Meditation for Marathoners

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If you’ve thought about adding meditation to your workout routine, join the growing crowd of endurance athletes finding results and relief. “It works, and people are realizing it’s the truth,” says Robert Puff, PhD, who works with many high-performance athletes. The psychologist says meditation can be that extra muscle or boost to keep up your perseverance. In other words, training the mind can make the difference between losing and winning in the marathon "race" against yourself.

Case in point — the Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll credited adding yoga and meditation to their practices as a major factor in getting the team into the Super Bowl zone. As studies on mindfulness emerge, researchers at Rutgers recently found that 30 minutes of meditation followed by another half hour of aerobic exercise also boosted feelings of motivation and focused positivity, tools that can be beneficial. And so more trainers are thinking about giving their high-performance-seeking clients deeper instruction.

Andrew Lemoncello, Olympian and assistant coach at McMillan Running, started meditating a few months ago and wants to start recommending it for more of his athletes who have a tough time pacing themselves through marathons.

“Something that is very common is athletes running too fast in the first half of the marathon which can ruin their ability to run fast as they slow down significantly in the second half,” Lemoncello said. “If they can focus on the task of staying on pace and being confident in their fitness then they will have better races." To that end, meditation helps athletes focus inward, rather than be distracted by trying to match the pace of others around them (and risk potentially throwing off their entire race).

Jessica Gumkowski, a former massage therapist who now runs Yogi Triathlete with her husband, said she used to “swim her way with fists” during races with old, pent-up aggression. She now guides her clients toward inward reflection. “The difference between an untrained mind and a meditator mind — in training and on the racecourse — is that the meditator mind is unshakeable in their focus.”

Gumkowski adds that clients are increasingly curious about what’s being billed as the “next best thing.” During her upcoming triathlon-training retreat at the Ironman Lake Placid race course, she’s added a full visualization of a bike ride in a guided meditation for the itinerary.

That blend of inner and outer conditioning may attract more competitors like Ironman and businessman Shawn Cheatham. Inspired by a chapter on connecting meditation with athletes in Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Cheatham started to sit in stillness a few years ago before the North Face Endurance Challenge and the TransRockies Run. Together he and his business partner Eric O’Connor, who is also a high-achieving marathoner, both apply mindfulness off the running trail by taking a step back in their company’s approach in the new-product discovery and launching phases. Increasingly, it's looking like meditation may be the key to achieving a higher level of success in both the road race and the rat race.

Below, Puff offers a sample meditation based on the breath. Practicing twice a day is best; try it once first thing in the morning, and again just before bed at night.

A 10-Minute Meditation for High-Performance Athletes

In this form of meditation, you simply “follow your breath" — observing without any mantra or prayer word as you quietly observe your breath. Shoot for at least 10 minutes at first and gradually move up to longer sessions if you like.

Eventually, thoughts will diminish, your mind will get quiet, and your brain patterns will begin to reach those deeper levels, helping you to dissolve stress and pre-race anxiety. 

1. Sit up straight in a quiet, comfortable place with your feet on the floor or legs crossed.

2. Begin by taking a few deep breaths.

3. Allow yourself to breathe normally, without concern whether the breath is becoming deeper, more shallow, or staying the same.

4. As you sit there, watch or take notice of your breath.

5. Continue to breathe in and breathe out, without getting caught up on whether you're doing it through your nose or mouth (either is fine). The only thing that matters is letting your attention remain on your breath.

6. If something distracts you, simply come back to your breathing. When strenuous or uncomfortable thoughts arise, don’t try to ignore them or push them away but instead acknowledge them and go back to observing your breathing. Allow your attention to focus on that. Acknowledge any distractions, without being annoyed by them, and simply direct your awareness back to your breath.