6 Dec 2021
7 min read
Meditation and mindfulness practices are nothing new. These practices stretch back thousands of years. However, they are now more popular than ever, as individuals are trying to find some calm, balance, and improve their productivity and performance in the busy, modern world. But, what exactly is meditation? And, how can it benefit us, both for triathlon, and our lives outside of sport?
Meditation is a broad church with many different techniques. This leads to millions of converts going on a journey of discovery to find what works best for them.
Often used to help people in their everyday lives, increasingly, it can also be found in the world of sport. Some of the world’s leading sports stars, such as tennis world No 1 Novak Djokovic and basketball legend Lebron James, advocate the practice to improve performance. With so much of sporting excellence coming down to the mental approach rather than physical prowess, perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise.
But, what is meditation? And how might meditation benefit triathletes? If you’re new to meditation and thinking about giving it a go, this guide explains what it is and how it could help improve your performance both in triathlon and everyday life.
The Latin root of the word meditation is ‘to ponder’ and the practice is thought to have originated several thousand years ago in India.
It can be described as a type of mind-body complementary medicine, with an ability to help individuals destress and go into a deep state of relaxation, aiding their mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing.
It typically involves deliberate focus of the mind and control of the breath. While many meditative practices are undertaken when adopting a relaxed stationary posture, it can also include specific movement patterns.
There are different ways to meditate. Different types of practice will be favoured by different individuals. Here are a few of the most common.
Meditation where the focus is on being acutely aware of what you’re feeling in the moment without interpretation or judgment.
A type of meditation where you repeat a mantra silently and focus on its repetition. It is sometimes called Vedic meditation.
Meditation where you are guided through the session. This can be either by a trained practitioner or through the use of imagery, music or other techniques.
An ancient meditation technique, Vipassana differs slightly from mindfulness in observing your inner emotions. Practices such as body scanning, where you focus on different areas of the body in turn, are often implemented.
Pranayama meditation is about the conscious control of breath and employs techniques such as deep belly breathing. It is an integral part of yoga.
Qigong, pronounced chee-gong, is meditation comprising a combination of movement, striking different postures and breathing.
Rather than sitting and concentrating solely on your breath, walking meditation also has a focus on how your body moves as you take each step.
The many purported benefits of meditation include:
Rather than take each aspect in isolation, it’s better to view the benefits of meditation in a holistic manner. For example, if it improves just one aspect listed above, such as sleep, it will have a positive knock-on to other areas of life.
Advocates of meditation claim that there is every chance that taking up the practice will improve your sports performance. Most sports, particularly active ones such as triathlon, trigger the sympathetic nervous system into a flight or fight response. This increases our adrenaline and alertness and also raises stress levels. While it might help improve our performance in the moment, to recover adequately we also need our parasympathetic nervous system to be working efficiently. Meditation can work in calming down the body to allow for proper rest and regeneration.
Reduced stress. Reducing stress in and around races should help competitors perform better. Studies have shown that meditation can help lower the stress hormone cortisol. Being balanced and relaxed also helps athletes remain calm under pressure, which can improve focus and lead to better decision making.
Improved sleep. Meditation is thought to help sleep. Restorative sleep is one of the cornerstones of health and fitness and can ward off negative effects such as weight gain, low moods, increased anxiety and decreased motor control.
Immune boost. A study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health found that meditation helped reduce the prevalence of acute respiratory infections. When they did present, they were also found to be less severe.
Improving endurance. Endurance performance is enhanced in two ways. Improved breathing exercises help the circulation of oxygen and visualisation helps the athlete’s resilience when it comes to achieving the goal.
Body awareness. If meditation can enhance your proprioception it should aid sporting performance by improving skill-based tasks. It could also help with having an awareness of where restrictions are in the body, so they can be treated before injury strikes.
Reduce negativity. Could help the mind be more positive in challenging situations, looking for solutions to reach a sporting goal or defeat a high level opponent rather than reasons to quit.
An array of sports stars are convinced by the benefits meditation brings and reportedly use it on a regular basis. These include:
Meditation can be done right now by anybody. Just find a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. In its simplest form you could start by focusing on every breath as you inhale and exhale.
When you notice you’ve become distracted and your mind has wandered, bring your focus back to your breath. It’s harder than it sounds, particularly initially, but try not to get frustrated, just reset and go again.
There are plenty of places to look for help with meditation. A popular app for those who have never mediated before is Headspace. There’s a free trial that promises to help you become 14 per cent less stressed within 10 days. Other recommended apps include Lucid, Simple Habit, and Smiling Mind.
A quick search online will reveal plenty of videos and podcasts for guided meditation for athletes and if you want to ditch the tech, have a look around your local area for mindfulness and meditation classes.
There’s no set period for mediation, so do whatever feels right. Some people start the day with 10 minutes of meditation and then might take a similar length of time at lunchtime to reset.
Others use the practice much more intensively. Some devotees even go away for weeks at a time on retreats where they may spend hours meditating every day.
While most people gain benefit from meditation and research suggests that it can improve physical and mental wellbeing, a 2017 study from Brown University and the University of California did show a downside to the ancient art of mindfulness.
From a sporting perspective, some of the negatives included losing motivation because of practising a lack of attachment through meditating. The study also found that certain subjects became more anti-social and it damaged their sense of self, making them feel less confident about their everyday lives and sporting ability.
Psychological skills such as visualisation, self talk, goal setting and distraction have been used by sports psychologists for years to help try and improve performance by gaining control over thoughts and feelings to ultimately lead to more precise actions.
Mindfulness is an additional tool. With mindfulness, athletes are fully present to everything experienced in the moment physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally and perceptually, but without judgement or action, allowing the athlete to focus solely on the task in hand.
The athlete focuses on a specific action, such as breathing. When a sport requires focus on a predictable task, such as hitting a golf ball, FAM may enable the athlete to eliminate distractions.
External and internal inputs are monitored, but the athlete remains open and nonreactive. This type of meditation may weaken the goal focus, but in sports that are constantly changing, such as football, it may help the athlete process many scenarios at once and choose a correct response.
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