Adding a mindful twist to your workout may help boost your performance
by Julie Deardorff
Eric Lieb was just hitting his stride during a recent 5-kilometer road race when—aargh!—his shoelace came undone. Lieb considered stopping to tie it, but he really wanted a good race time. So he pressed on with the flapping lace, invoking an excellent tool for crisis management: mindfulness.
It worked even better than he expected. First he caught up to the leader. Then, pushing thoughts of both winning and fatigue out of his head, he crossed the finish line in 18:40, winning the race overall and posting the fastest time of his life.
The equipment failure “forced me to pay even more attention to the moment,” says Lieb, 34, co-founder of a youth gymnastics program in Evanston and a mindfulness coach. “I also let any doubts and fears about tripping or losing my shoe pass through me. Consciously staying ‘open’ seemed to help me sustain my speed and even move a bit faster.” Mindfulness training, long considered a secret weapon for Olympic and professional athletes, is trickling down to amateurs. Fitness classes are incorporating elements of mindfulness, zen-like language and mantras into group workouts, including spinning and boxing. Some youth physical education programs have mind-body components. And coaches like Lieb use visualization and other mindfulness techniques during practice and competition.
Though more research is needed, proponents say that enhancing the mind-body connection can help athletes of all ages and abilities get in the zone, improve fitness levels and perform better. While mindfulness is a tool athletes can use on the field or in the gym, the real benefits come when it spills over into daily life.
“Most people haven’t been taught to exercise their bodies in a way that’s truly health-promoting,” says Amy Saltzman, a physician and founder of California-based Still Quiet Place, a mindfulness based stress reduction program for children, teens and adults, as well as athletes.
“Some people treat the body as just a vehicle for the head; others learn the “no-pain, no-gain” athletic model and are taught to override the body’s signals,” explains Saltzman. “There’s a sweet spot in the middle. We can be fully in our bodies, listen to our bodies, and learn how to push to—but not past—our limits, to improve performance.”
The rising popularity of mindfulness in sport is fueled in part by professional athletes and their coaches who tout the benefits. After the NBA’s Golden State Warriors broke the record for the best start to an NBA season last November, coach Steve Kerr recently reminded his players of the team’s core values: joy, mindfulness, compassion and competition.
In addition, mounting evidence suggests that mindfulness training can promote “flow” and concentration. A four-week program called “Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement” was found to be “a promising intervention to enhance flow, mindfulness and aspects of sport confidence,” in golfers and archers, according to a small 2009 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology.
Other research suggests meditation and mindfulness have health benefits; there’s evidence that it may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The agency also says meditation “may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may help people with insomnia.”
George Mumford, one of the most influential, but largely unknown, mindfulness trainers in the country for the last two decades, recently published a new book called The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance. Mumford, who has worked with everyone from NBA stars Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to U.S. National soccer team captain Clint Dempsey and Olympic silver medal figure skater Sasha Cohen, shares strategies in his book that he says can transform the performance of anyone with a goal, whether they are an Olympian, weekend warrior, a youth athlete or artist.
“A lot of athletes think the trick to getting better is just to work harder,” former NBA coach Phil Jackson wrote in the foreword of The Mindful Athlete. “But there is a great power in non-action and non-thinking. The hardest thing is just being fully present in the moment,” concludes Jackson.
In its simplest terms, mindfulness, a form of meditation, is about tuning into the present moment without judging it. It’s an unusual idea in health clubs and fitness centers, which often rely on distraction as a way to help participants through a hard workout with television monitors and magazine holders on cardio equipment.
But some studios have started integrating body and mind by encouraging quieting the mind in order to focus on speed or intensity. Some instructors use “zen” language or end with the hands together at the heart or a “namaste.”
Samira Shuruk teaches belly dance and Bollywood in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. When she’s coaching other professional dancers, she uses visualizations such as “Imagine the light in your chest is radiating out to the very back of the room, and filling every nook and cranny” to help with projection and charisma.
“I feel there is a strong connection between visualization and storytelling,and both have great strength, even in short phrases,” Shuruk says. “By using positive phrases with imagery and intention, we help students realize their own goals. They fully utilize their imagination, and this has the benefit of creating a space for them to be entirely present.”
New York City Peloton Cycle instructor Christine D’Ercole incorporates mindfulness in every class. Towards the end of a ride, she asks everyone to shut their eyes and be mindful of their breathing and thoughts.
“Her mantra, ‘I am, I can, I will, I do,’ has a cult-like following,” says Erin Spain, who streams Peloton classes from her home in Chicago. Spain loves the competitive nature of the class. At the same time, she notes, “It is very nice to shut your eyes during a song and have Christine remind you to connect with your intentions and your motivation for working out so hard.”
Lieb, a competitive gymnast through high school, first realized the power of mindfulness after he spent more than a year practicing it for 16 hours a day in a California monastery.
When he returned home, he found he could execute several new elite gymnastics skills, even though he hadn’t been in a gym for months.
“My body was moving with so much more ease,” he said. “I had the same amount of strength but more agility from the mindfulness training. I did a lot of releasing, loosening and relaxing of the body. There was less constriction and tension and I had more body control.”
That experience prompted Lieb to incorporate mindfulness into his coaching, both at Kit Gymnastics in Evanston and his mindfulness training company, Mindful Strides, where he works with everyone from children and college coaches to professional athletes.
“A lot of the pain in sports comes from distractions, doubts and fears, which lead to constriction and restriction,” said Lieb, who hadn’t run in more than a month before entering the 5K, but had practiced yoga and meditation. “Mindfulness is about letting go of the distractions and negative thoughts so they flow through you and don’t linger. It’s not necessarily getting rid of them but lowering the volume.”
For mindful fitness class resources, please visit illuminemagazine.net.
Learn more about Eric Lieb’s approach to mindfulness and performance at mindfulstrides.org, and for more information about Amy Saltzman’s stress reduction techniques, visit stillquietplace.com.
Julie Deardorff is a writer, certified personal trainer and media relations specialist for Northwestern University. Before coming to Northwestern, she spent 23 years as a reporter and columnist with the Chicago Tribune.