Mental health is one of those things that get short shrift, especially when it comes to physical training. Maybe you give in to the little voices that want you to walk “for just a second” during a run. Or you tell yourself that the last few reps don’t really count, so you can skip them. Then you feel guilty or ashamed because you weren’t “tough enough.”
Seeing these kinds of things as character flaws is something that is pounded into us from countless movies and shows, then perpetuated by coaches and peers as we wind our way through our sport of choice. But the truth is, your mind has to be trained just like anything else. If something hurts, your brain tells you to stop, lest you injure yourself further. If you’re exhausted, your brain tells you to ease off, so that you have enough energy to run from that cave bear that’s surely lurking in the parking lot of the gym. It’s evolution and it’s what’s kept humans alive and kicking for centuries.
While learning how to push through the tougher parts of training does come naturally over time, meditation can get you there quicker and help improve the focus and drive you’ve already developed.
Headspace is a meditation app that provides a staggering amount of specialized sessions for everything from learning how to meditate, to dealing with anxiety and stress, to sports training (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). It's built on the idea that we can improve our mental health with just 10 minutes of daily training. If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When, if ever, do you have more than a couple of seconds throughout the day when you're not bombarding yourself with some sort of sensory input? Taking 10 minutes to unplug and focus on what your mind and body are actually doing and feeling can provide a tremendous amount of insight.
In the latest app update, Headspace has arranged all these sessions into specialized Packs. Each Pack offers ten guided sessions that provide techniques and tools for training your brain. Whenever a new concept, like Noting, is introduced, there’s a detailed animated video that gives you some background. It’s a nice touch, perfect for those that are new to meditation and might not be familiar with (or even know that there are) more nuanced techniques.
Headspace Founder Andy Puddicombe's voice is a soothing balm, guiding you through the exercise. After a standard set of breathing exercises, you're drawn deeper into the session, where Andy occasionally provides assistance in how to practice the technique-du-jour (but not so much that it pulls you out of the meditation). As you progress through the pack, techniques will build on and complement each other. At the end of the session, Andy will offer advice on how to apply the day's technique to your daily life and how it fits in to the goal of the pack.
For those that might scoff at the idea that 10 minutes of mindfulness can have an affect on sports training, think about the last time you bonked on a run or bailed early on an exercise session. Often times, there are signals that the path you're on that day, in that moment, are building to a conclusion that you won't be happy with. If you can detect those signals early on, you can correct what you're doing or maybe reframe how you're going to approach that day's training.
For example, I had a beach race on Tuesday where the conditions were perfect. The sand was smooth and free of holes and debris. It was overcast and breezy, keeping the temperature down. The distance was great, just a little over 3 miles (which is about as far as I run during the Florida summer). But about a quarter mile into the run, I could tell that things weren't going right. My legs were heavy, my breathing labored, and my pace per mile was more than a minute off. My mind was a jangly mess of alarms. What I wanted to do, what my brain was telling me to do, was freak out and quit. Instead, I slowed down, took some deep breaths, and worked the problem. In the end, I was able to come to terms with it being a slow run and gave myself permission to walk when I needed to. Before I started meditating, I might not have had the awareness I needed to come to that conclusion.
If you don't want to commit to a meditation pack, you can also enjoy the benefits of one-off single training sessions. Here you'll be able to work on exercises specifically tailored to help improve your mind when Running or Cycling, as well as for sports-related topics like Motivation or Rehab. If you don't have time for a ten-minute session, you can try one of the new "Minis" that help you get a bit of relaxation and restoration in 1-3 minutes.
The app refresh makes it easier than ever to squeeze in a bit of brain training. And you can get the Basic meditation packs for free by downloading the Headspace app for Android and iOS. Give it ten days and you'll be impressed with the results. Once you're hooked, you can unlock additional packs and singles with a subscription (around $5 per month). Details can be found on the Headspace website.