Experiences with Meditation and High Intensity Training
High intensity training is not only one of the most physically demanding activities a person can perform, it also requires considerable mental effort. In addition to focusing on intensely contracting the target musculature throughout each exercise, one must concentrate on using proper body mechanics, correct breathing, a controlled speed of movement, etc., all while experiencing rapidly intensifying physical discomfort. It can be difficult to focus on one thing, much less two or three or more, when your muscles are burning, you’re breathing hard and your heart is pounding through your chest.
Those who work out in commercial gyms must also deal with various external sources of distraction which make concentration even more difficult. Scheduling workouts during non-peak hours helps, but may not be practical for everyone. Home gyms can be designed to provide an environment more conducive to concentration, but often have their own sources of distraction, especially if young children are present. Even personal training centers which strive to provide an ideal exercise environment – private or semi-private and devoid of music, mirrors, windows, and other distractions – are not always perfect.
Although the physical discomfort associated with productive exercise is unavoidable and it is impossible to completely eliminate distractions from the training environment, the ability to focus during exercise can be greatly improved through concentrative meditation. During concentrative meditation one trains their mind to be able to focus their attention more completely and to be more resistant to distraction and wandering. In his article How to Meditate, Joshua Zader writes,
“Through meditation, many people find they can make their attention more stable, strong, and wieldy. You do this by learning to isolate awareness from its alternatives—just as you would isolate one muscle from another—and then exercising it.”
A friend introduced me to Vipassana meditation, a Buddhist system of meditation that uses the breath as the object of focus. He claimed it improved his concentration and his overall sense of well-being, and suggested I try it. Although I do not practice it as regularly as recommended, I have experienced a considerable improvement in focus during my workouts. I am able to concentrate better on the target musculature during each exercise, and on avoiding form discrepancies I have had trouble with such as tensing of the neck and facial muscles.
More recently, I have been experimenting with shorter meditation sessions performed immediately prior to my workouts. While my regular meditation sessions are performed to strengthen my ability to focus, these pre-workout sessions are performed only long enough to relax slightly and quiet my mind, clearing it of distracting thoughts and allowing me to mentally prepare for the workout. After a few minutes of concentrative meditation during which I focus on breathing, I mentally rehearse the workout, visualizing the performance of each exercise in perfect form. In addition to further improving my ability to focus during workouts, I have also found the visualization portion of the pre-workout meditation to be highly motivating.
In addition to enabling one to train in a safer and more productive manner by improving focus during workouts, regular meditation may also contribute to improved recovery between workouts since it reduces stress. A study on the effects of Buddhist meditation found that it significantly reduced serum cortisol levels as well as blood pressure and heart rate. Various other studies have also shown reduced cortisol levels with different types of meditation. Reducing the level of cortisol, a major catabolic hormone, creates a state more favorable to muscle growth.
Based on my experiences, discussions and reading on the subject I believe that regular meditation practice provides valuable benefits to those performing high intensity training, and would like to see more research done in this area.
For instructions on basic meditation practice, I recommend reading How to Meditate, by Joshua Zader.
For a more detailed text on Vipassana meditation, I recommend reading Mindfullness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana, available for free online at vipassana.com
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