Do you ever wonder why some athletes are so consistent in their performance while others are all over the map? If factors like nutrition, training, and physiological capacity are similar between two people, especially at elite levels, there must be a hidden difference or two in why one person consistently outperforms another.
A huge piece of that difference is psychological. One athlete might catastrophize when things don’t go as planned. Prior experience may lead that athlete to experience negative emotions, increased stress, and increased self-doubt. Once a moment of negativity is allowed to creep in, it leads to a steady performance decline. But somehow, another athlete faced with the same issues might continue to excel despite encountering a hiccup. Just how can they do that? Are we born with these skills or is it the result of dedicated practice?
There is no denying a connection between your psychological state and physiological outcomes. All you need is to feel a little stressed and you can watch your heart rate and blood pressure rise. What if you could reverse engineer this brain-body connection and use it to work for you instead of against you?
Through dedicated practice, focusing consistently on a single task and being aware of that present moment, you encourage control of your emotions and enhance your self-awareness. Perhaps you can decrease the more intense physiological responses that accompany stress. Even though endurance sports, like running, are fatiguing and sometimes uncomfortable, the brain can be diverted to a single focus of operation: to get the primary task done.
I have a theory that the most successful athletes (e.g. happy, consistent) use their sport as a form of meditation. Some have suggested that we naturally seek out altered states of consciousness and exercise is just another gateway to this state. Perhaps this ability to refine and control thought is a key to enjoying exercise instead of dreading it. Sure, there are people that still look at meditation as being a 1970s hippie phenomenon, so they automatically won’t like the idea. But consider it just another skill within a toolbox of physical and mental skills. No psychedelic drugs necessary. By exercising in this semi-meditative state, the brain learns to function and focus in a precise way during that activity.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Practitioners of mindfulness meditation emphasize remaining observational and non-reactive to what you might sense during meditation (see footnote below). One result of remaining mindful is improved decision making simply because you have greater knowledge. You then respond to your findings without excess reaction, without judgment. It’s similar to someone telling you, “don’t overthink it.” Who doesn’t want or benefit from improved decision making?
A search of the NCBI database reveals that using mindfulness techniques during exercise is a relatively new research area. Mindfulness concepts are commonly utilized in research on yoga and martial arts. It is also more common to see meditative techniques used in addition to exercise for treatment purposes (e.g., chronic pain, depression, etc.). Mindfulness and meditation are becoming more popular topics, so you can expect more research will begin to pop up.
Using a Body Scan to Control Pain
Endurance sports involve cyclical movements (e.g., steps while running, pedal strokes while cycling, etc.) that provide ongoing feedback from the body. That feedback is useful, if you are listening. You might refer to this listening as a “body scan.” It’s a technique used in mindfulness-based meditation and has been studied for treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia, various cancers, chronic diseases, and chronic pain.
Athlete or not, one of the biggest goals of a body scan is to increase your awareness of your body’s signals, top to bottom. During constant activity, the best athletes are able to continuously monitor and adjust their status at any given moment, much as a person would in mindfulness meditation. The athlete is monitoring the important factors as they encounter them, responding with only the absolute necessary changes so that, over time, physical and mental energy are conserved.
While scanning, I frequently discover that I will shrug my shoulders when running harder or becoming fatigued, so I immediately know to drop my shoulders. Or I notice my breathing becomes too rapid and shallow, which reminds me to take a cleansing breath. No surprise, there’s always an immediate improvement in mood, performance, and comfort.
Within an event or training day, one key is to continuously perform the body scan to the point that any small problem is detected and corrected before it becomes a big problem. Maybe some people would consider this a waste of mental energy, and maybe it would be for the unacquainted. Instead, with practice, I would expect it to decrease mental fatigue because it’s far easier to address a small problem intermittently than to become stuck obsessing over a more catastrophic and constant state of stress that causes a flood of negativity.
Other Mindfulness Techniques
Bringing your attention to the present, with something like basic step counting, can push out negative thoughts. You might initially just count four steps before your focus diminishes but with practice it could be 50 steps or 100 steps. Count steps until the next maple tree comes along or the next aid station.
Some athletes are better able to apply meditative techniques if they have a mantra to rely on. Much like step counting, the job of the mantra is to hold your attention. It is a word or phrase that you return to when you find your attention has drifted. It can be something like “long and strong” or “I can, I will.” And still others are able to focus on their breathing count and pattern with great success.
The cyclical nature of an endurance sport also lends itself well to this internal or mindfulness approach because you can become completely lost in the total movement, the breathing pattern, or even the individual footsteps. I’m so stuck in this mode from running that I struggle with counting repetitions while strength training. I become so internally focused on the technique and how the movement feels with each rep (the way I would with running) that I don’t care about the number.
Regardless of your choice, focusing on any of these patterns requires attention to factors other than your fatigue-induced discomfort. They all provide a rhythmic pattern, a consistent place to focus after a distraction, a point of fixation.
