your existence in the world at this exact moment.
Now, that may sound a little esoteric (and it is), but there are many different approaches to achieving presence and mindfulness, and restricting our definition to a single method would be overly restrictive.
Though there are many varied approaches, a common place to start is in drawing your focus to the air moving in and out of your lungs as you breathe. Though it sounds simple in theory, the challenge comes from staying present with the breath, and learning how to calmly bring your attention back if your mind wanders elsewhere.
Focusing on breathing is a great stepping stone for achieving mindfulness: it allows you to exist in the present moment and brings awareness to our physical and mental space. Actively training your mind to stay in the “here and now” can be a challenging but deeply rewarding skill in the modern age of constant work and action.
General Benefits of Meditation
From a general standpoint, there are many health benefits associated with consistent meditative practice.
Many people on the scientific side of things still express some disagreement or uncertainty about its true benefits, as it’s hard to nail down whether or not meditation is the sole cause of these physiological or psychological improvements. But, plenty of studies demonstrate a strong correlation between meditation and mental and physical benefits, and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly positive.
However, you know us — here at Competitive Edge, we like to dot our I’s and cross our T’s when it comes to science.
So, let’s jump into the many recorded benefits of meditation and how it can play a role in your athletic performance.
Let’s first start with the most tangible outcomes: that is, the physical benefits that can be measured by metrics or feeling.
One of the most common correlations with meditation is stress reduction, and it’s often cited as an excellent means for mentally removing oneself from external stressors and allowing the mind to achieve isolated calmness. Many studies have shown how meditation leads to decreased blood pressure and reduced levels of cortisol (a common stress hormone). These physical reactions are often referred to as your body’s “relaxation response,” which, in its simplest definition, is the opposite of its “stress response.”
As a result, your body is better able to stay in a relaxed state, improving your ability to sleep, manage pain responses, and control your physical state through breathing techniques.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that meditation doesn’t function as a substitution for proper medical care or expertise — it’s more so a supplemental practice that can boost your overall health (and training!) in the bigger picture.
Of course, the benefits of stress reduction reach well beyond feeling physically better; it also has a major impact on mental and emotional health.
When utilizing mindfulness, you increase your ability to focus on something in the present that may otherwise be taken for granted in our everyday lives. Oftentimes, this can lead to a shift in perspective, making everyday stressors appear more manageable in the grand scheme of things and reducing your focus on “what ifs” in the future. Many people experience increased feelings of gratitude, serenity, or introspection as a result.
As you further adapt to this heightened mental awareness, it’s opportunity to reset the mind: you get to clear it of the constant streams of information and stimuli around you. This creates more mental space in the brain, allowing for improved memory, enhanced emotional regulation, and reduced likelihood for anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Much of this is heavily correlated with the physiological relaxation response, since the reduced levels of cortisol play an important role in your mental and emotional well-being, too.
Okay: we know that meditation is a great method to get both our bodies and minds to slow down… but how does that benefit your athletic performance?
Let’s extrapolate a bit.
On the physical and physiological side of things, having reduced levels of stress hormones is much more ideal for your body’s recovery following a good workout. Your muscles are more capable of a true state of relaxation, and having decreased blood pressure is indicative that your heart isn’t overworking itself to supply oxygen and blood flow to the rest of your body as you’re recovering.
What’s more is that this relaxation response plays a major role in improved sleep — which, in the big picture of training and sports performance, is an undeniably important facet of successful athleticism. (That, and better sleep begets better focus, functionality, and overall health.)
To that end, much of the mental benefit to meditation allows you to keep your head clear and dialed into your movement and training. With more focus under your belt, you’re less likely to be distracted or swayed by all the external stimuli of your environment as you move through your runs.
You’re also more likely to achieve better mental fortitude, especially as your emotional regulation develops. With more mental and emotional control, it’ll become easier to maintain a steady training schedule while also staying motivated (as opposed to getting stuck in a training rut and simply going through the motions).
