As athletes, we make an effort to train our body to become fitter and faster almost every day. Why should we do the same with our minds?
When I was eleven years old, I watched a documentary about a runner who ran a marathon every day for a year. His secret? He didn’t only run a marathon each day, he also meditated for several hours each day.
That was the moment when my interest for meditation sparked. What if I started meditating as well? Would I run faster? Would I win the upcoming triathlon race?
Sadly, I soon forgot about that documentary and it took another three years until my meditation debut. But long story short, nine years after watching that documentary and six years after meditating for the first time, I am confident that the simple act of letting go of my thoughts at the end of each day, helped me win the state championships and finish fourth at the cross country nationals in Germany last year.
How does meditation make you run faster?
As opposed to other sports, running doesn’t require a lot of concentration and coordination. There are no balls involved, no teammates, no complicated rules. The mind doesn’t seem to play a large role in the sport of running. Except, it does. Here’s why:
- Stress is detrimental to health and performance.
- Mental toughness is a huge component of athletic performance.
- Focus is the key to success in anything we do.
- Pain often hinders us from reaching our athletic goals.
All four things are directly connected to the mind. And we can improve on all four of them if we change one thing: dedicate ten minutes every day to meditation.
Here’s what it will do to your brain
Let’s admit it, a huge part of the stress we feel is caused by the overload of thoughts running through our mind. When we’re under stress, the body releases cortisol. Too much stress over a long period of time can cause heart problems, anxiety, headaches, and insomnia, to name a few.2 Needless to say that stress also isn’t beneficial for athletes.
However, if we are able to lower our stress levels by stopping our mind from overthinking, we become healthier and happier while our ability to withstand stress improves significantly as meditation normalizes elevated cortisol levels.
Everyone seems to be talking about mental toughness nowadays. You had a bad race? Maybe you weren’t mentally strong enough. But how do you actually improve your mental strength? You guessed it… One answer is meditation.
Researchers from the University of Montreal found that meditation activates and strengthens the brain’s center for mental toughness, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).1 To exercise this area of the brain, just get down on your yoga mat or your meditation cushion and focus on nothing but your breath for a few minutes a day.
How often do you catch yourself thinking about what you’ll have for dinner while you’re running? Or maybe even while you’re racing? But as long as the mind is wandering to places other than the act of putting one foot in front of the other, it’s taking away from the energy we need for moving forward.
That’s why I like to tune in to my favorite music a few hours before an important race. It helps me relax and let go of my thoughts – including my worries, fears, and doubts. Focusing on nothing but the music for a few minutes helps me get in tune with myself. Only if we focus on one thing at a time, we’re truly in the present moment. And only if we’re in the present moment, we can access our full potential.
When Sakyong Mipham, author of the book Running with the Mind of Meditation, raced the Boston marathon, he ran on a 4-inch-long blister that popped open halfway in. Only after crossing the finish line, he realized that his socks were drenched in blood. “The pain is one thing and the mind reacting to the pain is another”, he says. Pain is a signal that something is out of balance.3 And meditation does not only help us finding the cause for the pain, but also makes working with the pain easier.
Science has shown that meditation alters the brain so that practitioners have a higher pain tolerance. After long-term meditation practice, researchers could find much more grey matter in the ACC compared to the brains of non-meditators.4
“In the end, mind and body are a single entity” – Sakyong Mipham
We often regard body and mind as separate units but truth is, they together make us who we are. They are interconnected, they influence each other, they are a unity. We should stop thinking that only training our bodies will make us faster and fitter. We should stop forgetting about the power of the mind because in the end, it is the mind that makes us run. Because in the end, the mind is the strongest muscle in our body.
1 “How Meditation Builds Grit & Mental Toughness.” EOC Institute, eocinstitute.org/meditation/the-ultimate-guide-to-grit-mental-toughness/.
2 Chang, Louise. “Cortisol: What It Does & How To Regulate Cortisol Levels.” WebMD, WebMD, 22 Dec. 2018, www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol.
3 Mipham, Sakyong. Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind. Harmony, 2012, 2013.
4 Nakata, Hiroki, et al. “Meditation Reduces Pain-Related Neural Activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Insula, Secondary Somatosensory Cortex, and Thalamus.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, 2014, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01489.