Take a deep breath and be mindful
By: Ben Stein, MS, ACSM EP/CET
Recently, I was taking part in the “Turkey Cross” cyclocross race in beautiful Eagle, ID. Since I was racing later in the day, I was able to do a fair share of heckling. Most of my race heckling was done on the “run up”, a roughly 40-50 yard 150+ hill climb! Easily rideable by the strong riders… or the 15 year old female cyclist that challenged me to ride over the barrier at the bottom in addition to riding UP the hill! But that’s another blog post regarding pride and racing strategy.
Needless to say, the run up was the most difficult part of the course that day. While heckling, I noticed some racers were holding their breath while running up and over the small but difficult hill. “Not breathing” I thought? During this short burst up the hill the racers were performing what I could compare to the “valsalva maneuver”. Surely not in cycling, this is a weight lifters action, or so I thought. The valsalva maneuver occurs when a person tries to exhale while the mouth, nose, and glottis are closed and causing the blood pressure to increase (Wilmore, 2004). While I can probably write a few pages about the importance of oxygen during prolonged aerobic activity, I came to the conclusion that most endurance athletes already understand the importance of oxygen for muscle activation and metabolic processes. Thus, I believe that when an endurance athlete holds their breath it’s because they are performing an extremely strenuous action, like pushing their bike up and over a steep hill in a mountain bike or cyclocross event. Leading to the purpose of this blog… to remind athletes the importance of their breathing.
Or, what I like to tell my athletes “be mindful of your breathing.” The obvious reasons are to continue with oxygen delivery to our muscles but the practice of mindfulness is something few athletes are aware of. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present, or what is happening now (Dixit)! Take a breath right now, take three. You are now practicing being mindful. When you are mindful, you are able to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment (Dixit). But this practice can also keep you in the “now” which can be very important during difficult physical activity.
An article, Psychology Today: The Art of Now: Six Steps to Living in the Moment, spoke to this idea of mindfulness. I found the most important take away for athletes from this article is that “you are not your thoughts.” I have started trying to take this focus to my personal races. In order to improve on performance, one must stop thinking about it during the event. Stop worrying about getting up the hill, but rather be present during the climb and breath.
An athlete’s performance can be hindered by negative actions. One of these negative actions is not breathing and holding your breath for short periods of time. Thus, taking a moment during your next race to be mindful of your thoughts and actions could positively affect your performance. The art of practicing positive thinking and being more in the moment may indeed be the key to a racers success. This can be said for both the amateur and professional athlete, if you are out there for fun then tell yourself “this is fun” or for the more seasoned rider the simple act of focusing on the racer in front of you and providing yourself positive feedback, like “get that guy” or “I am going to work hard and catch that person” can really change the way your race ends. You may still not do as well as you want in the race… most of us really never meet our own expectations, but mindfulness could make a race just a little more rewarding. Either way, we should all strive to be a little bit more in the moment, and learn to just breath.
Wilmore, Jack H., and David L. Costill. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004.
Dixit, Jay. “The Art of Now: Six Steps to Living in the Moment.” Psychology Today. 1 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.