Can Meditation enhance our athletic performance?
Years ago I didn’t really know or understand meditation. It reminded me of monks who sat for hours and hours praying to their God in hopes of reaching a path to enlightenment. I faced many obstacles and challenges in my life and exercising wasn’t releasing any anger or stress for me. Taking supplements wasn’t helping me the way I thought it would. At the time, I had tried everything except meditation.
I did some research on the benefits of meditation and decided to try it out. The moment I sat there and focused on my breathing, time slowed down. Thoughts passed and after 5-10 minutes, I had a calmness that was unexplainable. I felt more relaxed; stress wasn’t on my mind and my brain fog had disappeared.
I knew at that moment that I needed to do this more often. I was meditating for the purpose of decreasing the amount of stress my body was going through physically. I started to read blogs about using mindfulness practices daily in addition to it while running.
Tim Olson was a person I looked up to when it came to mindfulness. He talked about connecting to the body and creating an awareness with the surroundings around you when running. I thought if Tim could use meditation as a mental advantage to win races and help performance, I was on board. I decided to start off with visualization in my meditation and eventually included other methods such as breath work, yoga and self-talk.
So what is meditation exactly? Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique such as focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state (Walsh 2006). In shorter terms, meditation is a state of calmness. When we think of meditation and athletic performance, we may not put the two together. I know from the beginning of my competitive running, I assumed eating well and doing specific workouts were key to success. Don’t get me wrong, those are positive things that will help one successfully, but the other missing link is the mind. We can all be physically fit but still have a weak mind. When combined along with training, one will notice an increase in mental toughness, enhanced focus, more confidence and less stress.
Proof of how our brain works during meditation is nothing but incredible. A study published by Nueroreport in 2005 reported a change in structure in the brain from 20 participants who participated in at least one week long Insight meditation retreat (10 hours of meditation/day). Researchers found that cortical thickness in the hippocampus had increased. This results are significant because the hippocampus governs learning and memory, but also decreases the cell volume in the amygdala (best known for housing fears, anxieties and depression) (Walton 2015).
As I did more research on meditation and performance I came across a study done in 2016 by Mardon, Richard and Martindale. The study included six college swimmers (two males and four females). Each swimmer was given a mindfulness test, a mindfulness CD program with yoga and breath work. The results after eight weeks showed an increase in performance or 1.5% improvement in race times by four of the swimmers. In addition, the swimmers said they saw a decrease from outside factors and increase awareness in a “Flow State (a state which we call being in the “zone”).”
As you can see, meditation and mindfulness have shown to have positive results in life as well as in athletic performance. Other athlete examples include Deena Kastor and Koen Naert. Deena practices meditation with her training and described her benefits as “heightend awareness in her surroundings during race day. Koen claimed to use visualization to help win the 2016 European championships (McCoy, Runnersworld 2020).
So for those interested in trying meditation along with his/her training, here are some examples of mindfulness that can be applied daily.
Visualization: During meditation, one should visualize his/her goal in his/her mind. This can be an outcome of a race or a specific time you want to hit etc. When you can picture that specific goal, you are more likely to decrease the anxiety or worries from that run or race.
Breathwork: During meditation, one can focus his/her attention on breathing. Relaxing the body through breathing has shown to increase confidence, lower heart rate and reduce stress. There are many types of breathing you can do such as: diaphragmatic breathing, box breathing and pursed lip breathing (Cronkelton, Healthline 2019).
Self-Talk: When a person creates positive dialogue, he/she will notice an increase in happiness and excitement towards his/her performance. This will help decrease our ANTS (automated negative thoughts) and stress levels (Gill, BelievePerform)
I’ve truly seen a difference in my running due to the outside factors that take up space in my mind. If you can make daily changes in performance with diets and workouts, why not try meditation with your training regimen? Five to ten minutes of visualization, focused breathing or self-talk may be just what you need to enhance your athletic performance.
Cronkelton, Emily. “What is Breathwork?”Healthline. Healthline Media. 29 April 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/breathwork.
Heckerman, Christopher. (2018). “The Effect of Mindfulness and Meditation in Sports Performance.” The College At Brockport: State University of New York, Digital Commons @ Brockport.
Gill, Gobinder. “Positive Self-Talk In Sport.”BelievePerform. https://believeperform.com/positive-self-talk-in-sport/.
Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005;16:1893–1897.
Mardon, N., Richards, H., & Martindale, A. (2016). The Effect of Mindfulness Training on Attention and Performance in National-Level Swimmers: An Exploratory Investigation. The Sport Psychologist, 30(2), 131-140. doi:10.1123/tsp.2014-0085
McCoy, Jenny.” Here’s How Meditation Can Boost Your Running.” RunnersWorld. Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. 5 Feb. 2020, https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a30769127/how-meditation-boosts-performance/.
Walsh, Roger; Shapiro, Shauna L. (2006). "The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue". American Psychologist. 61 (3): 227-239. Doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.3.227.PMID 16594839
Walton, Alice G. “7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain.”Forbes. Forbes, Inc. 9 Feb. 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2018/07/06/del-monte-recalls-vegetable-trays-cyclospora-parasite-outbreak-affects-over-200/#6ed666037c54.