How to Train for Better Focus in Workouts

Everyone accepts certain facts about the mind’s role in your workout.

“Mindset is critical to any sport.” OK, sure.

“You need to really focus on contracting the muscle.” Sure, a lot of studies show this can improve contractions.

“The less scattered and more present you are during a workout, the more productive it is.” Yeah, we all know that.

“The more you practice something, the better you get at it.” Obviously.

“If you practice focusing intently on something, you’ll get better at focusing.”

That last one isn’t said quite as often, but it makes as much sense. The last time you took a lot of time off work, it took some time to get back into the groove because you hadn’t been at work for a while, right?

And if you haven’t read a book for in some time, it’s a little tougher to sit and read for an hour — until you’ve been doing it daily for a week or two.

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Both of these activities, working and reading, are practices that improve your ability to do a focused task for a longer period of time. You’ve almost certainly experienced this for yourself.

But there are still a lot of people who are resistant to the idea that you can train yourself to be more focused and present — things we know are good — by practicing being focused and present. When it’s written like that, it seems hard to deny. Yet perhaps because we have this idea of the mind as something that floats in a spiritual realm and not a fleshy pile of cells between our ears, we have a harder time thinking we can “train” it to do anything, even though that’s what we’re doing all day every day.

Here we want to talk a little more about the tried and tested mental strategies you can employ to improve your strength. And we promise to use the word “meditation” as little as possible.

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What Is Mental Training?

It’s not complicated, it’s not religious, it’s not spiritual, and anyone can do it. It’s just what we said above: you practice focusing so you can focus better.

The most research is behind “single point focus,” meaning you try your best to spend ten to twenty minutes thinking about just one thing. And just like spending ten to twenty minutes training a body part eventually makes it stronger outside of the workout, intensely training your focus improves your ability to focus throughout the day. It’s just a workout for your mind — the part of your body that’s responsible for your performance. This is a fundamental part of your physical training that many people ignore.

“Single point mindfulness is a deep concentration on just one thing for an extended period of time,” says Dr. Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist who has coached Olympic athletes, weightlifters, and daredevil Felix Baumgartner. “That one thing could be just your breath, it could be a dot on the wall, it could be a sound, it could be anything that requires single focus on one thing.”

That single mindedness — a term you’re already familiar with — is an important component for training deep focus, which is one of the pathways into a flow state. Gervais points out that the flow state is one of the most optimal states a human can be in, and athletes in particular know that being in “the zone” is extraordinarily beneficial for optimizing performance, be it lifting, running, or playing a sport. (That’s why Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant all had a mindfulness coach to help them access it.)

We don’t want to overcomplicate it. For most people, it’s just shutting your eyes and focusing on the sensation of breath entering and leaving your nostrils. It sounds easy, but the first time anybody tries it, they quickly find their thoughts wandering to what’s for dinner, what they did yesterday, what they’re doing tomorrow, and so on. So it’s simple, but not easy.

Again, it’s an awful lot like working out. If you’ve never done it before or you haven’t done it in years, it’s uncomfortable, unenjoyable, and it feels like you’re not getting any benefit from it. But if you stick with the discomfort for a few weeks it gets easier, it gets more pleasant, you can do it for longer, and you notice the benefits creeping into your day.

So How Does It Help Me Work Out?

“The whole purpose is to condition the mind to become more aware of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and the environment, and with that awareness we become able to live in the present moment more often and perform at higher standard,” says Gervais.

He adds that in strength sports, having more clarity and presence of thought helps to not only increase the frequency of flow states, but also adjust to nuances with greater accuracy and greater output.

“When you’re near a PR or there’s high strain that you’re needing to work with, there are small nuances you need to adjust to on the acceleration. Being able to adjust to those nuances is what makes the difference between a PR and no PR,” he says. “It helps us match our physical readiness with our technical skill while under pressure and push through perceived barriers that strength athletes are required to break through.”

There’s also evidence that this can result in a more satisfaction with workouts. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology found that athletes who practice mindfulness techniques reported that they were much more motivated to exercise and were more satisfied with their workouts than the control group.(1)

“With respect to athletes, we have ample evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces stress, and being able to reduce stress and be free in the moment is bound to be helpful for professional athletes,” adds Dr. Hedy Kober, Director of Yale University’s Clinical & Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. “Being able to pay attention to your physiological sensations and not catastrophise them really reduces stress on a regular basis and has applicability to athletes who become stressed before competitions.”

