From Zoom to Zen

From Zoom to Zen

By Mackenzie L. Havey

Do any of these statements sound familiar? "I can't do this!" "I'll never make it up this hill!" "I suck at running!" "Why did I even bother signing up for this race?"

If so, you're not alone. Nearly every runner has, at some point, had this (or similar) internal narrative on playback. And, while it's common sense that negative thinking would be detrimental to performance and also zaps the joy out of training and racing, many of us continue to struggle with how to address it. Fortunately, a growing body of research shows that the ancient technique of mindfulness may be an effective way to deal with harmful self-talk.

Mindfulness involves harnessing an awareness of your body, mind, and surroundings in the present moment without judgement. At its core, it is simply attention training. It's all about teaching yourself to focus on what's happening in the moment with an attitude of acceptance.

Consider the case of that unproductive internal dialogue. If you're in the middle of a 5k race and you star to think, "I'm a terrible runner, I hate this," mindfulness calls you to notice that your're having that thought without getting down on yourself for being negative.

"If an athlete can first recognize and be aware of a negative thought," said Sacremento, California-based sports psychologist and mindfulness teacher Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli, "then they have a better chance of managing it."

Indeed, research demonstrates that mindful individuals tend to more effectively cope in stressful situations.

"Thinking positively' is not always an option in the heat of the moment," said Carrie Wicks, a sports psychology and mindfulness-based performance consultant in San Francisco. "Mindfulness is not about being positive all the time. On the contrary. A mindful athlete honors and observes the broad spectrum of emotions that flow through without attaching to any of them."

When an athlete isn't being mindful, one negative thought can lead to another and then another until they are caught in a vortex of harmful thoughts.

"Mindful observation allows the athlete to stay focused on the task at hand," added Wicks. This "typically results in a satisfying performance even if there are mistakes because the athlete is keenly aware of all that is happening, revealing where to focus next for growth and improvement."

Petruzzelli says that on of the keys to effectively wielding mindfulness in the face of negative thoughts is to simply understand that while you have thoughts, you are not your thoughts.

"Just because you have negative thoughts, doesn't mean you have to identify with them," she explained. "Once you are aware of the thought, then you have some options on how to manage it--count your foot strikes, tune into your physical environment, look for the next aid station."

In essence, mindfulness trains your brain to recognize your thoughts without getting caught up in them. Imagine standing behind a rushing waterfall. Instead of getting pounded relentlessly by the cascade of negative thoughts, a mindful mindset allows you to step back and observe without judgement. You still notice the negative thoughts, you just don't spend too much time entertaining them or getting lost in them and instead shift your attention to the present moment.

Research also suggests that the self-compassion piece of this equation is particularly important since negative thinking often has a snowball effect.

"When practicing mindfulness during a race or workout, you are conscious of the negative or ineffective thought you might be having," said Kacey Gibson a USA Track and Field-certified coach and sports psychology consultant for The Performance Pursuit, a performance consulting organization based in Chicago. "However, you resist the urge to pass judgement on those thoughts or dwell on them for too long, so they don't get out of control."

As with most things, becoming a mindful runner takes some practice. Fortunately, research shows that with relatively little time and training, the structure and function of our brains can change to support a more present-centered experience.

"In time, and with practice, an ineffective thought will have less impact on your performance," Gibson said, "and you will have the ability to stay in the present with acceptance rather than judgement that can lead to self-doubt."

"Mindfulness is a way of approaching life and therefore needs to be cultivated regularly, similar to working out," added Petruzzelli. "Luckily, it gets easier the more you practice."

Wicks agreed. "The expereince of non-judgmental awareness of negative thinking and emotional hooks is inspiring," she said. "It gets easier to recognize negative thinking patterns and allow them to flow through as you focus on the task at hand. The thoughts--both negative and positive--almost become white noise as the athletic endeavor combined with the mind-body connection give way to a pure present moment experience."

As the experts suggest, mindfulness takes some intentional practice if you hope to be able to effectively call upon its powers when you encounter negative thinking in the heat of training or racing. Try on or both of the following exercises at least 2-3 times a week to begin realizing the full benefit of mindfulness.

Pre-Ren Meditation Exercise (5-10 minutes)

  • Sit and close your eyes

  • Feel the muscles in your feet, calves, thighs, and hips relax.

  • Let go of tension in your stomach.

  • Relax your back, shoulders, and neck.

  • Release tension in your jaw and face.

  • Bring awareness to your breath.

  • Observe the natural inhale and exhale.

  • Focus on how the breath feels coming in and out of your nose, chest, or belly.

  • Every time you notice your mind has wandered, simply redirect it to your breath.

Running Meditation Exercise (5+ minutes)

  • Bring awareness to your surroundings while you lace up your shoes.

  • As you begin running, engage each of your five senses to get a full picture of your environment.

  • Bring awareness to the top of your head and scan down.

  • Relax your face, your jaw, your neck, and shoulders.

  • Bring awareness to your arms and legs as they move.

  • Continue scanning down until you reach your toes.

  • If you'd like to continue anchoring your attention to the present moment, focus on your breath or your foot strike.

  • Notice the intricacies of the in-and-out of your breathing or your left-right-left of your foot-strike.

  • Every time you notice your mind has wandered, simply redirect it to your breath or foot-strike and continue with this for a few minutes or the entire run.

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