As everyone who has ever played a sport knows, the biggest opponent is always on the inside. Meditation gives you a way to come to terms with that opponent.As everyone who has ever played a sport knows, the biggest opponent is always on the inside. Meditation gives you a way to come to terms with that opponent.
Both research and anecdotal reports from athletes show that meditation has several powerful physiological benefits for the athlete. Not only will meditation improve your biochemistry and immune system, but it’s a tool for training the mind to make you more mentally tough, while relieving some of the negative feelings that come from heavy training loads and the stress of competition.
This article will convince you to give meditation a try by detailing the benefits of a regular practice for athletes and fitness-minded folks alike.
Benefit #1: Raises Anabolic Hormones
People don’t typically think of meditation as a way to “get buff” but research shows that regular meditation is a natural way to raise levels of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA. A study showed that young men age 18 to 32 who engaged in a regular transcendental meditation for 4 months had higher baseline levels of testosterone, GH, and DHEA—a hormone profile that researchers associate with better health and improved body composition and muscularity. Greater release of anabolic hormones can also accelerate recovery from training or injury by stimulating tissue repair and eradicating inflammation.
#2: Lowers Stress & Reduces Cortisol
You probably associate meditation with relaxation, so lower stress isn’t a surprising benefit. But what you might not know is that meditation resets the entire hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in the brain, allowing for lower cortisol release and a better ability to handle chronic stress.
The study mentioned in #1 showed that baseline cortisol went down, but interestingly, cortisol release to an acute stress test increased, which is considered a favorable adaptive response. It indicates the subjects were better able to handle everyday life stress, producing less cortisol, but that their bodies were more responsive when they faced a serious threat and needed that jolt of cortisol to turn on their “fight or flight” system. This can pay off for athletes who want to minimize their pre-competition nerves but need to be at the top of their game when it counts.
#3: Reduces Pain
Athletes and people who train intensely are known for being able to endure greater levels of pain compared to sedentary people. Research shows this ability can be enhanced with meditation. Somehow, meditation diminishes the emotional experience of pain, reducing the sensation and enabling you to go harder for longer.
One study found that after volunteers performed four 20-minute meditation sessions, they rated a burn as 57 percent less painful and 40 percent less intense than before meditating. The reduction in pain was substantially greater than those seen in similar studies involving pain medications, even opioids.
#4: May Improve Injury Recovery
Research into the role of the mind in recovery from injury is still in the early stages, but there are several benefits. One of the biggest challenges during an injury is the emotional aspect: How do you avoid blaming yourself, doubting your ability to return to 100 percent, or just getting depressed when you can’t train?
Meditation can help. A new study found that injured athletes who performed meditation following an injury had a higher pain tolerance and less overall stress. Mood was better, and they were more optimistic about their ability to return to play.
Meditation also calms the nervous system, which can become overactivated in response to chronic pain. Anytime tissue is damaged, pain sensors near the injury ramp up and become hypersensitive. This prompts you to protect the site from further damage. However, if this lasts too long it can cause the nervous system to react to non-dangerous stimuli as if they are dangerous. It also leads to faulty movement patterns as you “favor” your uninjured limb. Because you are not applying as much stimulus to the injured limb, atrophy and weakness increase. Meditation may help you restore full function by allowing you to re-train movement patterns so that the correct brain neurons and muscle fibers are firing.
#5: Accelerates Recovery
One of the lesser known ways meditation speeds exercise recovery is by improving sleep. Studies show deep REM sleep improves by 10 to 17 percent in response to meditation.
Researchers think meditation may be most helpful for improving sleep in people who have trouble getting all the rest they need. Meditation lowers the inflammatory marker, IL-6, which is known to impair sleep. Meditation has also been shown to increase levels of the body’s most powerful antioxidant glutathione, which helps the metabolize stress markers like IL-6.
#6: Less Risk of Getting Sick
During heavy training phases, as cortisol increases, athletes are at increased risk of getting sick. Meditation can help prevent illness by strengthening the immune system and reducing cortisol. For example, one study found that participants who meditated had fewer incidents of upper respiratory illness. Researchers theorize that meditation lowers illness rates because it improves levels of immunoglobulins (hormone-like compounds that fight pathogens in the body). One study found that a regular meditation program raised levels of immunoglobulin A compared to a control group.
#7: Builds Mental Toughness
A lot of people incorrectly think that meditation is about thinking no thoughts or controlling the mind. It’s actually a basic mental fitness exercise that makes the neural circuitry in the brain stronger, improving mental toughness—a key athletic performance asset for athletes that is often overlooked when coaches design training programs.
Ordinarily, our mind wanders half the time, but in meditation, you discipline the mind to stay focused on one thing, generally the breath. The goal is to train your attention. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to the breath. This is roughly parallel to going to the gym and training with weights. Every time you lift a weight, you make the muscle a little bit stronger. And every time you bring your mind back to your meditation, you make the neural circuitry in the brain a little stronger. This allow you to strengthen your drive, focus on the present task and drop all distractions.
#8: Overcome Fear
Fear hijacks the mind from the present and puts various forms of doubt into your head. It makes you question your abilities, harms your sleep, and makes life all-around unpleasant. Meditation can change the way your brain responds to difficulties by calming the fear center of the brain, the amygdala. For example, a study performed on the university of Miami football team found that meditation reduced the negative impact of heavy training and academic pressures that athletes faced during the pre-season. Compared to the relaxation program, meditation relieved the struggle that is associated with difficult demands and improved mental and physical performance.
#9: Improve Focus
A lot of athletes say they don’t need meditation, thinking their physical training gives them adequate control over their minds. But meditation is unique from the mental control we exert over our physical bodies to push through pain. When you’re being mindful, you don’t try to control what comes into your mind but rather to get caught up in it. You watch your thoughts come and go. This helps you keep your attention on the task at hand, but it also trains you to cope with stress better. Because the same circuitry that focuses your attention also manages the emotional center of the brain, depressed, meditation leads you to react less strongly to things that are upsetting, nerve wracking, or anxiety producing.
#10: Prevent Burnout & Stagnation
We’ve all been there: Our muscles are sore, fatigue haunts our days, and the last thing we want is negotiate that wall of pain we remember from our last tough training session. Burnout and stagnation are a reality for every athlete, whether they are training for a competition or just trying to get stronger, bigger and faster.
Meditation can change the way pain is perceived, reducing the accumulative impact of difficult physical and psychological demands. Meditation has also been shown to improve mood and reduce depression. It helps people see the positive in a balanced light, rather than dwelling on the negative.
Final Thoughts: Meditation is easily the most powerful, untapped tool you have to improve your athletic performance. Here are a few apps that can help you get started: