8 Mindfulness Practices to Boost Performance
Hard physical work is important for our success. That is a given for us as endurance athletes. However, the hours of hard work are not enough to bring us to our best performance on race day. In order to find that extra bit of our potential, we have to ensure our mental game is on point and just as ready to rock as our bodies might be.
The value of a daily mindfulness practice has become become very clear, both for my personal quality of life, and my performance as an athlete. I’ve reflected on that practice, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you.
Studies on mindfulness and athletes have found connections between a mindfulness practice and performance improvements, such as:
- Longer time to exhaustion
- Reduced performance anxiety
- Enhanced decision making (both in terms of success of the decision, and speed to process decision)
- Improved pain tolerance
- Decreased lactate concentration
- Sharpened ability to focus
Okay, so mindfulness has been shown to have benefits. But, what is it and how can you execute it in your daily training?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn).
If we unpack that definition, we can see how being mindful supports our goals as an athlete. A mindfulness practice is a way to get our minds to be attentive to what we are doing – our internal sensations, our breath – and what is happening around us. Mindfulness helps us to be fully present in life, and to manage our responses and judgments.
Being aware of what is happening internally and externally in any given moment allows you to perform optimally. This awareness also supports decision making. For example, let’s say it is an abnormally warm day. You are running and you notice that your “usual” pace is producing a higher than usual RPE (rating of perceived exertion) and HR (heart rate). Acting in a mindful way, you can observe this in a nonjudgmental way, and respond in a way that allows you to preserve the spirit of the workout – without blowing yourself up trying to stick to a target pace that isn’t right for the day. Imagine the value of this on race day as well!
It is important to note that mindfulness is not the same thing as meditation; however, meditation is one of the techniques you can use to cultivate mindfulness. Yet, it is not the only one. So, if you have trouble with meditation (as do I) – that’s okay! There are other ways to incorporate a mindfulness routine into your training.
- Avoid Judgment
This is a cornerstone of a mindfulness practice. We are often our own worst critics, and we can be quick to react by labeling experiences good/bad, right/wrong, etc.
One meditation session I did suggested that when thoughts arise, we label them without judgment. Instead, we label the thought as planning or remembering. As I worked through the exercise, I also added the label imagining because apparently my thoughts drift quite a bit to imagining. I found these labels to be liberating and they resulted in less *emotional* reactivity and judgment.
For example, let’s say you are thinking about a workout from the morning. This would be labeled as “remembering”. As you remember, remove the judgment you may have about that workout. It is done. We can remember without judgment and apply what we learn to what we do next – again, without judgment.
- Mindful Movement
Mindful movement is my favorite mindfulness practice – and one that you can do at any time, including during your workouts.
As you are mid-activity, take a moment to tune in to your breathing and/or a physical sensation. For example, while swimming, I practice mindfulness by tuning in to how the water feels against my skin, where my limbs move in space, and how my breath felt as I exhaled into the water and inhaled at the water’s edge.
This supports my swim progress because I become more aware of what my body is doing, how I am breathing and the effort I expend.
When I run on the trails, I love to listen to the crunch of the dirt under my feet and the sounds of the animals in the woods. There is nothing like that moment of pure zen, and feeling myself as one small piece of this infinite existence. As a consequence, I move more fluidly, smoothly and ultimately more quickly.
Meditation is a useful way to learn how to pay attention on purpose. For a long time, I thought the goal of meditation was to be without thought. As a consequence, I was pretty sure I sucked at meditation and could not do it. There is no moment in my life that I have ever been able to achieve being without thought.
But, I have learned that being without thought is not possible or desirable. Instead, the goal of meditation is to learn how to observe our thoughts without judgment, and then to let them go. Meditation allows us to focus on our breath and other sensations, bringing an awareness into our body – regardless of how thoughts come and go.
I recommend trying a meditation app to get the groove of this technique. Some examples are Medito, Headspace, 10% Happier, Atom and Calm – to name a few. Medito offers completely free sessions, while the other apps have some free content you can try before buying the app.
A key piece of meditation is breath work. So, even if you don’t feel ready for breathwork, you can do a minute of deep abdominal breathing to calm the body and mind. This can be especially useful before a key workout or race!
You don’t need to make meditation a long or elaborate task to be done each day. This article provides simple meditation techniques you can accomplish in 1 minute!
- Protect Your Energy
When events or people trigger our emotions, it is important to find a way to balance out these triggers.
- Write down a list of all the activities you do in a day, in a week. It may take a day or two to write this down to keep track of everything you do (since we do so much on auto-pilot!)
- Of that list, what gives you enjoyment, fulfillment or sense of purpose (or any other positive energy outcome)?
- What leaves you feeling drained?
- How can you balance that which gives you energy and that which steals it?
For negative triggers, you can work to open and lengthen the space between the stimulus and your response. Work to be non-reactive (I know – this is easier written than done!). Take a moment to breath. Close your eyes. Give it some time before you respond to whatever the trigger might be.
You might also use a positive trigger to help find balance. For example, if there is a song that transports you to a happy feeling – use that song to lift you. If reading creates a sense of calm and comfort, then read!
In racing, learning how to switch from negative to positive triggers can be the difference that propels you to your super secret goal!
- Mindful Coloring or Drawing
You can use coloring or drawing as a mindfulness session. For paper and pen, focus on the sensation of the pen or pencil against the paper. Listen to the sound it makes. Take a moment from time to time to watch as the drawing come to life – either with your coloring or as you create it.
You can also download coloring apps. When I feel stressed, I use an app called “Happy Color”. It’s funny because I didn’t originally consider this to be “mindfulness.” But, as I’ve used the app, I can see how it achieves the objectives for mindfulness. One thing I love about the app is that at the end it shows you a video animation of how you filled in the colors. I love to watch these, and I think about them as I create the image.
If you can draw, enjoy the feeling of bringing your image to life. It’s a great way to focus your attention and bring a pretty thing to life.
When you find the anxiety, doubt, fear, or any other negative emotion creeping in, it is time to STOP.
S – Stop what you are doing. Just stop.
T – Take a few deep breaths and ground yourself.
O – Observe what is happening in your mind, your body and your emotions. Take a nonjudgmental, nonreactive approach.
P – Proceed with what you are doing, newly re-centered and mindful of what the task at hand.
- Body Scan
The Body Scan asks you to focus on each part of your body without judgment, without reacting or labeling how you feel as “good” or “bad”. This is a great video to walk you through this practice.
The body scan can be especially helpful to apply to training and racing. As you do a toe to head body scan, you can think objectively and without judgment about how the body feels. You can learn to accept certain sensations (such as quad discomfort) as part of the process, finding the strength to power through.
- Mindfulness in Everyday Action
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention on purpose – so there is more than one way to achieve it, and you can easily mix it into daily activities. Carve out a daily space to be mindful by trying 5 to 10 minutes of any of the following:
- Journaling your thoughts
- Setting intentions for the day
- Observing the morning (or evening sky)
- Doing a toe to head observation as you train/exercise
Put It Into Practice
Use these tips to incorporate daily mindfulness into your training every day for the next month. Because many of these tips are things you can do in the course of your daily activities, you don’t even need more time to get it done!
If you have a TrainingPeaks account, set it up there and turn the box green if you need to. After a month of daily activities, take not of how you feel and reflect upon changes for your training and your life.
When you learn to pay attention on purpose, to be aware of what is happening internally and externally, and to react nonjudgmentally to all of that, you will be empowered to race strategically, with confidence, and enhanced tolerance of the pain and discomfort that comes with hard work.
I promise if you give it a serious try – you will notice a difference!