The importance of mindfulness for athletic performance - by Michelle Reed

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This is not a post about nutrition but it falls into the same space for athlete wellness. As athletes, our mental states can make or break our performance. Our mentality is constantly put to the test when we need to perform under pressure or survive the ups and downs of training.

By the time of competition, an athlete has done all they can from a physical point of view to prepare for a race day. When it comes down to it, all that matters is where their mind is at that specific time.

So, what is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy?

It is an umbrella term for methods that help a person establish a mindset where they are conscious of their thoughts and reactions. It’s about being present, self-aware, paying attention to thoughts and feelings, controlling thoughts and emotions and having a strong awareness of one’s surroundings. It plays a strong role in the prevention and treatment of overtraining syndrome and recovery from injury.

It is becoming widely practised among high-performance sport psychologists to use with their athletes and has been shown to be more successful than psychology alone, as it works on reducing stress and anxiety.

Some athletes have a bad habit of separating their minds from their bodies, pushing their bodies to the limits in preparation for races, yet still cracking under pressure or becoming injured or ill when it’s crucial to perform. When an athlete has clear goals, less stress and anxiety, and is able to prioritise their energy into tasks that are beneficial to their goals, they are both mentally and physically stronger at handling the pressure of competing, and their performance can take huge strides towards success.

Mindfulness ensures a strong connection between both mind and body. It helps an athlete have better focus, productivity, more patience (in competition, while training and during injury) and stronger body awareness to identify issues before they develop.

To jump into physiology, the central nervous system (CNS), which involves the nervous system of the brain and spinal cord, becomes over-active in a stressed state. When one’s mind is full and stressed, our thoughts are unclear and can gradually slide into a depressive state. This creates anxiety, foggy brain, lack of concentration and low motivation. In severe chronic cases, autoimmunity may arise, triggering a number of responses that can take months to recover from.

Mindfulness strategies help eliminate negative thoughts by giving control back to the owner along with the ability to release negativity from consuming our strength and energy. It helps us prioritise what we want to impact our lives and what we don’t. When mindfulness is used on a daily basis, the CNS is well-regulated, helping generate calmness, focus, peace of mind and control of emotions and mood.

A regulated CNS can increase gut functionality which is essential for absorption and digestion of foods. Indigestion and malabsorption are detrimental for an athlete’s performance and severely limit their ability to train. Early signs of gastrointestinal issues include bloating, abdominal pain, sluggishness, general fatigue and weakness.

So, how do you train or integrate mindfulness strategies into a daily routine?

Here are a few methods that fall under the umbrella term for integration into daily training:

  • - Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
  • - Stretching
  • - Meditation
  • - Yoga
  • - Abdominal deep breathing exercises
  • - Conscious relaxation (e.g. regular quiet time, reading a book, walking in a forest or on the beach and taking time off social media)

Daily practice of brief (5-10 min) or long sessions (30min-1 hour) before or after training and competition, before bed or important events, can be highly beneficial for athletes to mentally prepare for competing.

Mindfulness is a mindset where less is more and helps you have a clear vision of what deserves your attention and what you want to achieve. It is about prioritising what makes you happy. So remember: if you are training, train. If you are eating, eat. And if you are socialising, be social.

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