The term meditation has seen much greater prominence in the modern lexicon of recent times. It used to be seen as a somewhat ‘alternative’ concept, reserved for the Tibetan monks or those of us in society who are just a little odd. Yet the evidence is mounting and it’s becoming hard to deny the benefits of such a simple and convenient practice. In his recent book Tribe of Mentors, an analysis of 140 of highly successful individuals across a range of fields, author Tim Ferriss suggests that upwards of 90% practice meditation in some form. It’s extended to the sporting world, with athletes such as Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Novak Djokovic practicing mindfulness as part of a regular routine.
What about our Zuberant Life community? How can meditation benefit everyday endurance athletes? Can it improve performance or offer a greater quality of life? The answer to both of those is a likely yes. Every dot-point highlighted below has been backed up by research in some form and yes, while you may be able to dispute certain sources, there is a growing database of both studies and anecdotal evidence that suggests this is far more than a passing fad.
We’ve explored the topic of mindfulness in exercise previously but we would like to delve a little further into the specific practice of meditation. Below are detailed 6 key reasons we believe meditation will be of benefit to you as an endurance athlete and provide an idea of how you can start this practice yourself.
Meditation Reduces Stress
Stress comes with physical challenges, but it also stems from our every-day lives. This can impact both training and performance for an athlete, not to mention decreasing their overall quality of life.
Mediation is shown to reduce stress and lower cortisol, the related hormone that produces so many negative health consequences. In technical terms, a study by the National Institute of health has suggested a relationship between “self-reported mindfulness and resting output of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system.” In simple terms, mindfulness (in the form of meditation) will reduce your stress levels.
Consistency with meditation will teach your body to relax in stressful situations and give you the tools you need to overcome them.
Gets You In Tune with Your body
One of the keys practices in mediation is a focus on breathing; paying attention to your breath as both a means of grounding yourself in the present and ensuring you are breathing deeply and consistently. Do both of these sound like they would benefit endurance athletes? Absolutely.
Another key element of meditation is becoming aware of your body. ‘Body-scanning’ is the practice of examining each part of your body individually, with eyes closed, to gain a sense of how they feel. This is something elite marathon runners have been doing for years in competition; scanning their bodies to ensure every part is relaxed and moving as it should be. It vastly improves mind-muscle connection and understanding of how your body is feeling.
Helps Overcome Fear
In athletic terms, the most likely source of fear is going to stem from performance anxiety.
“What if I can’t make it?”
“Am I going to injure myself doing this?”
“Am I really good enough to be here?”
These are all common questions we ask ourselves on the start line or in the lead-up to an event. The best way to overcome them is to stay in the present and focus on what lies directly in front of you. This is an attribute that can be trained with deliberate mindfulness practice and developed further with consistency and perseverance. Ever wonder how an elite tennis player can maintain composure when they’re match point down? This is how. Developing techniques that allow them to stay in the present and focus on the next point. Not succumbing to the fear of losing.
Helps deal with pain
We’ve all heard the adage that sport is 90% mental. Some endurance aficionados will even suggest the other 10% is also mental. Whatever the case may be, mindset is certainly the overarching predicator of whether you’ll succeed or fail. Particularly in endurance sports, success can be termed in the ability to tolerate pain; the ability to suffer.
The mind rules the body
A recent study published in the journal of neuroscience has examined the effects of meditation on pain tolerance. “In the study, researchers mildly burned 15 men and women in a lab on two separate occasions, before and after the volunteers attended four 20-minute meditation training sessions over the course of four days. During the second go-round, when the participants were instructed to meditate, they rated the exact same pain stimulus — a 120-degree heat on their calves — as being 57 percent less unpleasant and 40 percent less intense, on average.”
This wasn’t a long-term practice, but 80 minutes of mediation broken up over 4 days. Imagine what it would achieve if performed over years…
“The conventional wisdom has been that meditation relieves pain not by diminishing sensation but by helping people consciously control their perception of pain,” says Katharine MacLean, Ph.D. However, brain scans during this study appeared to show a number of changes relating to how the participants’ brains responded to pain. The results suggest “meditation reduces pain by reducing the actual sensation,” Zeidan, one of the researchers says.
There are bound to be further studies testing this connection over the next few years. The consequences for endurance athletes could be profound.
This is multi-faceted. Firstly, meditation has been shown to improve sleep. We should all know by now the tremendous role sleep plays in recovery and ongoing performance. Meditation helps promote sleep by reducing anxiety and concerns of the past or future (staying present), promotes relaxation and lowers stress hormones, as mentioned above.
In addition, there is a study by the University of Wisconsin that suggests a positive relationship between mindfulness and our immune system. The study suggests those who meditate experience fewer acute respiratory infections and are prone to shake the common cold much more quickly than usual. This means fewer setbacks and more consistent training for the endurance athlete.
We’re more likely to be aware of who we are and what our strengths and weaknesses are.
Understanding what went wrong in a poor performance, understanding your training habits and tendencies, deficiencies in our bodies capabilities all require self-awareness. In the endurance game, self-awareness also means a greater understanding of your body, not just your mind. Knowing when to ease off the work-load and when to put the foot down and focus on improving results.
So How to Meditate?
It seems there are more prescribed ways to meditate than stars in the sky. The important thing is to experiment; try a range of techniques and find the one that works for you best. For athletes, this can often involve an aspect of visualisation in addition to the breathing techniques and body awareness that traditional meditation provides.
As always, joining a meditation class and experiencing professional guidance is probably the best way to learn the art. If you’d rather do it on your own, using an app such as Headspace or Smiling Mind, which guides you through the process, are a great way to go. They also offer sessions that are specific to sports and performances before and how to deal with certain situations that may arise.
If you’re really serious about jumping in head-first, you can sign up for a meditation retreat. These can last anywhere from a weekend through to 10 days of Vipassana.
Whatever your preference, we’re confident you’ll achieve at least some form of benefit from beginning a mediatation practice. Whether or not it leads to an increase in performance, it will almost certainly lead to a higher quality of life.