And, as the pressure of competition sets in, you’re more capable of viewing setbacks or stressors as things that are just “happening,” rather than labelling them as good or bad and allowing them to way your perception of your abilities.
For instance — have a rough run right before a big race? That doesn’t mean you’re a bad runner, are going to have a subpar race, or haven’t peaked at the right time. It means you had a more difficult run than usual, and that doesn’t change who you are or the training you’ve put in up to that point. You can show up to race day ready to rock.
Through mindfulness and non-judgemental observations, you’re learning to accept things the way they are, including the natural ebb and flow of any training, without assigning undue magnitude to the events or allowing reactionary emotions to sway your response. You can stay focused, in the moment, without fear of failure (that’s a future what-if!) or the weight of previous events detracting from your ability to be the best you can be, right now.
So, meditation has much more to offer than some peace of mind. Both the physiological and mental benefits contribute to the larger well-being of your athletic capability and training, so taking on meditative practices may just be the supplementary habit you’ve been missing.
How to Incorporate Meditation into Your Routine
So, now that we’ve explored the benefits of meditation, let’s take some time to address the elephant in the room… how to meditate.
We already know that there’s no one strict way to meditate, and the beauty of having a practice is that there are plenty of techniques that allow a person to most effectively meditate based on their unique needs and how their body responds to the practice. You can even use more than one!
Choose a Starting Point
Even though you can incorporate multiple techniques into your practice long term, when you’re just starting out it can help to choose one technique and commit to practicing it consistently for a few weeks. This will help to develop a routine and give your mind the opportunity to practice the new skill.
There are quite a few variations to the traditional method of meditation we’re most familiar with, including more religiously or emotionally inclined practices, guided meditations, or sound or visually focused mediations.
In order to set yourself up for success, you want to choose a process that suits your personality and preferences best. You’re more likely to stick to something that you enjoy, or that doesn’t feel completely impossible at first. So, when you’re starting out, look for a practice that seems appealing and accessible, and if nothing fits that bill — start with what seems the simplest!
For help building a consistent practice at first, there are many apps that provide beginner guided programs, even offering different focus options. Some of the most popular ones are Calm, Balance, Headspace, and Insight Timer. Plus, with digital support, you can keep track of your sessions and set reminders for a specific time.
And that leads us to the next piece of building a new meditation practice…
Set a Consistent Meditation Schedule
Once you determine what kind of meditation you respond best to, it’s also important to make a habit out of it, and that means establishing a regular routine.
The good news is that when you do it is just about as malleable as how you do it; some people thrive best when they start their day with meditation, others benefit more if they practice just before bed. It’s also entirely possible to apply meditative techniques as you’re training too, whether it be in the form of a motivational mantra or simply focusing on the rhythm of your movement.
What you want to ensure, though, is that you don’t let meditation fall to the wayside. Though it’s malleable, it’s not something that should be pushed around to accommodate busy or changing schedules.
While many people will say you need to meditate daily, that may feel like too much when you’re just starting out. You can begin by picking a few days each week and setting aside deliberate time to focus on meditating; some athletes like before or after training, while others like to either start or end their day by incorporating meditation into their wake-up or wind-down routines.
It can help to attach your new practice to something you already do regularly, such as meditating while your coffee brews, or taking 10 minutes in between showering and climbing into bed. That way, it folds seamlessly into a routine you already have!
And that’s the key, because like most healthy habits, if you want to reap the benefits, you have to stick to it! (And if you want it to stick, it’ll likely take some trial and error to find what habits make it work well.)
Don’t Forget to Breathe!
Becoming a well-rounded athlete encapsulates more than just a set of strong muscles and quick feet — staying true to the game and applying your best also demands mental fortitude.
Learning how to strengthen your mind can feel like a tough balance to strike, but meditative and mindful practices can bring a lot to the table for athletic performance. The more deliberately aware you are about your movement and mindset, the more capable you become at adapting to the present moment.
So, consider meditating to touch base with yourself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. With the fast-paced nature of today’s society and the demands of serious athletic training, carve out some time to check in and reset.