When it comes to seriously recovering from a hard run or workout, meditation can be a key tool. But it’s also true that when it comes to meditation for athletes, it’s how you meditate that matters. Where most athletes go wrong is failing to prioritize the mental aspects of recovery and approaching meditation as a to-do that they have to fit into their already crammed training and life schedule. When approached in a rigid way, meditation ends up more forced than fluid, and you’ll be less likely to make it a consistent part of your routine and more likely to think it doesn’t work and so give up.
Instead, aim to clock as little as 2 focused minutes as a real break and buffer between the activities of your day, between your work and your rest. Consider it an oasis during the busiest of days or training cycles, giving you the strength and resilience you need to win at whatever you’re doing. Think of it as a chance to recharge and reconnect to your goals and the person who is most instrumental in achieving them: you. Use meditation to literally relax back into yourself. Start by doing it for yourself, and experience the difference it makes. Before long, you’ll be doing it for enjoyment because, like anything, when you approach it with enthusiasm it will be more fun. You’ll also get more out of it.
The tools of meditation for athletes
One of the best things about meditation is that you can do it anytime, anywhere, and you already possess all the tools you need to do it effectively. When you practice, you will probably notice that it’s hard to think about nothing. Without a clear focal point, your mind is likely to wander. Luckily, your innate tools give your mind something to wrap itself around, helping to anchor your attention in what’s happening right here, right now, which is the key to successful meditation and ultimately real recovery. Use each of these highly portable tools like a GPS during meditation to guide you back into yourself anytime.
BREATHE. Your breath is your most powerful, accessible tool to activate relaxation and kick-start the recovery process. Your mind and breath are directly connected. In any given moment, your breathing is a direct reflection of your interior state—it will tell you exactly what you need to know about what’s happening inside. Shallow, erratic breathing can raise blood pressure and increase heart rate, as well as send your mind into overdrive; deep, steady breathing helps you to relax and remain steadfast. Most breathing exercises are effective in just a few breaths.
SPEAK. Mantras are positive affirmations that anchor you in the present and cut through any chaos or negativity in your head. You can make them specific to your circumstances and use them to calm your mind and realign yourself with your unique intentions.
SEE. Visualization increases belief in your abilities and can help you harmonize what you think you want and what you believe is possible. Feeling overwhelmed? See yourself becoming calmer as you resolve to do what you can, when you can, productively completing one task at a time. Have an injury? See it healing as you patiently allow that trouble spot to rest and regain balance with help from your PT exercises. Want to achieve a specific goal? See yourself approaching the finish line as you diligently work out and work in. When you visualize yourself achieving your desired outcome by positively, proactively navigating the terrain between your current reality and end goal, you will likely find any fixations or fears about why you “can’t” or “aren’t progressing” fade into the background. Visualization broadens your perspective. It shifts you into a more positive, easeful state, which by default makes it more likely that you will grasp whatever it is that you have your heart set on.
FEEL. To recover effectively, you need to relax. Once you feel it, you can be it—you are it. Using your awareness to feel into your physical body and consciously release any lingering tension is one of the best ways to do this. Meditation that is anchored to your felt sense helps you to distinguish between tension and relaxation and get it done.
How to get started meditating
WHEN: Set aside some time to meditate. For recovery purposes, it’s ideal to use these practices post-workout or as you wind down your day. That being said, being consistent is key, so practice whenever it best fits into your schedule, which could be different from day to day.
WHAT: Choose a focus for your meditation and select a routine based on how you feel.
DURATION: It doesn’t matter whether you have 2 minutes or 20. The key is to make it happen consistently—ideally every day. Longer meditations give you more time to enter a restful state and settle in, so aim to spend as long as possible. But don’t skip it altogether if you’re short on time. In those instances, embrace whatever time is available as an impactful, restorative pause.
WHERE: Aim for a quiet spot where you can sit comfortably. On the floor next to your bed, sitting tall on your couch, or on a pillow on your living room floor are all good options. If there are distractions around, approach them as an added challenge that will further sharpen your focus and make your practice more real.
BREATHE: Inhale and exhale through your nose, unless otherwise instructed or if you are congested, in which case breathe through your mouth.
See also: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation
How to sit during meditation
Sitting tall helps to neutralize your spine, which optimizes your posture and breathing. Your body supports your breath and your breath supports your body. But it shouldn’t be rigid. Comfort is equally important so that you can more readily focus and lean into relaxation, rather than dying for it to be over. Try these options to find your most comfortable seat, and remember that the more you do it, the more comfortable it will become, the more natural it will feel, and the more readily you will be able to hold yourself in a balanced way, even as you rest:
ON A PROP. Sit on a bolster, pillow, or folded blanket so that your hip flexors relax and you can sit tall. Loosely cross your legs or extend them out in front of you if needed for knee comfort. Rest your hands palms down on your knees or thighs and drop your shoulders down and back.
AT THE WALL. If it feels hard to lengthen your spine tall toward neutral, take your prop (bolster/pillow/blanket) to the wall so you have support to lean into.
IN A CHAIR. If hip or low back discomfort makes sitting on the floor feel like agony, sit tall on the edge of a chair.
Adapted from Work In: The Athlete’s Plan for Real Recovery and Winning Results by Erin Taylor with permission of VeloPress.