Are you out of your mind?
Perhaps a question aimed at those of us still training during this blistering heatwave? But in fact I’m simply wondering where your mind is when you exercise? Are you literally ‘out of your mind’ seeking to distract yourself from whatever form of pain you perceive, be it mental or physical, or do you prefer to keep your mind on the job in hand.
When working out, many of us rely on outside stimuli to take the focus off the boredom of necessarily routine exercises. We know that repetition builds fitness, but getting through a session can sometimes feel like a chore. Many of us have a ‘go-to’ distraction and this isn’t always a bad thing. It can motivate you to get to the gym, it lets your mind wander freely and can be meditative, as well as helping you to enjoy your training more. Music, such as the Rocky theme, may empower your goblet squats or you might prefer a more visual distraction if you’re on the treadmill, like catching up on the latest episode of Love Island? You still get the work done, right?
But, are you being as effective as you could be? If you are too distracted during your workout you may not notice that you are rushing through the motions without focusing on what your body is actually doing. This could mean not working your muscles through their full range of movement, thereby wasting the benefit you might have gained and possibly even causing injury.
Mindfulness playing a part.
Mindfulness means that you are fully present in the moment. In a workout it means that you can focus on the space in which you are moving and make a connection between mind and muscle so that you feel your own strength and power. This mind-muscle connection, or ‘internal focus’ has been shown to be highly effective at increasing muscle activation as proved in a study in 2015 using data from 18 resistance trained men.
According to Trevor Thieme, writing for Men’s Health in 2019, good form in the gym, meaning proper lifting technique, is more important than how heavy your weight is or how many reps you do. This means that you are training safely, but he suggests that if you add to this a conscious focus on feeling how the muscle is working throughout the movement, you will more fully engage and enhance muscle fibre. Trevor also mentions looking away from the mirror to pay attention to how the weight feels rather than how it looks.
There’s a magical moment when you become conscious of your actions making you feel strong and powerful and this can produce many benefits. A study showed that when mindfulness was combined with exercise, the participants showed improvements in stress, depression and anxiety as well as having improved sleep, which can also benefit mental health.
You might think that keeping an internal focus is easy, except that our brains are often like busy washing machines, churning things over and over. We rarely stop to notice how our thoughts are driving our behaviour. As Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says,
Here and now
Mindfulness is something we can all access, but being able to still our thoughts for long enough to focus on keeping a connection with our bodies requires practice. It’s not about emptying your mind and entering a trance-like state, but more about reaching a heightened consciousness of the ‘here and now’- recognising what is going on around us, without overly reacting to it or feeling burdened by it.
Mindfully running in the outdoors means becoming totally connected with your body. Keeping a focus on your senses, looking around you, feeling the wind against your face, the terrain beneath your feet, being conscious of your breathing, your diaphragm contracting, filling your lung space, and being conscious of how your muscles are working to propel you along.
Sports companies Nike and Asics have recognised that mindful running is beneficial. Research carried out in 2018 by Asics found that psychological factors such as sight and sound have a significant effect on endurance performance. Nike partnered with Headspace, the online meditation company, on a series of audio-guided mindful runs. Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, commented on the benefit of these, “You notice more about your posture; you notice more about your technique; and you learn about your body.
Even with the known benefits of training mindfully, you may not choose to ditch the iPad propped on the rowing machine, or the earpods and your favourite playlist, just yet. However, do consider mindful training as an option when you want to shake up your training routine and who knows, it just might become a habit.
Recipe for a mindful workout:
- Before you begin your session, notice your energy level and your mood.
- As you warm up, observe the changes in your heart rate, breathing and whether you are perspiring.
- Celebrate what you are able to do and allow yourself to rest between bouts of exercise if you need to.
- Notice which muscle groups you are using during each part of your session and look for mind-muscle connection.
- During your cool-down stretch, notice whether your energy levels and mood have changed.
- Reflect and be grateful for your body’s abilities and for being able to workout.