Mindfulness and its benefits in exercise is a microcosm for the benefits of mindfulness in life. Just as life becomes more fulfilling, and rich in nature when lived moment by moment, breath by breath, exercise becomes more manageable and productive when you focus on each movement as you go along.
The present moment is almost always bearable.
Observing our minds during the last moments of a tough set or the last mile of a long run is likely to reveal common repetitive thoughts – ‘I need to stop.’ ‘ I can’t do this’. ‘I still have another 10 minutes to go’.
”Some of the biggest and most insidious distractions come to us not from the outside, but from inside – the inside of our own heads, that is. All of our mental chatter and negative self-talk gets in the way of our focus.”George Mumford in The Mindful Athlete
When things get tough or even at the first signs of discomfort, instead of focusing on the task at hand, our minds can begin judging the situation – how much we have left to do, our lack of ability to keep going, and verbalising the need to stop and rest.
Being mindful of our breathing and observing the sensations in our body helps us to silence the mind and keep going or identify the rare situations where we do truly need to stop or adjust something. We can recognise discomfort e.g. aching or burning muscles (as opposed to an injury) as simple sensations and stay with them without unnecessarily reacting to, naming or labeling them.
”Boredom, anger, sadness or fear are not ‘you’ or personal. They are conditions of the mind. They come and go. Nothing that comes and goes is you.”Eckhart Tolle, in Stillness Speaks
Being mindful and focusing on our breath also helps us keep our breathing steady, consistent and under control. This prevents our body from going into stress-mode and increases muscular and cardiovascular endurance as well as our ability to recover quicker between bouts of hard effort.
”We have become a generation of shallow breathers. We rush through life and our breathing rushes along with us”George Mumford in The Mindful Athlete
Being mindful includes being aware of the totality of the moment and not zeroing in on one negative sensation or problem. In the example of running, our awareness may include the soreness in our legs but also the rest of our body, our breathing, the wind on our face, the sky and the rest of our surroundings.
Something I do when running, which slightly moves away from mindfulness perhaps, is giving myself a reality check. I remind myself momentarily that I’m just one person doing one run on one particular day of my life and despite the run feeling like it could go on forever, it is going to be over in a blink of an eye.
The added bonus of tough workouts!
Whilst we can be mindful during any exercise or activity, a tough workout brings out a greater need for mindfulness as it requires us to dig a bit deeper to complete it. Athletes who undertake extreme endurance challenges such as Ultra-Marathons sometimes report entering into deep meditative state and feelings of bliss, in the midst of intense fatigue and pain or less dramatically and more commonly, catching a second wind, after they’ve pushed through feeling too tired to continue.
Additionally, practicing mindfulness outside the gym or off the mats (reference to mindfulness and jiu jitsu here which is an article for another time!) can help us access mindfulness more easily when we need it during a workout. I enjoy both seated meditation (i.e. what someone would traditionally imagine meditation to be) and meditating while I go about my daily activities. At the end of the day, mindfulness is a way of life; something that makes every conceivable activity better because we are truly present during it.
- The Mindful Athlete – George Mumford
- The Nike Run Club app – Guided runs by Headspace and Andy Puddicombe