It was during the final 10 miles of the Silver Rush 50 MTB that I was reminded just how important mindfulness training is during a training cycle. My main athletic goal for the year is the Leadville 100 MTB in August, and I was riding/racing Silver Rush to dial in my nutrition strategy and hopefully to perform well enough to move up a few corrals at Leadville. The last 10 miles of Silver Rush are pretty much downhill, much of which is over loose, chunky terrain. Now, I am not a good descender, and although I can keep up (averagely mind you) on the flats and climbs, I almost always get dropped on the descents, especially when it’s technical, loose and/or chunky. For me it’s a matter of skill development and confidence having only started riding mountain bikes last season. I have a tendency to get anxious and tense up, terms I would typically label as “flow robbers” when I’m working with athletes. Certainly not great when you’re trying to push your limits.
As I was cresting the final climb of the day and preparing to descend I took a few moments to bring awareness to my mind, body, and posture. I didn’t need to slow down or stop to do this, it was a matter of driving my attention purposefully to these experiences in an effort to ensure I was adequately prepared for the final push. I was then able to slow my breathing (yes, that’s possible even when you’re pushing hard at 10k feet), relax my tense shoulders and hands, and remind myself that I was in control and ready.
All of this was made possible by making mindfulness a regular training habit.
Mindfulness. A ubiquitous term in our current age that seems to be clouted as a panacea for a myriad of life conditions. But what exactly is mindfulness? And why would an athlete benefit from incorporating mindfulness training into an already busy training cycle?
Mindfulness in and of itself is a relatively straight forward, simple concept: paying attention, in a particular way, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. At least that’s the definition given by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding executive director of The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusets, who is credited as one of the pioneers who gave rise to the mindfulness movement in the United States. Although this practice is relatively simple in description - learning how to pay attention to particular sensations, bringing your focus back when (not if) it wanders away, and doing so without wishing your experience were any different than it actually is in this current moment (often the struggle in endurance sports where discomfort is part of the game) it doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Just because it is simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Further, there seems to be a common theme with any online search connecting “mindfulness” and “athletes” that promotes the former as a means for the latter to gain an edge. But maybe that’s not what mindfulness intended, is about, or can guarantee. Maybe mindfulness really is as simple as it sounds. Learning how to pay attention. In a particular way. In this present moment. Without judgment. Maybe the point of mindfulness is to help guide us toward better moment to moment awareness. In turn, this ability sharpens our ability to develop focus, dials in deep states of concentration, betters our engagement in willingness when it matters most and forms deeper connections to ourselves and others. It’s the cultivation of these 4 factors (focus, concentration, willingness and connection) that over time help dedicated athletes succeed in their given pursuits.
When trained, mindfulness becomes an actionable skill that helps us engage deliberately and make better decisions. One of my favorite sayings is, “You cannot change what you are not aware of,” and mindfulness opens the door of awareness in order for us to decide how we are going to proceed. For me, with 10 miles of descending to go, that decision involved slowing my breath, relaxing areas of physical tension, and engaging in strength based, instructional and motivation self-talk about what demands I was about to face.
Mindfulness has demonstrated (both anecdotally and also through copious amounts of research) to help us with a wide array of daily life events, including managing stress, improving our responses to anxiety, and bettering our connections to self and others. When practiced regularly, mindfulness also helps us manage sports specific challenges such as performance anxiety, managing in-competition emotion, maintaining focus and concentration, and channeling the willingness to endure during difficult moments. But the trick is, you have to treat mindfulness just as you treat physical training. Day in, day out, dedicated practice. Like physical training, consistency over time leads to gains. This holds true with mental training just as much as it does physical training.
This can all start with simple breath awareness. I have a silly little saying - if you’re not breathing, you’re having a bad day :) The truth is, we are always breathing. The average adult respiration rate is about 12-16 breaths per minute. Yet, we take most of our breaths (if not all of those breaths) without any conscious awareness let alone direct, intentional shaping. So start there. Take a moment to be fully aware of your breath in this moment, even as you read this sentence. Feel your chest rise as you breath in and deflate when you breath out. Notice the rhythm, pace, and tempo of your breath. Is it slow? Is it fast? Notice where in your body you’re breathing. Is it shallow? Is it deep? In your abdomen? Your chest? Feel the temperature, perhaps changing between the in-breath and the out-breath. Is it cool? Is it warm? Maintain your focus on how your breath feels as long as you’d like, but ideally for a minimum of 1-3 minutes. Your mind will eventually wander. This may happen quickly and often. That’s ok. That’s what minds do. When it drifts away bring your focus back to the sensation of your breath.
If you’re looking to train mindfulness more specifically there’s never been a better time, given the rise of meditation apps currently available. If you’re interested, check out this pre-race meditation I created on the Insight Timer app (https://insighttimer.com/justinross/guided-meditations/race-day-guided-meditation). It’s 6 minutes and guides you through simple steps to get you ready to perform well (whether in training or racing).
You may be wondering how I did….well, most importantly I didn’t crash and maintained a balance of control while pushing my comfort level of speed during the final 10 miles. I certainly wasn’t the fastest descender of the day, but I only got passed twice and managed to finish my first 50 mile mountain bike on a pretty tough course in 5:26:45, good enough to realize my goals of moving up a few corrals at Leadville.
I’m Dr Justin Ross, clinical psychologist specializing in health and wellness and human performance. I’m an 11 time marathoner, with 6 BQ’s, and 2 time Ironman 70.3 finisher, and have completed too many other shorter distance events in running, cycling, and triathlon to name. I’ve got my eyes set on a few big goals this year myself, with my biggest focus on the Leadville 100 MTB in August. And I’m stoked to be partnering with The Feed to help me dial in all my nutrition needs. Find me online, lnstagram, or Strava.