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How Meditation Can Increase Mental Durability in Athletes

By Alison Heilig for Yoga Medicine®.

If you’re a yoga teacher reading this, I don’t need to convince you of the numerous benefits of meditation. But for many athletes, meditation can be a much harder sell. As both an athlete and coach in multiple sport modalities, I totally understand and I have grappled with these barriers myself. After all, time is precious and much of the available time that an athlete has is spent training specifically for their sport.

So it can be challenging to convince athletes that spending 5-10 minutes per day sitting or laying in meditation can produce tangible benefits in their sports performance. Fortunately, this concept is becoming easier now that many high profile athletes are beginning to open up about their own experiences with meditation. With the increased interest around meditation and its applications to sports performance, there’s so much more research now which means that the benefits — such as improving focus through distractions, enhancing concentration, heightening breath awareness, reducing in sensitivity to pain, and aiding in physiological and mental recovery — are now well-documented by scientific studies.

Since I currently have my feet in both the athletic competition and coaching worlds, I thought I’d add my voice to the conversation and share one other interesting benefit that I’ve noticed in myself and the athletes I coach: how a consistent meditation practice can significantly improve mental durability.

What is Mental Durability?

Many people think that mental durability means “being tough” but, while mental toughness certainly is part of it, there’s a lot more at work here. Mental durability is the resilience of your mind and refers to its ability to withstand the stress caused by the rigors of training and competing without becoming burnt out, frustrated, or mentally fatigued.

Intuitively, we know that training day after day for competition can take a toll on our bodies and, as athletes and coaches, we do our best to manage that reality through intelligent physical training program design. However, that same stress can also take its toll mentally and I believe we should be taking steps to prepare for and guard against that as well. This is something that meditation is well-positioned to do – specifically in developing the grit or mental toughness to keep going in the face of discomfort, the ability to remain present and composed as the intensity increases, and the capacity to focus through nerves and distractions. Just like our physical training, these are all skills that can, and should, be developed through repetition and practice.

Why Mental Durability Matters

Let’s be honest here, high performance output for competition is tough. It’s important to note here that “high performance output” is a relative term meaning that for each individual athlete, their own maximum effort typically involves significant, if not extreme, discomfort — regardless of where he or she stands on the leaderboard or in the rankings. This means that you don’t have to be an elite level athlete to understand what I mean when I say operating at maximum capacity when it’s time to throw down in competition or the day of your event is no walk in the park. That’s why we reserve these high intensity performances for the peak of our training — whether that is a single day or a series of days throughout a designated competition season.

"Meditation can be a help tool for learning how to step back from the intensity of the current experience and see it as part of a bigger picture..."​

Alison Heilig

Three Ways Meditation Can Boost Mental Durability

The widely discussed performance applications for meditation include refining focus, concentration, and breath awareness – all of which form the building blocks for mental durability. To truly maximize the effectiveness in a sport setting, it’s helpful to look at how these specific skills trained in meditation can transfer to competition and ultimately increase your mental durability. Let’s look at some of the applications I’ve used for myself as well as the athletes I coach.

1. Meditation provides the perspective needed to manage discomfort.
During high output, things quickly get uncomfortable. This can go on for hours depending on the length of your event. When you’re giving it all you got out there, the longer the discomfort goes on, the more difficult it becomes to stay focused on the task at hand. Most of us eventually feel a palpable deterioration of mental clarity and perspective where we begin to then fixate on the discomfort, analyzing all the things that hurt or what we feel is going wrong. Meditation can be a help tool for learning how to step back from the intensity of the current experience and see it as part of a bigger picture — which is important because the moment you feel like more is going wrong than right, the wheels really start to fall off the wagon.