Peripheral Benefits for Athletes

Stress

Stress is another phenomenon that used to sound pretty “woo-woo” but we now know has hard, measurable effects on our hormones and cognition. One Thai study found that just four days of mindfulness training lowered serum cortisol (the stress hormone) by twenty percent (2). A randomized control trial published this year had similar conclusions.(3)

Sleep

For most people, the only time of day we’re alone with our thoughts is when we’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep. The more thoughts running through our heads, the more anxiety we have, the harder it is to sleep. It’s likely you’ve experienced this for yourself.

Getting better at calming the mind has measurable effects on not just our ability to fall asleep, but the quality of sleep we enjoy. One randomized clinical trial published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that even when compared with a group that received six weeks of “sleep education” classes, a group completing a mindfulness awareness program still experienced less fatigue, insomnia, and depression.(4)

[Read more: 5 steps for restful sleep after late night workouts.]

Diet adherence 

There aren’t studies on athletes trying to make weight just yet, but a lot of research has been performed on mindfulness and food cravings.(5)(6)

“It’s been shown repeatedly that when you teach people how to meditate they manage their aspects of eating better,” says Kober, describing mindfulness as a way to pay attention to your thoughts without judging them, ignoring them, or reacting to them. The “non-judgmental” aspect is really important, particularly for people who can spiral into self-loathing food binges.

That state in the presence of cravings really reduces the craving itself and also can reduce neural activity associated with craving,” she adds.

Pain management

No one is saying you should ignore pain or exercise through pain. However, there is research that has shown that particularly for older adults, mindfulness could be useful for chronic pain like low back pain and arthritis.(7)

The mechanism is unclear, but it appears to do so without engaging the brain’s opioid receptors.(8) Brain imaging showed similar brain areas are activated during mindfulness as are activated through techniques that do use opioid receptors, but blocking opioid receptors didn’t stop the pain relief caused by mindfulness. One study even found that it reduced pain when the researchers were jabbing subjects with hot probes when compared to a variety of placebos.(9)

The Takeaway

Less pain, less cortisol, better sleep, and better eating makes for better recovery. That much is hard to deny. But as discussed above, improving your focus can also lead to better workouts and more PRs.

We won’t pretend this article is a complete guide to how to practice focus, but the crux of it is what was described above: close your eyes and focus on the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your nostrils. Do it for ten to twenty minutes once or twice a day. It will be hard, then it will be easier.

The most important thing is to not get upset with yourself when the mind wanders. (Noticing your mind has wandered is noticing your thoughts, so you could think of it as a victory.) Remember, it’s about non-judgmentally paying attention to the thoughts that come through your head. It can be helpful to think of your mind trying to focus like a baby trying to learn to hold something, like a pen: you don’t yell at the baby for dropping it, you gently encourage her to try again. Using apps like Headspace and Calm can make it a lot easier, because there’s an instructor in your ear helping you to stay focused. Look for them on the App Store.

“The deeper parts of mindfulness are about changing perspective, of deeper insight, of revealing wisdom,” says Gervais. “But what we think mindfulness does along the way is it becomes a practice to integrate our mind, body, and environment, so we become more efficient, we become more finely tuned, and we become less fragile.”

Basically, you become more capable of facing the day’s challenges. That sounds like fitness to us.

Featured image via @iwfnet on Instagram.

References

  1. Kaufman, K. et al. Evaluation of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE): A New Approach to Promote Flow in Athletes. Human Kinetics Journals, Volume: 3 Issue: 4 Pages: 334-356
  2. Turakitwanakan, W. et al. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai. 2013 Jan;96 Suppl 1:S90-5.
  3. Lindsay EK, et al. Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial. Send to Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2018 Jan;87:63-73.
  4. Black DS, et al. Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Apr;175(4):494-501.
  5. Kristeller, J. et al. Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) for Binge Eating: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Mindfulness (2014) 5: 282.
  6. Daubenmier, J. et al. Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study. J Obes. 2011;2011:651936.
  7. Cherkin, D. et al. Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain. JAMA. 2016;315(12):1240-1249.
  8. Zeidan, F. et al. Mindfulness-meditation-based pain relief is not mediated by endogenous opioids. Journal of Neuroscience. 2016;36(11):3391-3397.
  9. Zeidan, F. et al. Mindfulness Meditation-Based Pain Relief Employs Different Neural Mechanisms Than Placebo and Sham Mindfulness Meditation-Induced Analgesia. J Neurosci. 2015 Nov 18;35(46):15307-25.

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