How to Meditate: an Athlete’s Guide to Mindful Meditation

Main relax dude

We get it. You’re not into this whole “mindfulness” thing.

But know this: The mental wellness discipline, loosely defined as actively practicing “acute awareness of the present moment”—whether you’re stuck in your cubicle, chilling at the beach, or plowing through a complex project—isn’t just good for your brain, it’s also great for your muscles. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology recently found that athletes who practice mindful meditation techniques are far more motivated to exercise regularly and more satisfied with their workouts than less-mindful dudes. They also sleep better, says a new JAMA study.

With all this in mind, we sought out Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a mindful meditation expert and director of High Performance Psychology at DISC Sports & Spine Center, who’s advised athletes from the U.S. Olympic Team to the Seattle Seahawks, for an entry-level checklist for getting your head right for relaxation and exercise. All you need are a quiet place and a few spare minutes.

Do it first thing in the morning

Mindful meditation, or focused breathing, takes steadfast concentration. “You’re focusing on each deep breath as if a loved one’s life is depending on your being fully connected to that breath,” says Gervais. “But do it first thing before you open your computer or brush your teeth or make coffee—do mindful breathing.”

Start with just three minutes, then add three minutes until you top out at 20. “Morning is ideal. It helps to establish that inner space before you start running at full speed,” he says. “If you wait, you might just run out of speed, interest, and willpower.”

Don’t think you need to sit there like the Dalai Lama

If you feel like it, sure, sit cross-legged on a yoga mat. But for your mindful-breathing exercises, if you’d prefer to post up on your couch, or, hell, even on your La-Z-Boy, in your car, or at your desk, it doesn’t matter.

“Be a normal guy and find a spot that’s comfortable for you,” says Gervais. Just remember to straighten your back so you feel the force of gravity and your weight—because feeling the sense of your own physical presence helps with meditation. Quiet is essential. Airplanes, he says, are great for “locking in,” especially if you train often.

Don’t blow the breathing

Yes, there is a wrong way to do it. As with all fitness, when you’re practicing mindful meditation, the breathing is all about proper technique.

“Start in your stomach, let your diaphragm pop out, and then move your breathing all the way up to the back of your chest,” says Gervais. “You’ll feel a little tension at the top before a long exhale—the exhale is longer than the inhale. And then sit in the bottom of that exhale while your mind is fully connected to what’s happening. And then do it again. Set the time on your phone and just fucking breathe.”

It can take getting used to, so keep at it.

It takes practice, so hang in there

“The natural state of our minds is like a drunk monkey: curious, easily distracted, a bit sloppy,” says Gervais. “When your mind wanders, just gently recognize that you’re away from your breath, and gently refocus all of your attention back to your breathing: the inhale, the exhale, the sensations of your body.”

It’s not as tangible as, say, improving your 5K time, but Gervais swears you’ll feel yourself get better. Your mind will be less cloudy with better concentration.

Incorporate it into your workouts

Whether you’re deadlifting or running a Spartan Race, Gervais says that your experience meditating will crop up in ways you couldn’t have imagined. Once you’ve honed the discipline of being able to streamline your thoughts and focus intently on the present moment, your athletic performance will inexorably improve.

“From an athletic standpoint, when we have increased awareness, we can adjust with greater ease,” he says. “If you’re staring at that barbell, mindfulness provides wisdom and insight that, once we’re in the moment, will help us let it rip.”

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