So much of athletic performance comes down to mental attitude and focus.
Whether you’re running a 10K or trying to lift heavier weights in the gym, half the battle is in your mind. The belief in yourself and the ability to block out doubt and distraction can make all the difference.
This is why meditation is fast becoming a vital tool for elite athletes – and it’s possible to use these principles to improve your performance in the gym, running, or whatever your fitness goal.
You will often hear long-distance runners talk about breaking through ‘the wall’ – this is about mental resilience as much as it is about physical strength. The two are inextricably linked. And building mental toughness can help physical developments too.
We asked the experts at Headspace for their advice on how to get started with meditation and how to use it to improve your fitness performance.
‘Sport is a mental game – more so in many ways than a physical one,’ explains Lindsay Shaffer, director of sport at Headspace.
‘Athletes (both amateur and professional) go to great lengths to train their bodies to get a competitive edge, but we often neglect the one thing that underlies everything we do: the mind.’
Lindsay believes that mental training is the future of sport and fitness performance, and that meditation and mindfulness are both powerful techniques to help people push their boundaries.
‘Athletes and coaches at the highest level – from Team GB to the NBA – are fast understanding that it is a tool to sharpen preparation, performance, and recovery,’ she says.
‘Athletes usually have honed physiques. But the fact is, if you’re not simultaneously training the mind as well as the body, you’re missing that winning edge. Meditation is strength training for the brain.’
Lindsay has pulled together some tips about how to kick-start your meditation journey to increase focus, resilience and confidence, boost performance and aid recovery.
Commit to starting
It’s a common misconception that meditation takes months – even years – to master. That’s not the case at all.
Sessions can take as little as three minutes each day, and it doesn’t take long for results to show: one session of Headspace can reduce mind-wandering and increase in focus by 22%.
See it as you would taking up a new sport: like any discipline, the first step is to master the basics.
Focus is the quality of non-distraction: it’s something that happens when we let go of thinking and any other distracting phenomena. Plenty of us can achieve focus, but find it harder to maintain it.
In many ways, meditation is a training in non-distraction as we are practicing being aware of our thoughts.
How to meditate
Learning how to meditate is a fairly straightforward process, especially if you’re able to follow these simple steps:
Step 1: Decide on a time and place that works for you.
Research shows that it’s easiest to create a new habit when we do it at the same time, same place every day.
Just don’t overthink it: The best time to meditate is really whenever you can best prioritize it. And the best place to meditate? Wherever you can be comfortable and minimally distracted.
Step 2: Decide on an amount of time to meditate.
Particularly for beginners, starting with small, manageable chunks of time – for example, 3, 5, or 10-minute sessions – is key, so you can build up your practice and find your sweet spot.
The most important thing is to decide on an amount of time that is effective, but also feels achievable so you continue to show up day after day.
Step 3: Make sure you’re sitting comfortably.
Sit with your legs and arms uncrossed, feet flat on the floor, and hands resting on your lap or by your side. Keep your back straight, but not too tense.
If you need it, a small cushion or rolled up towel can help keep your back straight.
Step 4: Decide whether you want the meditation to be guided or unguided.
A guided meditation is led by an experienced teacher – either in person at a meditation group or class, or via audio or video as in the Headspace app.
Guided meditation is recommended for people who are learning how to meditate.
Do you want to train harder to hit a new PB? Learn how to cope better with defeat? Boost recovery, or calm pre-match jitters?
Having clarity in your intention and setting clear steps to get there, makes the path to success less daunting.
Doubt and distraction can get in the way of our goals, but by re-focusing your energy on your intention, you can stay more committed to your goal and quiet the distractions that create pressure.
Make it a habit
Meditation, just like learning a new skill in sport, takes practice.
When practiced consistently, meditation is beneficial for pre-game prep, preparing athletes to be not only relaxed, but also in an active state of readiness for kick-off.
It also helps athletes relax in stressful situations, building self-confidence and achieving a more positive mindset – important for being mentally strong when you’ve suffered a set-back such as injury or defeat.
One way to incorporate this habit is by attaching meditation to an existing routine so that it becomes a more natural integration into your lifestyle.
Incorporating a new habit into your routine, even one that makes you feel great, can be tough. If you miss a day, be kind to yourself and know that you can always try again the following day.
Take it beyond the gym
Many athletes and fitness lovers come to realise through meditation that the mind is an essential part of living a healthy and happy life outside of athletic performance. The two are not separate: you take home what happens in sport or at the gym.
When we sit down to meditate – even if it’s only for ten minutes – we are not only meditating with preparation, performance, and recovery in mind; we are taking steps to ensure we are less reactive and less stressed in all areas of life, and to ensure we maintain harmonious relationships with people around us.
It allows us to stay grounded, fully present, and always focused, no matter what comes our way.