Add Meditation To Your Recovery Toolbox
Meditation is one of the most powerful tools we have for recovery and mental health. To understand why, let’s look at stress.
Stress is the body’s defense against predators and danger. Back in the day, it was a healthy adaptation that kept us alive by preventing us from being eaten by sabertooth tigers. It’s our natural response to environmental factors (stressors) that cause physical, mental/emotional symptoms as well as internal, biological processes such as the release of hormones like cortisol.
No one has a stress-free life, and many people turn to meditation for stress relief. Just going to the grocery store right now is anxiety-inducing enough to cause a chain of complex chemical responses in your body, all for the sake of a simple salad. Physical symptoms like shortness of breath, a climbing heart rate and impatience are all signs that your body and immune system are stressed. If you’re like me, you’ve experienced these things (and others, sweat, high blood pressure, over-alertness) during a normal day, not to mention a global Pandemic.
Your body responds to the stress with an immune response that releases three vital hormones, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline). The release of hormones into the body causes the symptoms mentioned above. That elevated feeling, shortness of breath and impatience are all signs you’ve activated your sympathetic nervous system or fight-or-flight response to environmental stressors. Have a fight with your partner? The same set of reactions occurs. Your body can’t tell the difference between a dish-duty disagreement, and a sabertooth tiger encounter. Pressed for time or crunched between meetings? Yup, that fight-or-flight response kicks in. Watching a scary movie? That’ll do it. Spending too much time on news sources that push your buttons? Cortisol is there. Pushing hard in your workout, yes, that’s activating the sympathetic nervous system as well. And, you know what? The response within the body is always the same, no matter which one of these examples is taking place or a combination of them is. To your body, it all might as well be a sabertooth tiger. The response is to release chemicals, create an inflammatory response and prepare you for taking on the environmental stressors that initiated the reaction in the first place.
The body knows stress, not miles. It doesn’t differentiate between the two. Stress is stress, whether physical or mental/emotional.
So, what is meditation, anyway?
Meditation is the habitual process of building awareness of your breath and observing your thoughts. Why does it have to be habitual? Because like any good activity, the frequency in which you practice it allows you to better utilize its benefits.
Why should athletes meditate?
Mounting evidence shows that practicing deep breathing and engaging in frequent meditation practice can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of fight-or-flight response) and create a relaxed state in which your body. It is in this state that your body naturally finds homeostasis, reduces cortisol and stress, and helps to control anxiety which promotes mental/emotional health. It does this because that relaxed state induced by deep breathing reduces cytokines (a by-product of the sympathetic nervous system activation) which are linked to depression. Other benefits of meditation are enhanced self-awareness, greater ability to focus, improved sleep and recovery and amongst other things. Basically, it helps your body realize that THERE IS NO TIGER.
Meditation is one of the most powerful recovery tools athletes have.
Why? Because it not only allows us to be intentional in the way we spend our time between workouts, it also allows us to actively turn off our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) which gets kicked up during training sessions and can, in general, be overactive throughout the day. Through meditation and deep breathing, we switch on the parasympathetic nervous system to create a relaxed state where hormones like cortisol are balanced and the body reaches homeostasis. This, in turn, lowers inflammation, a byproduct of the fight or flight response, which can make us less sore and better able to prepare for our next round of training.
How can I start a meditation practice?
Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not about clearing your mind or not thinking – like Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation. It’s about monitoring and building awareness around your breath, it’s depth, and it’s rate so you can translate that awareness into a practical application during your day. It’s also about having an environment that allows you to feel what you feel, without judgment. With this tool, you can engage your parasympathetic nervous system during periods of high stress and crowd out the fight-or-flight response as often as possible.
Start with a deep breathing exercise
For athletes and clients we work with, a great place to start is with a short, deep breathing exercise that can be done several times a day. One we like is Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing. This is the perfect tool to bring out in the middle of that stressful shift at the hospital, or right before a big meeting to clear your mind, reduce nervousness and prepare for that presentation. We’ve also found it helpful for athletes to ease into a good night of sleep after a big day of training. Practicing 4-7-8 breathing provides a strong baseline for shorter guided meditations and visualizations that can help you relax and build a foundation of practice.
Progress to short (10-15 minute) guided meditations
Once you’ve developed a small foundation and a bit of awareness around your breath (a few days of practicing 4-7-8 breathing or yoga breathing is plenty), you can dive into a short guided visualization. We like this back to basics guided meditation because the guide takes you through each step of the relaxation process, gently helping you to expand your awareness around your breath and how it directly affects tension in your body and how it relates directly to that relaxation state we are going for. For athletes and clients who find it particularly hard to relax and focus, I recommend doing this exercise lying flat on your back, with good posture (straight spine). Your bed is a perfect space as it is usually quiet, you can close the door and immerse yourself in the experience. Other people enjoy these guided meditations while sitting upright in a chair (with good posture) or cross-legged on the floor. I don’t recommend these positions as often for runners because many of us are naturally a bit tighter and these positions can make it more difficult to relax. Always use headphones to help block out distracting sounds.
More advanced meditators like to immerse themselves in longer, 20 minutes to over an hour meditations, or visualizations. These meditations often provide more extended periods of time in hyper-relaxation states and open the doorway to the more introspective and exploratory side of meditation. A guided meditation we like for more experienced meditators is this body scan which combines gradual relaxation of all areas of the body with visualizations that promote deep, extended periods of relaxation and opportunities for a vivid visualization experience.
-Find a quiet space.
-Many postures work: sitting upright in a chair, cross legged on the floor, or lying flat on a bed.
-Start small. 10 minutes is very effective!
-Build your practice, shoot for 5 days per week
-When in doubt, follow the guide
-Listen to your breath (inhale through nose and exhale through your mouth)
-It’s normal to fall asleep during your first several meditations while building your practice. Don’t resist it. You still get the benefits from the meditation.
Back to Basics Meditation:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzV6J4WCwRM&t=254s (15 minutes)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qvi0ehf6IY (15 minutes)
Brian Weiss Inner Peace Love:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFgHurf3S6o&t=683s (20 minutes)
Headspace app with anxiety and sports performance packs.