Meditation and Triathlon

Posted: December 13, 2011 in Lifestyle
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For the past few weeks, our TryForce coach has developed a decidedly different tone and approach to our training.  No longer is it push harder, go faster, suffer more, etc…now it’s “learn to breathe”.  Pardon?  Breathe…seriously?  He’s shitting me, right?  But, nope, there it is again at the end of each of our workouts: “Learn to breathe and I guarantee you that your performance will improve”.  That’s a pretty powerful statement right there folks and, usually, it’s met with confused looks amongst the group and even some rolling eyes.  Has he totally lost it?  Has he gone all hippy-dippy on us or something?

Previously, most people’s vision of ‘meditation’ was something akin to bald, cross-legged swamis in some mountaintop monasteries chanting endless OM’s ad nauseum.  And who would blame them since, despite it’s nearly 5000 year-old-tradition, meditation has been largely ignored and scoffed at by Western culture and has therefore remained as one of those weird Eastern practices.  That’s until recently, that is.

When I first got into triathlon I had hoped I wouldn’t have to use my brain a whole lot.  Just kick, stroke, pedal, run and hydrate…simple enough, right?  Yeah, right!  I could do all this, of course, but my performance wasn’t really ‘improving’, per se, as concentrating has never been my strong point.  All I really wanted to do, just as Nike has said over and over again was Just Do It!  How hard is that?  Easier said than done though.  But then I looped into my current yoga practice where breathing suddenly became a huge focus and suddenly, Voila!, everything clicked successfully and I was experiencing those improvements I was so desperate to find…so, as it happens, I tend to agree with my Coach’s new philosophy.  And if there were any remaining doubts, they were laid to rest in Cancun this past September where I managed to keep my body moving despite the 100+ degree heat and humidity where most others had collapsed in a sweaty heap by the roadside.  So this post is not to sell myself on meditation so much but, instead, to serve as a strong recommendation for all my other training partners and peers that might still be sitting on the fence to at least consider the same.

Forget your preconceived New Age-y notions of meditation for the moment and just consider the more basic practical applications.  Meditation is simply one of the many techniques that give the mind something simple to do, so your consciousness, which is separate from thought, is freed from identifying with it…still with me here?  Meditation is directed concentration with documented immediate measurable signs of relaxation including lowered blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, decreased heart and respiratory rates and increased blood flow.  Recent research even indicated that those who meditate are better able to concentrate, are more creative, felt less anger and noted improved relationships with others….they just tend to be healthier and happier than those who don’t.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…you had me at “decreased heart and respiratory rates and increased blood flow”…

So what does this do for your performance exactly?  Well, think about it.  Imagine being in those moments during a race when your body has become a hurting unit and all your muscles are screaming out to stop, quit, drop and have a donut, whatever.  What is your typical physical response in that moment of crisis?  I don’t know about you, but mine is to begin breathing quickly and heavily which, therefore, limits the amount of blood being circulated to my working muscles while my heart rate escalates to that of a startled jack rabbit thanks to the zillions of hormones that are being released into my body when stressed.  Hence, I simply CANNOT go on, never mind willfully stopping or slowing down….I’m done….finished…kaput.

By mediating, what you’re really training yourself to do is b-r-e-a-t-h-e so thatit relaxes away the tension in your muscles, and also reducing the adrenaline and fatigue when practiced at regular intervals. This then results in better stress management, and in effect enabling you to think more clearly and to make better decisions in the never-ending fight against stress and fatigue during long events.  The heightened state of self-awareness provided by regular meditation is very crucial in directly identifying sources of stress during endurance events.  Likewise, it assists in feeding those fatigued muscles with the precious lifeforce that fuels them…OXYGEN!

Now lets get one thing straight first, learning to breathe meditate doesn’t necessarily mean you have to don a flowing gown and diaper and sit in some Zen garden, or sweat lodge somewhere…you can do it anywhere.  Just sit and be still and practice breathing deeply from the pit of your stomach in long controlled breaths.  I also recommend you do the same during your workouts as well to become accustomed to “breathing” through the inevitable discomfort that comes with spanning those longer distances.  There’s no real “right” or “wrong” way of meditating.  If the method works for you, it’s the right one.  But don’t expect to hear chanting or sitar music to signal you’ve reached Nirvana and will live out your days in eternal bliss.  The signs of success will be subtle: feeling less stressed, happier and more peaceful as you go about your daily life, not to mention being able to sustain activity more comfortably over long periods.  For most of us, this is more than enough to make it all worthwhile…myself anyway.

Like any of the other swimming, biking and running disciplines, successful meditation requires motivation and commitment.  To reap the full rewards you need to practice it consistently as everything else. Choose a method that works for you, and stick with it for two weeks.  After two weeks, introduce a new method to your practice. Start with five minutes a day, everyday, and gradually add two minutes every two weeks.  Schedule your meditation like you would any other thing in your life, such as a workout or training session, and before long it will become second nature.  Personally, besides practicing during my yoga classes, I will also concentrate on my breathing while doing the more mundane things throughout the day like washing the dishes, folding laundry, or just sitting around mindlessly with my cats.  Easy!

Truuuuuuuuuuuuuuust me…breathing will provide you fairly easy improvement with very little effort.  While you may not feel flashes of insight when practicing meditation initially, its effects will become apparent to you later, when you may notice that you responded to a race day crisis (read that as ‘stress’, ‘fatigue’, ‘pain’, or what have you) with uncharacteristic calmness and focus, or failed to get “triggered” into a situation that would normally cause you to falter and stop. Trust in the process, let go of your expectations of achieving “results” (after all, meditation is not a contest), and you will reap the results.

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