Becoming an aware athlete takes practice, but you will feel better for it. Physically and mentally.
My body lets me know when life stress is getting to me. I get a dull headache, toss and turn at night, and even get a scratchy throat, with no reasonable medical rationalization to explain it away. It is often apparent and easy to pinpoint. Other times the underlying cause is subconscious, and the source of my somatic symptoms is unclear.
Cycling has always been my go-to mental wellness modality. A good hard ride resets my stress thermostat and makes daily life more livable. It may sound brutal to some, but my goal on tough days is to make my legs and lungs hurt so bad that I can think of nothing else.
On such days, I also enforce one of my many self-imposed “rules of cycling.” When I sit in the saddle and clip in, the only thing that I focus on is the ride, training, or race. If my mind is drifting elsewhere or the small portion of it dedicated to non-cycling reasoning asserts its dominance, I am doing something wrong. Riding my bike is my time, and it deserves all of me.
Unbeknownst to me, my coping mechanism has a name and has been refined and utilized by sports psychologists to get the most out of athletes. Mindfulness training for athletes is a growing field of study, and now I know why.
Mindfulness Training for Athletes
I’m ashamed to say, but not many of my “rules” are mental ones. I devote the majority of my bandwidth to improving my strength, endurance, and results. More thought is put into my equipment, what to wear, and what my coach will say than the state of my headspace that day. I am an also-ran of the mental race.
Mental health and wellness is a newsworthy topic in sports circles now, and for a good reason. More and more athletes reveal that they suffer from feelings of worthlessness, physical and emotional exhaustion, and a reduced sense of fulfillment or worth.
When an athlete dwells on past performances or worries in anticipation of the future, they can’t focus on the task at hand. The athlete becomes inconsistent in their training and performances when they agonize over their internal thoughts and cannot immerse in the moment.
By learning to stay focused on the now, athletes gain awareness and acceptance of the positive energy to channel their attention. Athletes enhance the mind-body connection and feel better in their skin and enjoy what they are doing.
Strengthen the Mind-Body Connection with Mindfulness Training
The elite virtual cyclists I interviewed for my ZwiftInsider articles on Sport-Related Anxiety in Esports admitted to experiencing pre-race butterflies. The amount and reasons varied, but not the response.
As a mid-level amateur, my race results mean very little to anyone other than me, but I suffer. The negative scattered thoughts are never substantiated by experience or confirmed during events. But they are always there and usually the same.
The emotional scars of a scant few tough races tip the scales of logic. I know what I am thinking is silly, but I can’t stop, even though the worst possible outcome is without consequence anywhere other than my mind.
For the elites and pros, the stakes are much higher, and so are the consequences. When pre-race mental dialogue turns to past errors or anticipated failure, it isn’t easy to maintain perspective and focus.
The negative thoughts create a stress response that occupies the decision-making centers of the brain. Athletes have difficulty concentrating, solving problems, and maintaining composure when faced with tough decisions. A case of perception becomes a reality in the wrong way.
What is Mindfulness Training for Athletes?
Mindfulness, or non-judgemental present-moment awareness, is meditation focused on the intense awareness of what you’re sensing and feeling in the present, without interpretation or judgment.
Mindfulness allows the athlete to process experiences and stimuli without overthinking. The athlete is more equipped to intentionally maintain their focus on their performance without negative distractions or anxiety.
Mindfulness-based interventions have resulted in numerous physiological effects such as decreased pre-competition salivary cortisol associated with reduced pre-competition stress (John, Verma, & Khanna, 2011), decreased resting heart rate (Hewett, Ransdell, Gao, Petlichkoff, & Lukas, 2011), reduced pain sensitivity (Kingston, Chadwick, Meron, & Skinner, 2007; and improved cognition (Zeiden, Gordon, Merchant, & Goolkasian, 2010).
How to Train Your Brain to Become a More Mindful Athlete
Mindfulness training requires practice, persistence, and consistency, much like your fitness training does. Here are a few mindfulness-based interventions to try.
1. Mindful Breathing
Dedicate time each day to practice when you won’t be distracted by life or rushing to the next chore or task.
2. Body Scan
This will help you release tension in your body now, and be more aware of it in the future.
3. Full-body progressive muscle relaxation
Much like the body scan, but rather than breathing through tension as you encounter it, relax your entire body starting at your feet and ending at your head. Once complete, repeat until you have achieved a state of calm relaxation free of tension anywhere in your body.
How Does a Sports Psychologist and Pro Cyclist Advise Her Athletes? Natalia Franco Gives This Expert Advice
“I tell my clients that strengthening their self-awareness is the first step for a change.
- You become self-aware with your breathing, your conscious breathing is always in the present.
- You become self-aware with your body language and how your posture impacts your thoughts (think about a time where you were riding sluggish and how it impacted your negative thinking versus riding upright and in control of your body and how it impacted your confidence and performance).
- You become self-aware when you identify your 5 senses (what do I see, what do I hear, what do I taste, what do I feel, what do I smell?) they are always in the present.”
Practical Implications For This Not-So-Mindful Cyclist
One of the many unintended consequences of writing this blog is that I can explore topics in-depth. I gain a greater knowledge and see multiple viewpoints, often where I didn’t know they existed. I now take the opportunity to think critically, when in the past I might take a statement as fact or dismiss it altogether, without giving it much mind.
I confessed earlier that I didn’t address the mental aspect of my training. I wrote this article because I identified a need in myself, and the research I did convinced me that it is necessary. I gave Mindfulness Training a try, but with my twist.
As I prepare for a significant event, I practice my mindfulness routine when my inner dialogue distracts with defeatist thoughts. When warming up before a hard training session or big race, I dim the lights, select No HUD mode, and slowly spin the pedals. I concentrate on controlled, relaxed breathing as I perform a full-body pedal scan.
I feel each moment of the pedal stroke and picture the muscles working to create a fluid movement. I synchronize my breathing until I get into a flow, the warm-up zone. I can replace the negative thoughts without even knowing. I am then ready to crush my warm-up and have a great race!
On nights when I am having difficulty falling asleep because my head is jumbled with the thoughts of things I can’t control, I do a full-body progressive muscle relaxation routine. By the time I get to my head. Come to think of it. I don’t know. I’m usually asleep by then.
We may acknowledge that the mental aspect of competition and performance is essential, but few of us address it. I admit that it is a leap of faith that many views as a hoax.
The results of mental training are challenging to define and not tangible. For some, it isn’t easy to justify the time when there isn’t data or results to judge it by.
As more professional athletes open up about their struggles with mental health and fitness professionals prioritize it for their athletes, mindfulness training will become commonplace in a complete athlete’s training plan.
Furthermore, mindfulness skills translate to all aspects of our life. By dedicating some time to yourself and what makes you comfortable in your skin, you will become better in more ways than one. Mindfulness training is now the rule for me.
Do you practice mindfulness training?
What is your experience? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
For more articles exploring the mental and physical side of cycling check out the Training & Performance page of The ZOM.
Special thank you to Natalia Franco Villegas, M.S. Natalia is a Sports Psychologist and advises athletes, and many cyclists, through her online Sport and Performance Psychology website called Optimal Performance Minds. Natalia is also a professional cyclist for Team Twenty24.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!