The Benefits of Being a Mindful Athlete

Rich Roll, one of my idols, (did I mention I met him at the West Hollywood Whole Foods back in 2013? and that he grew up in my area (Bethesda/Chevy Chase/Kensington? So cool! But that is a story for another blog), sent out this link to “new” findings on mindfulness meditation’s impact on how we see the world–Buddhists monks have known this for centuries but Western science is finally catching on.

The article focuses mostly on external biases and prejudices but I think it can be (and should be) applied to internal biases as well in especially when it comes to athletics.

1) Correspondence Bias

Correspondence Bias is the tendency to ignore circumstances when making judgements. Externally, this could be thinking that fat people are just lazy versus dealing with an internal, emotional struggle. However, when applied to athletics, this could apply to you criticizing yourself for running or biking slowly compared to other sessions.

I know personally that when I feel sluggish or have a session where my pace and power are below average, my immediate thought is that I am getting slower, fatter, less fit, that my training is not working etc. instead of contextualizing that run and saying I am most likely running more slowly because of the hard session before, lack of sleep, stress at work etc. Workouts do not happen in isolation but are an active microcosm of your life–being influenced by and influencing other parts of you.

Instead of beating yourself up and trying to push the pace thus stressing yourself out more, ignore the pace, and enjoy the workout. See it as a sign that you are training in your proper zones and take the opportunity to allow your body to recover (which is the point of easy runs in the first place!). It’s an opportunity to practice mindfulness.

As I point out to my own athletes when I give them a wide range of paces (e.g. 7:45-9min pace) for zone 2 runs , your easy and foundation runs and rides should have a variety of paces and power outputs depending on the context. If all of your runs are the same pace, you need to change something.

2. Negativity Bias


Negativity Bias refers to paying attention to the negative events in our lives instead of all the positive ones, which usually make up the majority of occurrences.

I know for a fact that I and a lot of athletes fall into this trap. When I was swimming in college, if I missed one split but hit all the rest I would fixate on those 2 seconds that I missed rather than the 9 other reps that I hit exactly.

This can also happen when we look at ourselves in the mirror. We tend to fixate on that one proverbial or literal zit on our forehead and think the rest of the day is ruined. If you had one cookie but the rest of your day was full of vegetables, fruit, and plant matter, then let go of that one cookie, savor the taste of it (I hope you enjoyed it), and move on. One cookie in the grand scheme of your diet is not the end of the world. The other 95% of your calories are what make the difference. With workouts, I know many athletes focus (typically around races) on that one workout that they missed or cut short compared to the numerous others that they nailed.

Mindfulness helps reduce this bias and open our eyes and mind to the whole picture rather than one specific workout, race, event or person.

3. The self-positivity (or self-serving) bias

This particular bias refers to us holding onto positive self concepts in reference to others and might lead us to criticize others while holding our own ideas about ourselves above the rest. Don’t think this applies to athletes? Look at Strava, some Slowtwitch forums, and Facebook comments and you might change your mind. Mindfulness though helps us empathize with others while keeping our egos in check. Your critical focus on yourself and others diminishes and shifts to empathy as you begin to see things as they really are.

ahead of the rest
I am soooo fast. Wait until the guys on Slowtwitch hear about this….

This bias definitely applies to athletes. I know a lot of athletes who see themselves as a cut above everyone else despite their times, races, and training telling a different story. In my opinion, this comes down to a fragile ego that is afraid of acknowledging our own faults. With mindfulness though, the tinted glasses comes off and you are able to see and accept your own shortcomings instead of focusing on others.

Taken one step further, mindfulness can help you see these shortcomings as opportunities to grow and not fixed flaws. As athletes, it is important to take this approach. Rather than identifying and saying “I am fat/slow/pathetic excuse for a runner/swimmer/cyclist/athlete,” see these as areas to focus on and work on to make you a stronger athlete and person.

I would love to take some of the studies mentioned in the article and apply them to athletes as well. But even though I do not have scientific, lab-backed evidence to support the use of mindfulness to the above biases in athletes, I know that being a more mindful athlete will break down some of those internal biases so that you can see the larger evolution of your athletic journey.

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