To practice this ability to mentally step back from the discomfort to see the bigger picture so you have it in your pocket on competition day, I find it helpful to routinely do a simple body scan meditation where you’re alternating between noticing the parts of your body that feel unpleasant and those that feel pleasant. As you do this, try to avoid judging, analyzing, or interpreting and simply notice them as pure sensation without needing to label them. After a few moments of sensing these two separate and distinct areas, imagine blurring them together and allowing them to coexist in your experience as you breathe calmly. As I once heard Yoga Medicine founder, Tiffany Cruikshank, say during a meditation: “imagine that every sensation in your body is like one brushstroke in the painting of your entire experience in this moment as you step back to look at the whole picture.” Practices like this one, when done consistently, can help develop your ability to zoom out, take in the whole experience, and likely see that many things are still going well and working in your favor.

2. Meditation teaches presence and patience when the panic starts to set in.
In the sports performance world, we often talk about “flow state” or being “in the zone.” While it has many definitions depending on who you talk to, my experience with it is that it’s a state where you’re fully immersed — mind, body, and spirit and involved in the process of performing. This state requires absolute presence with your full awareness and engagement directed towards the present moment. By definition, this means that you cannot be worried about whether your training was adequate (the past) or the eventual result (the future). Often, the panic sets in when we feel like we don’t have what it takes to see it through to completion; in other words, we allow the past and future to seep into the present and interrupt the flow.

Obviously, there is a place for forethought — after all, competition in any sport requires strategy even if the only person you’re competing against is yourself. However, a well-thought-out pre-competition strategy is different from obsessively worrying about the outcome mid-performance. One will help you, the other not so much.

To practice this skill, I recommend a meditation with a specific focus on your breath. For this one, set a timer for five minutes and focus on being right there for every exhalation — completely present for the feeling of emptying and being empty of breath. When your mind wanders off and you notice it, gently bring your attention back to the process of exhaling your breath. You’ll learn to use something that’s always with you — your breath — to stay anchored in the present moment. One step at time. One rep at a time. One breath at a time.

3. Meditation reduces pre-competition nerves and refines focus.
For most athletes, we have some sort of taper or deload period built into our training leading up to competition. This is the time where your coach tells you to trust your training and ease up to let your body fortify itself and prepare for maximal effort on the day of competition or your targeted event. In my experience both personally and as a coach, this is the time when athletes start to get a little nuts! After so much intense training, all this extra rest and recovery time causes us to feel stir-crazy, get extremely antsy, and then direct that energy toward worrying. This is the perfect time to double down on your meditation practice — after all, you’ve got the time, why not use it to condition your mind to perform optimally the way you’ve conditioned your body. There’s nothing worse than finishing your event after countless hours of training, knowing you had it in you physically but mentally you just couldn’t rally.

During this time, I highly recommend to my athletes to spend time in meditation visualizing how the entire day of competition playing out in as much detail as possible and ending in a positive outcome. Note the sensations in your body present with every step of the way — visualize the pace of your movement, the contact of your feet with the ground, the cadence of your breath, the power in your muscles, the control in execution, the sensations associated with confidence and resolve — all the elements involved, no detail about the experience is too small or insignificant. This will help you create a sensory imprint that you can recall and return to on the day of competition which will keep you focused and moving toward that positive outcome even if things don’t play out perfectly according to plan. Much of those pre-competition nerves are related to feelings of the outcome being out of our control so visualizing a positive outcome and anchoring into the sensations associated with a good performance can help alleviate performance anxiety and help you stay focused on what you do control — giving your best effort right now.

About the Author

Alison Heilig

Alison Heilig

Alison is an accomplished ultramarathoner, triathlete, and competitive CrossFit athlete. She is a Level 2 RRCA-Certified Running Coach, a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) & Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES), and a Yoga Medicine Teacher. She works with people to create movement and wellness strategies that minimize pain and injury so they can stay active and keep pursuing the things they enjoy in life through her in-person class offerings in the Washington DC Metro area, online Yoga for Durability classes, and her mental durability meditation podcast, GRIT + grace . Her book,  The Durable Runner, combines corrective exercise, self-myofascial release, and yoga to help runners develop a solid training strategy to help prevent physical injury and mental burnout. She also consults with gyms to create comprehensive durability protocol to keep members healthy, active, and injury-free.

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