Being Mindful to be Our Best During Tough Workouts

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 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.

Resources

  • The Mindful Athlete – George Mumford
  • The Nike Run Club app – Guided runs by Headspace and Andy Puddicombe

Integrating Recovery into my Training Plan

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve used the spare time to ramp up my training routine – balancing strength and conditioning, yoga, solo movement drills and studying for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This month I’ve realised that perhaps I should be doing more on recovery to enjoy slowing down and nourishing my body but also so that I can keep the rhythm going in the long run!

Things I already do

  • Cold showers (I actually enjoy these so if you hate them, it may be worth researching more about the benefits and deciding if the annoyance is worth it for you!)
  • Meditating 10 mins in the morning and 10 mins at night
  • Yoga everyday
  • Trying to get enough sleep
  • Eating sufficient amounts of the right stuff
  • Avoiding alcohol and sugar
  • Massages biweekly (in normal non-social distancing times)

Things I’m focusing on improving for July

1. Getting good quality sleep

My new purchase, a Fitbit Charge 4 has been giving me lots of detailed information about my sleep quality i.e.

  • my actual time asleep i.e. accounting for periods spent awake during the night
  • percentage of deep and REM sleep
  • sleeping heart rate and restlessness during the night

It’s been like Christmas every morning for me, waking up to see my score! It’s turned into a game you win by sleeping well. AMAZING.

To improve my sleep, I’m

  • waking up at the same time every day including weekends
  • not consuming caffeine after 3pm
  • eating at least a couple of hours before bed
  • winding down 30 mins before I go to bed i.e. putting my phone away and doing something relaxing
  • going to bed much earlier because time in bed does not equal time asleep as it takes us a while to fall asleep and according to Fitbit, it’s normal to spend some time awake each night although we don’t tend to remember this

2. Incorporating hard. moderate, easy and off days in my weekly training routine

An example of what hard, moderate, easy and off days look like for me.

The benefit of this approach is making sure hard days are spaced apart from each other. This allows me to really train hard on hard days knowing that I will have easy days and off days coming soon after to rest and recuperate. Similarly on easy days, I know I can truly just have a guilt-free easy day. Of course this should be accompanied by being aware of how your mind and body feels and adjusting your plan according to that which brings me to my next point!

3. Being flexible and listening to my body

''If there appear any plans, they are sketches 
and all sketches are made in pencil.
Everything erasable, everything changeable,
Yet one's being is neither fickle nor flimsy.''
- Mooji

When I first started my lockdown routine and was trying to establish habits e.g. running 3 times a week and a daily yoga practice, I found a specific time and day to do something helpful in preventing me from putting things off endlessly.

I continue to believe that a plan is super handy but am learning how to use it in combination with present moment awareness. How do I feel right now? What has changed since I made my plan?

When you are not feeling fully energised and recovered before your next workout, it’s worth asking why and establishing whether the plan needs to be changed or whether its a one of thing that you need to recognise and adapt your plan for that particular day.

4. Developing a better yoga and mobility routine

Over the past months, I’ve been learning through a daily yoga practice that yoga has much more to offer than an increase in flexibility. Beyond having the more commonly recognised benefits of flexibility, and balance, it can help with mobility, strength, recovery, injury prevention and even cardio! Therefore as someone who is naturally very flexible, I still have a great deal to gain from practicing yoga.

However, my yoga routine has not been as diverse and well suited to my need as it could be. Despite the variety of difficulty, pace and styles yoga has to offer, my usual yoga routine has consisted of 10-15 mins of fairly fast-paced vinyasa flow everyday. I’ve also only recently understood the difference between flexibility and mobility. This month, I will be more carefully selecting my yoga sessions, adding in consistent mobility work and longer restorative yoga sessions once or twice a week to really soothe and nourish my body rather than further tax it with a fast-paced or challenging session!

Finally here are some tools and resources that I found helpful!