There are probably very few pairs of words which conjure up such vastly different images than ‘meditation’ and ‘athletes’. It’s like saying ‘kittens’ and ‘death metal’ or ‘Surfing’ and ‘accountancy’.
Meditation tends to bring up images of people sat cross legged saying Om, or of people in pyjamas sat on grass with their eyes closed, smiling serenely. Then if you think ‘athlete’, you tend to think of someone moving quickly, lifting something heavy or otherwise grimacing and sweating as they exert huge amounts of energy. Meditation is kinda dull – it’s a little fluffy and generally a bit woo woo.
It is from this starting point that I am writing this blog because as of probably 3 months ago I completely agreed. Now… not so much.
Meditation, or mindfulness meditation more specifically, is the practice of taking time to focus intently on your current thoughts and nothing else. You focus on those thoughts, allowing them to drift in and out of your mind and view them as a passive and unbiased onlooker would. There are no good and no bad thoughts, no happy and no sad thoughts, there are just thoughts and you looking at them. This can be achieved in a number of ways, but by far the most common is to focus on your own breathing, then letting thoughts come as they will, always bringing yourself back to breathing as soon as you can.
So yeah, that sounds like a colossal waste of time, but there is a fair amount of research here. In fact, over the last 10-15 years there has been a growing body of data in publication which shows that meditation is gradually moving away from the world of religious belief systems and theism and firmly making it’s mark in the world of hard science. So, forget the wishy washy stuff, I know you’re not in to that – what ACTUALLY goes on when you meditate?
No great shock here, but spending a certain amount of time each day focusing on one specific thing can increase your ability to, well, focus on one specific thing. Your brain can be thought of as a huge bundle of neurons which all connect to other neurons. There are, in fact, more connections between the neurons in your brain than there are grains of sand on a typical beach or stars in the Milky Way – that’s kind of a lot.
You are born with a ton of connections and right from that first day, some of them die or are cut back. Trite as it may be, your brain really is an organ which functions like a muscle – use it or lose it. As you lose connections, other ones are strengthened with the pattern in which this occurs being dictated more or less entirely by your actions, thoughts and overall demand for those connections to be there. One interesting way in which this is manifested is the process of learning something – if you learn something you are asking your brain in a sense to ‘rewire’ some neural connections, which occurs most effectively when we sleep (1).
Those who meditate appear to have a physically larger parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex (2), both areas being responsible for day to day focus and concentration. Not only that, but those who meditate can increase the robustness of the connections between distant areas of the brain, allowing for more synchronicity between, for example, the parts of the brain used for aggression and the part of the brain involved in competitiveness.
Meditation appears to increase the size of the outer cortex which is used in abstract thought and introspection. Finally, the hippocampus which is crucial for memory gets a significant boost, not only meaning that you can memorise things better, but that you can effectively ‘toy’ with more ideas at once and perform much more complex mental tasks without needing to write things down.
Coming on to far more specific benefits relative to athletes, meditation has been shown to improve your immune system (3), reduce stress a meaningful amount (4), combat depression (5) and even potentially improve physical markers of exercise recovery (6)!
Meditation can improve your performance at work by boosting productivity, too (7), which would therefore reduce stress levels, potentially improve your income and increase your job satisfaction which is closely tied to subjective life quality.
As a final note on this, one form of meditation is visualisation meditation. Rather than concentration of mindfulness meditation where you focus either on your breathing or a candle or similar and hope to find an inner balance between your thoughts and emotions, visualisation is the practice of vividly imagining past or hypothetical future events. Feeling them and experiencing them as if they were real. While this may sound like useless daydreaming, visualisation in athletics is a massively powerful tool.
For one, it can help to actually improve your performance with skilled actions (8) meaning that visualising a complex manoeuvre – perhaps a clean and jerk, a specific MMA takedown or a slalom race – could potentially increase your ultimate performance without increasing training volume. The same has been seen in a number of different athletes (10). There is even some small amount of evidence that visualising your next set during a training session could improve your strength (9) which, even if it isn’t true, would at least stop people taking so many damn selfies in the gym.
Practice this every day if you have the time and give it a chance to start benefitting you properly.
Visualisation is relatively simple to implement. Simply stop between sets and mentally practice your next set/lift. Feel the weight, imagine how it’s going to try to pull you out of position, remember how quickly you need to move, how hard you have to brace and really ‘live’ the moment. Meditation itself takes a little more preparation but it can be done quite simply following these steps:
- Set aside 20 minutes of your day, turn off your phone and take your cat out of the room. You want to be quiet, undisturbed and comfortable. Sitting on your bed or on the sofa is fine if you don’t have a serene field or mountaintop at hand. Set a gentle alarm to go off in 20 minutes if you know you have to get back to work, as this allows you to relax and know that the time you are meditating is time that you have already set aside and can afford to use.
- Close your eyes and relax, then focus on your breathing. Feel yourself breathe in and out while making no express effort to control it. Feel your ribcage, your stomach, your back and your chest rise and fall with each breath.
- As you feel your mind start to wander, just bring it back to your breathing. The focus here is to remain calm and in the moment, focusing on you where you are, doing what you are doing, and nothing else.
- Over time build up to 15-20 minutes of mindfulness, though most will struggle to get much further than 5 minutes at first. One thing that many find helps them is guided meditation via mobile apps like Headspace or the thousands of guided meditation YouTube videos available for free.
And that’s about it! Practice this every day if you have the time and give it a chance to start benefitting you properly. You’re not jacked after your first gym session and you won’t be great at meditation when you first start out, but with only 20 minutes per day you can become a better athlete, a more productive employee or successful business owner, and an all round more centred person.
And that’s science!
- Buszaki, G. “Memory consolidation during sleep: a neurophysiological perspective” J. Sleep Res. (1998) 7, Suppl. 1, 17±23
- Boccia et al. “Meditative mind: A comprehensive meta analysis of MRI studies” Biomed Res Int. 2015; 2015: 419808. Published online 2015 Jun 4. doi: 10.1155/2015/419808
- Jacobs TL et al. “Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators.” Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011 Jun; 36(5):664-81. Epub 2010 Oct 29.
- Hoge et al. “Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity” J Clin Psychiatry. 2013 Aug; 74(8): 786–792. doi: 10.4088/JCP.12m08083
- Kasala et al. “Effect of meditation on neurophysiological changes in stress mediated depression” DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2013.10.001
- Cocchioni et al. “Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011; 2011: 932430. Published online 2011 Feb 10. doi: 10.1093/ecam/nep169
- Shiba et al. “The Association between Meditation Practice and Job Performance: A Cross-Sectional Study” PLoS One. 2015; 10(5): e0128287. Published online 2015 May 29. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0128287
- Callow et al. “Performance improvements from imagery: evidence that internal visual imagery is superior to external visual imagery for slalom performance” Front Hum Neurosci. 2013; 7: 697. Published online 2013 Oct 21. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00697
- Lebon et al. “Benefits of motor imagery training on muscle strength.” J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun;24(6):1680-7. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d8e936
- Driskell et al. “Does mental practice enhance performance?” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 79(4), Aug 1994, 481-492.
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