How to integrate mindfulness into your training to decrease overall stress and improve fitness outcomes

You’ve got an hour to train, but instead of focusing on your reps, your brain is flooded with that big work project or the snippy way your partner reacted this morning. Your first inclination may be to pick a workout so hard that the discomfort will drown out the noise and numb the feelings. You just want to be able to escape.

If you feel inclined to exercise when you are stressed you are not alone.

"exercise is my therapy"

"i just want to sweat out my tears"

"i don't want to have to think for an hour"

These are all quotes from actual personal training clients who have felt the need to use exercise as a way to cope with some really serious shit. However, when that hour is done, nothing has changed. It's all there waiting for you.

You can’t out-train your stress and problems but you can learn ways to cope while continuing to work toward your goals. The difference in a mindful workout is that instead of just checking out, we draw our mind back to the physical activity and focus on connecting the two back together. A mindful workout involves paying attention to the flow that happens in our body when we’re exercising and the unity that exists between mind, body, and breath. While your tendency might be to zone out because let’s face it, our brain gets tired, bringing your attention to the present can actually decrease the overall stress on your brain and body.

Depending on the level of stress you are encountering, you may have to table certain workouts (like Crossfit or other high-intensity classes) completely for a time. It may take some practice to develop the mindfulness skills in order to successfully scale the intensity and rate of perceived exertion of workouts. Other times, your stressors might be more manageable and you just need a way to cope. Perhaps you already have figured out your optimal fitness formula for this season of your life and want to further create wellness surrounding your movement of choice. Mindfulness during exercise can be beneficial for both of these situations. You can take that even further by adding mindfulness at the beginning or end of your session.

I bet you don’t even realize that you are already using a type of mindfulness practice in your workouts. Focusing on the sensations of the heart beating and muscles burning, concentrating on lifting technique, or even counting reps or tempo is embodying the present - consciousness. This is where bringing in intentional mindfulness is helpful. It might feel good at the moment to be drenched in sweat and feel your body moving through the motions of your workout and for an hour you aren’t obsessing about “that situation/issue/argument/hurt.” However, when your workout is over you will have to face them again. It’s only momentary relief.

Alderman, Olson, Brush, and Shors (2016) found that directed meditation combined with running or walking helped to reduce symptoms of depression for depressed participants by almost 40%. Professional athletes use mindfulness before training and competitive events and recognize the power of the mind in regard to performance. In a study in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, distance runners who had a mindfulness practice showed higher self-confidence and lower anxiety before a big race. Decreasing any amount of depression and anxiety is a plus in my book. You might not be after a gold medal, but you definitely don’t want to waste your time and energy in the gym.

Before you begin your next workout, take a moment to recognize the sensations in your body and acknowledge that you’ve made a commitment to nurture and strengthen your body by exercising. As with everything in mindfulness, it’s about being connected with your mind and body, your movement, and turning from external distractions to an internal focus.

I recommend taking a couple of minutes before your training session to connect with your body and bring attention to what is going on in your inner world.

Sample pre-workout routine:

  • Practice a few rounds of box breathing through your nose only.

  • Acknowledge what is happening in your life right now and visualize yourself placing what’s not serving you at this moment in a jar or box and closing the lid. Prepare to focus on the present with no judgment about the thoughts you are having.

  • Do a body scan starting at your feet and working up to your head. Pay attention to any areas that you need to provide some manual therapy or perhaps adjust your training because you have pain.

  • Set your intention or purpose for the session, depending on how you are feeling. Do you need to adjust the intensity? Do you need to show yourself grace with how much you will be able to lift? Are you feeling well recovered and prepared to full send? Visualize yourself performing some of the movements.

  • Finish with some energizing breaths and a short burst of repetitive cardio like jogging or rowing. I like to dance like a wild woman to a high-energy song.

During your training session, after focusing on your physical responses, you can turn to your thoughts and feelings. What are you thinking as you settle into your run or during your lifts? Are you criticizing yourself? Are you replaying scenarios or conversations in your head? Are you finding gratitude for being able to physically move and finding the time to take this moment to yourself? Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, but don’t dwell on them. If you find yourself ruminating or becoming critical, gently bring your attention back to your breath or counting reps instead of these thoughts.

Then what, after your workout? How do you prepare yourself to emerge back into your routine and the stressors you left behind? Meditation after a workout has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol which if you have exercised above a moderate level, it’s most likely elevated. Remember, exercise puts your system through stress, sending signals to your brain that you need to adapt by getting stronger or faster. And because your body can’t tell the difference between various forms of stress, your cortisol needs help staying in a healthy range. Meditation has been proven to decrease cortisol levels which can sometimes break down muscle tissue if it remained elevated.

In addition, post-workout meditation can help to reduce feelings of pain your workout may leave you with. Pain, inflammation, and elevated feelings of stress can all get in the way of your body recovering from both the stresses of your work and those of daily life. With your cortisol levels under control and your pain naturally managed, your body can focus on what’s really important immediately after exercise: recovery. Ensuring that your body is fully recovered, then, is one of the best ways possible to make your workouts more effective.

Post-workout meditation suggestion:

  • Sit in an upright posture and perform breath holds 8 (slow inhale)-8 (breath hold)-10 (slowly exhale) pattern.

  • Take that imaginary jar back out and open it up sending your problems back into the universe and releasing anything no longer serving you.

  • Show thankfulness and gratitude to your body and what it is capable of.

  • Acknowledge that you did something good for yourself, acted on your commitment to yourself, and if you had some high moments praise yourself for those.

  • Spend a moment manifesting what it is you desire most right now. Imagine it unfolding exactly as you dream.

Additional Benefits

You can also derive more satisfaction from your training according to researchers in the Netherlands. They found that participants who reported being the most satisfied with their exercise habits were also the ones who exercised the most. But they also found that participants who reported practicing mindfulness during exercise generally felt more satisfied with their exercise regime (Tsafou, De Ridder, van Ee, & Lacroix, 2016). Overall, the research does support the idea that mindfulness in exercise and sports has a positive contribution, whether it’s your perception of your feelings of general health or the satisfaction you take from exercise.

Meditation will help you maximize your performance during exercise and optimize the outcomes. Many scientific benefits of meditation showed that there are physical adaptations that occur, not just mental. You can increase your resistance and improve overall performance and optimize muscle building.

Use meditation as a tool to help you sleep better. Meditation can also help you fall asleep faster at night and have a more restful sleep. Don’t underestimate the value of sleep and recovery when it comes to exercise. All that muscle building or fat loss occurs while you’re at rest and while you’re asleep.

Remember, the goal of meditation is to quiet your mind and bring you into the present state of consciousness, which has a beneficial impact on calming your body as well. If you find a particular meditative practice too structured or you get distracted by all of the rules, it’s probably not going to get you to a cleared-mind state very efficiently. Ultimately, you need to find what works best for you and try a couple of different ways before deciding it’s not for you. Most importantly, creating habits like meditation, take time just like anything else. Habit stacking with your warm-up and cool-down can increase the likelihood of successful implementation.

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