How Meditation Can Improve Performance

Article length: 859 words

Reading time: 3-6 minutes

Take home: Use meditation to switch into a more parasympathetic state, to reduce stress, improve recovery and perform better.  

*Credit "reading time/article length" idea to Greg Nuckols of Strengtheory. Pretty much stole that idea from him. 

In Stress is Stress, I discussed the basic principles of our nervous system. Comparing the sympathetic (fight or flight) vs. parasympathetic (rest and digest.)  You learned that while the sympathetic system is great when we need to respond to a stressor, it's not ideal to be bathing in it's hormonal milieu all day. 

I simply call this "being on." I think we can all relate to that feeling. Feeling rushed to work, forgot to bring our textbook to class, pressing hard in the gym, getting stuck in traffic, then we get home and have to figure out what's for dinner. Our inability to turn off can quickly add up and lead to a feeling of burnout. Stress on stress on stress.  

For the past 9 months or so I've been playing around with meditation post-workout in effort to help me turn off. The results are worthy of suggesting the practice to others. 

It's not long. Normally 5-10 minutes and can easily be incorporated into a normal cool-down routine of stretching and self myofascial release.  

Why? 

Exercise is high-stressor, especially if you're a competitor, pushing your limits mentally and physically everyday. Post-workout meditation is a tool that can allow you to quickly turn off after training. Switch from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. Heart rate slows down, catecholamines (norepinephrine and epinephrine) decrease, digestion is stimulated. 

The faster you can switch states the more you'll recover. The more you can recover, the better you can train. It's a circle of success. 

Becoming a better athlete isn't only about crushing yourself in the gym. It's about recovering enough so you train hard the next session. Under recovering leads to underperforming. A circle of shit. 

Research 

There's also supporting research (2,3,4) showing that mindful meditation can decrease sensitivity to psychological stressors.

This works in two ways.

First, mindful meditation can alter what you actually perceive is stressful Maybe after a few weeks waiting in line at the grocery store no longer makes you anxious.

Second, the same stressor you're presented with causes a lower arousal. Maybe sitting in traffic still sucks, but sucks less after meditation.  

Meditation could also help improve empathy and coping skills (5.)

In trend with the MyoBrain message, we can't look at our life stressors in a vacuum. They accumulate. Learning to cope better with everyday stressors will ultimately improve your sport performance. 

Who? 

This tip can be used by everyone, but especially critical for those who knowingly have a hard time turning-off. You know who you are. It's those who want to write down every word the teacher says, checks their email 50x per day, always has to be doing something or they feel unproductive. 

If you train early in the day a simple 5-10 minutes can change the trajectory of everything that day. Finishing a workout, rushing a shower, eating while driving to work and screaming at the slow people in the left lane is not ideal for switching to a parasympathetic state.

If you train later in the day (4pm-ish for me right now) this method can calm you prior to bed. I normally don't leave the gym until 6ish. When I get home I have 3-5 hours of my day left. Likely doing some MyoBrainin' (copyright Jarrod Miller), school if necessary and then easing into sleep with some form of entertainment or reading. 

I found that post-workout meditation after my nightly training sessions clears me. I can think easily about what's for dinner, what I need to study that night and what is an appropriate time to get to bed. Post-workout meditation allows me not only to recover, but have more productive hours after training.  

How? 

My post-workout meditation routine is simple.

Limiting external stimulus as much as possible

If you're gym is loud you may need to plug in some headphones to indulge in some relaxing tunes.  

Positioning 

I prefer to lay with my feet on the wall in the 90-90 position (90 degree angle at hip and knee), but there is no correct position. Sit, lay, whatever is comfortable for you to breathe.   

Breathing 

Focusing on big breaths into the belly. Inhaling through your nose. Hold the breath for a slight second and then calmly exhale everything through your mouth. I find it helpful to place my hands or phone on my stomach to help feel my stomach expand and collapse.  

Mind 

No doubt the most difficult part of any meditation is controlling the mind. If you're a newb this will feel like torture. Your thoughts will scatter and that's ok. Recognize that thought in your mind and then return to focusing on your breath.

What helped me get over the scattered thoughts was actually visualizing my breath - like it was tangible. I'd close my eyes and envision pulling air into my stomach, seeing the insides of my stomach expand, then exhaling the air out into the open. 

If this is too difficult you can focus your attention more directly towards your goals. Use this time to acknowledge how your technique felt, what you did good, what can you improve, how fortunate you are to be doing what you love. 

It's all about recovery 

In the end - we can only train as hard as we can recover. We can only work as hard as we can relax. Use post-workout meditation to enhance your recovery, your training, your life.  

Related

1. Meditation for Beginners - 20 Practical Tips by Zen Habits

2. Self-reported mindfulness and cortisol during a Shamatha meditation retreat

3. Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress

4. Stress reduction through mindful meditation

5. Does mindfulness decrease stress and foster empathy among nursing students?