Being Stubborn Isn’t Enough
This isn’t simply about being stubborn. Stubborn can get most people only so far. When you finally break at your point of maximal stubbornness, there must be some other tactic to fall back on to hold yourself together mentally.
An experienced ultramarathoner isn’t going to rely on being stubborn through an entire race, though it may appear that way on the surface. They are likely getting to the point that simply feeling their breathing or arm and leg movements can provide a point of focus as the distance gradually ticks away. It’s more about executing at that very moment while turning off emotional and judgmental tendencies.
Application to Training and Competition
In training, try to maintain a body scan or an intrinsic technique focus during short, hard intervals of 30-60 seconds. The goal can be to move quickly and feel discomfort while focusing only on one or two technique trouble areas. You can make the intervals increasingly longer (eg. 5-10 minutes) as you have more success sustaining a focus during the shorter lengths.
Use your miserable days as a primer. Gross weather? Feeling generally crappy? Don’t bail. I hate to spoil this for you but 99.9% of competition days are not going to go as planned. To truly be prepared, you need to experience less than ideal conditions in advance. The rough days are an opportunity to see if you can bring yourself together mentally and maybe even surprise yourself.
Started out a race too hard? Don’t panic. Accept the situation and move on, responding only to your requirements at that very moment. You can’t change the past so stop getting caught up in it. Feeling inefficient? Focus on a component of movement, like arm swing, that you can control. Continuously thinking “this hurts” or “I’m getting slower” is harmful to performance and enjoyment. Once those initial thoughts begin, you will almost certainly begin to slow down and have even more negative thoughts.
You aren’t going to wish an opponent into slowing down and you aren’t going to wish yourself into going faster. Focus on factors that you can control and you just might go faster. But that’s not going to happen without maintaining an internal locus of control - meaning you become solely responsible for and controlling of the outcome.
In longer events, like a marathon, it is wise to not only avoid deep analysis and judgment of your overall condition but to address the basics of what you can at that very moment and reassess after a mile or a few minutes later. Just because you are beginning to feel miserable one minute does not mean you are destined to feel that way 10 minutes later.
According to the book “Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind” by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “Ignoring the pain takes enormous mental effort. The first step is to acknowledge the pain. The pain is one thing, and the mind reacting to the pain is another, so the second step is not to overreact. Becoming startled by the pain only exacerbates the pain, like throwing gasoline on a fire: our reaction to the pain makes it even worse. Therefore we acknowledge the pain, but we avoid having the immediate reactionary response.”
Your preferred method of mindfulness may also change with the intensity or duration of exercise. Through most of an endurance competition I’m doing a body scan. Late in a competition I might begin to use a mantra, often rhythmically with the movement. I also like to create a mental picture of how I am moving as a whole, as if I’m watching myself in a mirror.
Find What Works For You
If you have never tried any of these mindfulness techniques before, don’t expect it to be easy and automatic the first time. There is no wrong way to do it; try a few methods and see what sticks.
Some people have the perception that meditating while exercising would require you to completely shut off the outside world. But you have the choice to turn off and to turn on those inputs. If you have to be on high alert for a moment to make sure you don’t miss a turn of the trail in the woods, then stay on high alert. Go back to whatever technique you like once you make the turn. You don’t become a zombie while doing a body scan.
The bonus of these techniques is that you can transfer this behavioral control to other sports and aspects of life like school or work. After developing the mental skills necessary to get through a tough training or competition day, taking that college exam or giving that presentation to your boss might not seem so tough.
It’s worth looking at the various mental skills you can develop while exercising so it isn’t all just a frustrating slog. Certainly, exercise can provide a fantastic time to step away from our stress and problems. And not every moment of exercise needs to be a test of will or focus. Just don’t be afraid to consider the importance of mental skills training if you are seeking performance gains.
- A body scan, mantras, step counting, and breath counting can all be useful methods to improve performance.
- A body scan can be used to continually monitor movement and discomfort levels. It allows you to attend to small running technique flaws or areas of excess muscle tension before they become large and painful problems that will undoubtedly be mentally fatiguing and detract from performance and enjoyment.
- Practice the mental focus in training with hard and short efforts initially and then progress to longer and harder efforts.
- Bringing your attention to the present, with step counting, breath counting, or a mantra can push out negative thoughts.
- Realize no competition is going to proceed 100% as planned. Use your most unpleasant training days as an opportunity for preparing your mental state.
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1 According to a 2010 article from Birrer and Morgan: “Mindfulness techniques emphasize the non-judging awareness and acceptance of present cognitive, affective and sensory experiences, including external stimuli and internal processes. Stimuli that enter awareness are observed but not judged, and internal experiences (thoughts, feelings and sensations occurring through internal or external stimulation) are instead accepted as natural, transient facets of human existence.”