Meditation scares me. Yes, I said it. I am a social worker and work in mental health, and it still scares me. The idea of sitting still for even a few minutes is tough. My mind starts to wander, and I start creating to-do lists to distract myself from feeling uncomfortable. I have post-traumatic stress disorder and being still and alone with my thoughts, undistracted is really hard and makes me cringe. However, like running, the thought of doing the hard thing is challenging enough for me to continue to practice it to get better.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been around for centuries, even though it may not have had this fancy title until the last few decades. The term was coined by John Kabat-Zinn in the 1970’s and combines his medical studies with Buddhist teachings to help people cope with stress, anxiety, and pain. I started learning of mindfulness practices while I was in graduate school as a frontline treatment for a variety of mood and mental health diagnoses.
Mindfulness and meditation go hand in hand in that they both work to connect our mind to our body so that the two become one. However, for people like me that find traditional meditation to be difficult, mindfulness can be performed in several ways to include movement. You can essentially practice mindfulness anywhere, even while running!
For many of us who choose the sport of running to help cope with life stress, sometimes we often take it too far and begin to use it to escape dealing with the stress. Constantly escaping things that are difficult for us, doesn’t help solve the problem or make it better. It is still going to be there when we return from our run. However, choosing to reframe our thoughts and how we cope with those things during our run can help us manage the stress so much better.
A few of the MBSR practices that I personally practice and recommend to athletes that I coach include breathing exercises, repeating affirmations, and visualization exercises. Taking what I have learned in the mental health field, I use these exercises and tweak them so that they are relevant to running and performance.
Here are my three go to ways to practice MBSR:
- Box Breathing
- Box breathing is an exercise to develop deep breaths and signal our brain that it is time to wind down. Most breathing exercises (also known as pranayama in yoga practices) work to slow down the heart rate by taking in more oxygen, via our diaphragm. Slow, deep breathing can reduce cortisol (stress hormones) and increase endorphins (feel good hormones). Doing this exercise engages the parasympathetic nervous system and decreases the sympathetic nervous system activity allowing us to be in a “bliss” state and relax.
- Step 1: start in a comfortable position either lying down, sitting in a comfortable chair with your back supported, or standing in a relaxed position.
- Step 2: Breathe in for the count of four, feeling the air slowly enter your lungs. To get a good deep breath, you should feel your belly rise rather than your chest to ensure that you are engaging your diaphragm and getting the deepest breath possible. If your chest is rising, it is an indicator that the breath is too shallow.
- Step 3: Hold your breath for four seconds.
- Step 4: Slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds. It helps to make a “Ha” sound as you do this. Hold your breath at the bottom of the exhale for four seconds.
- Step 5: repeat the cycle for 4-5 rounds or until you start to feel relaxed.
- Affirmations or mantras are positive statements that you can help you reframe negative thought patterns and improve your confidence. These can be written down in a journal, repeated to yourself, or placed on sticky notes around your house. Some people may even write them on their arms for race day or a big workout. Think of using affirmations to be your own personal hype-woman.
- Some of my favorite affirmations for running are:
- I am strong and powerful
- I can complete hard things
- My body is beautiful the way it is
- I am present in this moment
- I worked hard to be here
- I can find time for myself and my needs
- It is okay to take this time for myself
- All my thoughts are okay
- I can accept and handle any challenge that is presented to me
- My mind and body are connected, I have a strong mind and a strong body
- If I am in pain, I know it is only temporary
- Visualization Exercises
- Visualization is a tool that can be used to help cope with worries about the future. For instance, if you are worried about a big race coming up, taking a few minutes before your workout to visualize how you will perform is a great way to calm your worry.
- To perform visualization, take a few uninterrupted moments before your next big workout and either while lying, sitting, or standing start to picture what your big workout or race will look like? Can you use your senses to put yourself there in the environment? What will it look, smell, or sound like? Visualize what you will look like in that environment. Picture yourself full of confidence, lightly running down the trail, knowing you have worked hard to get there. Picture what success will look like. Once you feel like you have a good foundation of this exercise you can use it repeatedly to re-affirm that you can achieve your goal and you will be successful on race day!
While these are only a few exercises, they are great for someone who is new to practicing mindfulness. A few tips to make them all successful is to start slow and perform them in a place where you feel emotionally and physically safe. Mindfulness is proving through studies to be a great tool for improving athletic performance and reducing stress and anxiety. We take time to physical train our bodies, it can be just as beneficial to also train and nurture our minds.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners. Louisville: Sounds True, Inc.