Healthy Mind

How to reclaim your exercise calm

Let’s be honest, exercise isn’t always exciting. In fact, sometimes the prospect of pushing your body through a pain barrier can be downright scary. But, unless you’ve been hiding on a remote island, you’ll know that meditation is the go-to practice for harnessing workout calm. It’s pretty popular among the pros – including the likes of Tom Daley, Novak Djokovic and Michael Phelps – and there are many more fitness experts who swear by the powers of the ancient discipline. Promising to decrease workout anxiety and help exercisers cope with pain, meditation is fast coming to the fore as a great tool in an athlete’s arsenal.

Meditation goes mainstream

The mental therapy has come a long way in recent years. Once something people did for religious reasons, meditation has grown into a pastime that’s stylish and secular. Gyms have pioneered it as a way of gaining workout mojo, with international fitness company Equinox launching HeadStrong – a workout class that blends interval training with meditation – back in March. Headspace, a meditation app that claims to be ‘your gym membership for the mind’, even boasts one-off sessions for runners, walkers or cyclists. Seasoned competitors swear by it: “If I have a quiet mind and complete focus, I feel that I can harmonise my body, mind and soul better, which adds an inner dimension to physical fitness,” explains Tejvan Pettinger, a national cyclist for Sri Chimnoy Cycling Team. “Meditation also helps me to enjoy sport more, whatever the result of a competition.”

Zone out to tune up

There’s no doubt that meditation is getting trendier among fitness fans – but why? For starters, the ancient discipline reduces stress and helps athletes focus on performance, which is pretty handy when faced with a tough training session or competition. And then there’s the fact that the benefits of meditation are backed up by oodles of science. Researchers from Brown University in America, for example, suggest that meditation can make people better equipped to control how the brain senses pain and emotions, which could help athletes to overcome pain during exercise. And further data in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that elite shooters clocked better performances after a four-week meditation schedule. “This is almost certainly as a result of the reduction in performance anxiety,” explains Jess Cook, a Vedic meditation teacher at Will Williams Meditation (willwilliamsmeditation.co.uk). “The stress of competition can cause the brain’s amygdala (neurons responsible for the detection of fear) to go into overdrive and release anxiety hormones. This anxiety response is so energy depleting. By meditating in advance, you can help calm down the activation of the amygdala so that you are energised and motivated, with faster reaction times and quicker recovery rates.”

Go back to balance

The thing is that meditating does more than improve performance. It can also help to improve recovery after exercise, claims John McDermott, founder of psychology2perform.com. “Arousal control – or being ‘in the zone’ – is one of the fundamental pillars of peak performance, which is why meditation can ensure you’re more robust to unexpected stressors,” agrees John. “But the physiology that’s at play as a result of meditating, such as lower heart rate, decreased blood pressure, regulated breathing, brain wave variation and the slowing of digestive processes, is also crucial in helping an exerciser recover after exertion.” It’s a matter of bringing your mental and physical state back to balance. If exercise, which increases heart rate and ups breathing rate, stresses the body, meditation helps return it to a normal state. As a bonus, studies also show that meditation can improve sleep quality and boost the immune system – both essential for optimal recovery. It’s win-win.

5 Steps to a better workout

Interested in reclaiming your workout calm? The good news is you don’t have to be a professional sportsperson to benefit from meditating. The mind therapy is a great practice for all fitness fans, whether you train to compete or work out to lose weight. “In sports, we need energy, strength and dynamism. When we meditate, we make our mind calm and quiet,” explains renowned spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy in Sport & Meditation: The inner dimension of sport. “If inside us there is peace, then we will derive tremendous strength from our inner life… that peace will come as solid strength in sports, whether running or jumping or throwing.” Try this fivestep meditation from Jess Cook at Will Williams Meditation to give it a go.

1 Find a relaxed and comfortable place where you can sit with your back supported and feel at ease.

2 Gently bring your attention to your breath. Take five deep inhalations and exhalations.

3 Next, tune into any sensations you may be feeling on the skin, such as temperature change, sunlight or the wind.

4 When you have scanned your body in this way, bring your attention to the inside of your body – what is the dominant sensation that you feel? Are you aching or in pain anywhere, or are there any parts of your body which feel particularly relaxed?

5 Finally, visualise yourself feeling relaxed and calm, as if your body is being filled up with energy from the surrounding nature. When you are ready, open your eyes.

The zen list

It’s not just elite athletes who enjoy a spot of meditation – the über-fit A-list swear by it too!

Katy Perry:

“I start the day with transcendental meditation. It puts me in the best mood. I wake up and just prop myself up in bed for 20 minutes. It’s the only time my mind gets absolute rest.”

Kristin Bell:

“Do meditative yoga for 10 minutes every morning. When you have a problem – whether it’s road rage, your guy, or work – meditation allows everything to unfold the way it’s supposed to.”

Gwyneth Paltrow:

“My New Year’s resolution is to learn how to meditate. It’s always sounded like something I should do, but I don’t know how to. My friends who do it say it’s really freakin’ brilliant. They say you can’t know the peace/awareness/contentment until you do it.”

Kate Hudson:

“In order to be the best version of you, you need selfnurturing and self-acceptance. When you realise this, you have started the steps to achieving attainable goals… I find that when I meditate consistently my mind and body are at their best.”

Jennifer Aniston:

“I started doing transcendental meditation and that’s really changed everything. Starting your day off with that and ending with that is pretty powerful. Twenty minutes: you just notice the difference… so I try to meditate first thing when I wake up.”

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Sarah Ivory