Meditation has profound and long-lasting positive effects on our brain. But do you have to meditate for hours to see results? And can it help your athletic performance?
There are many benefits to meditation, from improved cognition and memory, to changes in the gray matter and reprogramming the brain. Sounds too good to be true? You’d better believe it because the more scientists investigate our brains and meditation, the more benefits they discover! We know how some of the changes happen, whilst for others, we don’t know the precise mechanism. The important thing is, there are multiple rewards in dedicating even short periods of time to mindfulness and meditation.
Many athletes use these techniques to further their training because it helps them achieve their goals. As you may know, a large part of your athletic training happens in your mind – from sticking to your training schedule, showing up even when you don’t feel like it, to experiencing a high from an achievement. When you train your brain, it will inevitably help you not only progress, it will also reduce any negative thought patterns that may be holding you back.
Consistent meditation practice also reduces stress, and sharpens focus in tense situations so you can perform better under pressure, and make smarter decisions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that meditation makes you a better person.
In one study, just 12 minutes of daily meditation achieved noticeable improvements in professional football players! No wonder that so many athletes made meditation a part of their routine, including the late Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or the whole team of The Seattle Seahawks.
What counts as meditation?
Before we delve into what it can do for us, let’s see what meditation actually is. When we hear the word meditation, many of us immediately conjure up an image of a monk, sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, oblivious to the world. There are many ways to meditate and you certainly don’t have to become a monk to experience some profound positive changes!
Meditation essentially means focusing the mind on the breath, a particular subject, body area or a mental image, whilst trying to not let anything disturb you. You can also focus on a word or a phrase that helps you sustain your attention. Another stage is to ‘clear your mind’ – in other words focus on nothing in particular. You can do this sitting in any position that’s comfortable for you but sitting with the back upright is best for focus. The key principle of meditation is choosing the focal point of your attention and not letting your mind be dragged around by random thoughts.
In meditation, thoughts always come and get in the way. It happens to absolutely everyone. Whenever a thought pops up, label it as ‘thinking’ and send it away. The point is not to engage with the thoughts. Simply acknowledge them but don’t give them any energy or attention. Sitting like that, training your mind not to stray, being aware and focused, that’s meditation.
Most of the time, your mind frets about so all you’re doing is trying to pacify it, again and again. It may be difficult but even if that’s all you do for 10 minutes, you’ll notice you feel different afterwards.
Some people say they get their best ideas or solutions to a problem whilst meditating – that’s not why we meditate but it can happen. If it does, do a little internal whoop but don’t dwell on it and carry on meditating. You may be surprised what your brain comes up with!
Meditation vs mindfulness
In case you’re wondering about the difference between mindfulness and meditation – you can practice mindfulness whenever, in all situations (preparing food, walking the dog or showering) because mindfulness means being fully present and engaged in the moment, it’s essentially a state of being.
Meditation, on the other hand, is a practice where you sit and focus. You make a conscious effort to train your mind and dedicate a certain period of time to it.
However, there’s also mindfulness meditation – that means you stop and focus on the present moment, being aware of things around you, sounds, your own breathing, sensations, etc. In this type of meditation, you simply observe what is and try to still your mind but you don’t focus on anything in particular.
What does it do?
All the effects below come with time so whilst on a daily basis, you may experience immediate and powerful results, it’s the long-term practice that solidifies the benefits.
- Brain matter preservation – this is an incredibly powerful effect of meditation! Research shows that people who regularly meditate don’t lose as much brain (gray) matter over time as people who don’t meditate. As we age, we gradually lose some brain matter but regular meditators lose much less. A ground-breaking study discovered that this protective effect is not specific only to certain brain regions but applies throughout the entire brain. So you can literally preserve your brain through meditation!
- Less monkey-mind, better attention control – perhaps predictably, regular meditation practice changes how your brain behaves. Research revealed that meditation effectively reprograms your brain so it’s less frantic jumping from thought to thought, and better able to focus on the task at hand. This is useful in your daily life, work and training too!
- Brain restructuring – there have been many studies analysing what meditation does to different brain regions. One study gathered all available data to present a neat picture and found that eight brain regions are consistently altered in meditators. These include areas key to body awareness, memory, self-control, emotion regulation, and complex information processing. People who meditate effectively remodel their brains to make them work better, retain more information and be less impulsive. You won’t become a superhero but you may come pretty close!
- Improved memory and comprehension – this goes hand in hand with the above because meditation stimulates the brain regions responsible for information processing. However, in this aspect, meditation effects are relatively fast – as one study demonstrated, people experienced noticeable improvements after just two weeks!
- Mental health support – meditation also helps to alleviate depression and anxiety, according to a large body of research. It is as efficient as medication, and has no nasty side effects! It’s not a cure but certainly can help a lot because it trains your mind to focus and reduces its fretting and negative thought patterns. In one study, the participants’ MRI scans showed that meditation altered brain structure in areas responsible for mood regulation and arousal – and these changes corresponded with great improvements in their mental health.
How can it help my athletic training?
Meditation makes you a better athlete and all it takes is a few minutes a day! As research shows, both meditation and mindfulness stimulate your ability to focus, decrease negative thinking, and increase goal-orientated behaviour. All these things help to shift your training to the next level.
Scientific data also show that mindfulness and meditation practices help to prevent athlete burnout. They keep you motivated, lower your stress levels, and improve how you deal with challenging situations.
And let’s not forget sleep! Meditation is an excellent tool for sleep improvements, as evidenced by many studies. Better sleep means better recovery and increased mental sharpness – what’s not to like?!
Can I make meditation a part of my training?
It’s best to do a short meditation practice just after your training or Yoga. That’s because as your body is winding down after physical activity, your mind is better able to focus. All you need to do is sit (cross-legged, on your heels, or on a chair), keep your back straight, close your eyes and breathe – check out our simple guide. It’s easiest to start by focusing on your breath, or the sensation of inhalation and exhalation at the tip of your nose. When thoughts come, let them go, don’t engage with them. Simply sit like that for five or ten minutes, bringing your mind back to your breathing. If you find it difficult, try our 10-minute guided meditation.
If post-training is not a good time for you, try a short meditation first thing in the morning or before you go to bed. There are no hard and fast rules!
Set a goal of meditating for a few minutes daily and see how you feel after two weeks. You may find that your initial plan needs altering – for example moving your meditation to a different time of day. If you commute to work on a bus or train, you may even try to meditate there! And if you skip a day, don’t worry, simply carry on the next day.
Just don’t give up and you’ll be glad you stuck with it – there are no adverse effects of meditation, only the positive ones!