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What Do Endurance Athletes Think of Mindfulness in Competition?

I have been obsessed with endurance sport for a long time. Not necessarily 'doing' the endurance.... but I have been known to pore religiously over Netflix documentaries, books, and podcasts relating to endurance athletes.

It's the mental side of it that fascinates me the most - I find a 10K run pretty boring, so how do people trudge along for 26.2 miles or further? How do they stay motivated, but also, how do they stay strong and performing well that whole time?

One of the big topics in sport psychology in recent years has been the use of mindfulness techniques in endurance sport. Mindfulness is the notion of actively paying attention to thoughts, feelings and emotions, and accepting without judgement all of these sensations. So, mindful running would include noticing ones self-talk and accepting this without judgement, as well as noticing the sensations in the body with acceptance and compassion. During a gruelling race where you're left with nothing but your thoughts and a great deal of bodily pain, this is no mean feat.

This would be in contrast to other psychological skills techniques that athletes might use, such as engaging in positive self-talk, using imagery, or goal-setting. All these techniques actively serve to change or decrease certain 'negative' sensations in favour of enhancing 'positive' sensations. It's been found in research that the process of doing this can actually increase the likelihood of these 'negative' thoughts rearing their ugly head. I have already spoken a little about the effects of labelling some sensations as bad and others as good, so I was intrigued to learn about how acceptance of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations can enhance performance, instead of trying to change those sensations.

What do endurance athletes, who've never tried mindfulness before, think about these techniques? It was this that prompted me to write my MSc level dissertation on how endurance athletes perceive mindfulness as a tool for their sport. I wanted to share with you my findings; even if you aren't an athlete, these findings could really help you with any 'marathon-like' goal you have in front of you that encourages you to keep going. In fact, with the current Coronavirus pandemic, you could argue that we are globally in the midst of a marathon that we all need to endure for the foreseeable.

So here are 3 things that I learnt when speaking to endurance athletes about what they thought of mindfulness before trying it:

1. Paying attention to bodily sensations is crucial to performance

Many athletes I spoke to agreed that constant monitoring of how their body feels when in an endurance race is imperative to make sure that they are staying healthy, are avoiding injury and can spot any issues before they get worse. For example, one athlete said:

"So, it's just that kind of dilemma in your head to go ‘OK, is this an excuse, or is it wise today to say, ‘OK, if you keep going you're going to injure yourself and you won't be able to run for a month’, or is it just you feeling a little bit tired and you need to push through it’, so I usually have kind of an assessment for about 2K in my head before I come to a decision"

This assessment of what's going on in the body is essential to avoiding injury, but there's a definite judgement involved here - judging what's 'good' pain and 'bad' pain. For example, 'good' pain is categorised by general fatigue and muscle soreness, but isn't something that the athlete needs to worry about. However, if an athlete experiences an indicator of 'bad' pain, such as a sharp tweak or a recurring injury rearing its head, this needs to be noticed and paid attention to as soon as possible.

So it seems that endurance athletes who've never tried mindfulness techniques before could get on board with the idea of noting and paying attention to bodily sensations. It seems thought that acceptance of these sensations should come with a caveat - if it's 'good' manageable pain, it can be accepted and athletes can push on safely. If it's 'bad' pain, this is an issue and needs some action.

2. Distraction from the present moment is pretty exhausting

It seems from my research that the process of distracting oneself from unwanted thoughts can be good as a short-term option, but is quite difficult to keep up and takes up a lot of effort. As one athlete said:

"What I've found is generally I can't keep it up- you know I can't keep counting continuously up to 50 back to start, it seems that takes quite a lot of my focus and energy"

I've spoken before about how thought-stopping or distraction techniques (like counting to 50 mentioned here) can be an okay short-term option, but can be problematic as a long-term technique to deal with unwanted thoughts and sensations. This seems to be supported here - as a short respite from unwanted or problematic sensations, this technique might work, but this is unrealistic for the length of an endurance race. So perhaps this suggests that mindfulness techniques could be well received by endurance athletes, bearing in mind that distraction techniques seem to cause issues in the long run.

3. Endurance athletes friggin' love a mental battle

Overwhelmingly, what I found when speaking to athletes was that they love a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge. So whether it's thought-stopping, or reframing their thoughts rationally, or any other technique to deal with the incessant chatter in their minds, this is the reason why they engage in endurance sport. One athlete said:

"I suppose in my head it gets to a point where it starts to get sore, and then the conversation I have with myself is going, ‘OK, this is the tough part but this is the good part’, so when it starts to get sore it's kind of like a challenge to me… yeah okay see how much you can keep pushing yourself so it's almost like a battle between your head and your body… see which will give way first"

In my opinion, this suggests that endurance athletes would love to try out a different technique to push themselves further and harder. Mindfulness, although a tool to accept non-judgementally and surrender to all sensations in the moment, is in itself a 'technique'. It takes hard work, practice and perseverance.

It also could be said that athletes might struggle with mindfulness techniques initially - some athletes thought that 'acceptance' was the opposite of 'competing' or 'succeeding':

"That whole sort of backwards and forwards conversation between, again positive thoughts negative thoughts, that's all stopped… but then you're in a situation that you don't want to be in. You no longer wanna be in that race, you don't really wanna be anywhere near it because it's got the negative connotations of failing at a set goal or a set time"

So it's important to note that acceptance and surrender to thoughts and emotions is not the same as 'giving up', a notion that all athletes obviously want to avoid like the plague. Mindfulness techniques aren't synonymous with lying down and taking it passively. It's an active decision to keep going and accepting all thoughts and sensations that come your way, instead of feeling the need to change them. It's tough, and it's just as effective (if not more) than other techniques that endurance athletes use.

So if you're a coach wanting to introduce mindfulness techniques to your athletes, you're an endurance athlete yourself, or you're just a sucker for a good mental challenge (like me) - hopefully this gives you some insight in to how mindfulness techniques might be perceived by other endurance athletes.

What do you think of these techniques? Have they worked for you? Let me know your thoughts!

C x

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