Anyone who has ever hit a wall in their workout or during an obstacle course race knows that often, the only way to break through it is with your mind. A lack of confidence and focus can halt your training and subsequently sabotage what could have been an epic performance.
So how exactly do you reset the negativity on loop in your brain and ramp up your performance in the process? According to the experts, the answer is meditation.
Recent studies have shown that athletes who practice meditation actually improve their sport-related coping skills. The reason for this, according to Chicago-based physical therapist Dr. Tolga Yenilmez, is that meditation helps reduce the anxiety that tends to accompany the acknowledgment that we’ve tripped up on our goals.
Focusing on being calm from the inside not only helps to keep you focused when you’re frustrated with your training progress or race performance, but also helps you get over injury and boost your overall performance — both in your training and on the obstacle course.
So what are you waiting for? Here are three simple ways to integrate meditation into your effective training plan.
How You Can Use Meditation for Training Performance Enhancement
1. Meditation Brings Balance to Training
As Yenilmez explains, the conscious deep breathing that is typically part of meditation is known to stimulate the vagus nerve. Running from the brain through the face and the thorax to the abdomen, this nerve contains parasympathetic fibers. The fibers' job is to curb the body from overworking and increase a sense of calm.
“The body needs calmness to rest,” Yenilmez, who uses a mind-body approach in his treatments, says. “And athletes who have a lot of anxiety around performance have difficulty resting because their body is producing a lot of stress hormones.
“All athletes need to exercise, but they also need to rest because the body can only develop through a balance of both. And meditation is one of the most effective ways of achieving this balance.”
What to Do: Set aside as little as 3 minutes every day to practice simple breathing meditation.
Start by inhaling through your nose until your lungs feel full, and then slowly exhale out through your mouth. Focus fully on the breath. Note the natural rhythm and flow of the breath each time you draw it in, and then let it out.
Make a daily habit of this, Yenilmez advises, and you’ll soon see improvements in your concentration and composure each time you train.
2. Meditation Reduces Stress and Pain
While some stress is necessary for athletic activity, stress-hormone overload can hinder performance and lead to injury.
“An injured athlete’s nervous system tends to be in fight or flight mode or, more likely, frozen," Yenilmez says, "That’s also when they start to release stress hormones into the system, creating an inflammatory reaction.
“Of course, we need a portion of inflammation for the system to heal. But too much inflammatory chemicals in the bloodstream are going to be painful, and again, they’re going to affect the rest cycle.”
What to Do: Yenilmez, who specializes in neurological and orthopedic conditions, encourages injured athletes to connect with their body through the simple meditation below.
“Focus on the palm of your hand from the inside,” he directs. “Then, feel into the bones in your hand. From there, sense and connect to the bones in your wrist, then in your forearm, then in your elbow, and so on. Sense the ligaments and muscles, too. Getting in touch with the physical structure of the bones, ligaments, and muscles in this way gives an athlete a sense of their body in space.
Related: 5 Meditations for Beginners
“Often, when people are injured, the only way they are connecting to their bodies is through their pain. That’s not the healthiest relationship to have with your body.”
By focusing on other parts of your physical being while meditating, you can also pull energy away from the injured parts.
“It’s a matter of balancing attention,” Yenilmez explains.
3. Meditation Optimizes Performance
Stress and injury reduction are both essential for optimal performance, and a consistent meditation practice can help with both. But as well as disempowering the negative, meditation can also be used to accentuate the positive.
“Regularly performing athletes can meditate on the outcomes of their performances,” Yenilmez says. “They use visualizations, which increase confidence and tune the body into achieving what the athlete sets their mind to.”
Of course, elite athletes like Olympians Michael Phelps and Emily Cook have long used visualization techniques as part of their training, but everyone can benefit from this form of meditation. Visualizing finishing a race, or even completing a tough training session, brings clarity to the possibility.
"Because the athlete is seeing their success, it’s easier for the body to work towards that success," Yenilmez says.
What to Do: Get clear on what a successful training session looks like to you, so you can visualize every detail — down to the smells and sounds around you. Notice the steps that you’re taking to achieve your goals, as these are mental triggers that will help in actualizing success in real time.
Once you have the imagery down (and the more you visualize it), the more you condition your brain toward a successful outcome — and the more likely you are to stay on top, even when your training gets tough.