Mindfulness meditation has always kind of wigged me out.  The act of meditating seemed more like a method to cede control of my mind rather than a reliable strategy to strengthen it.

As best I could tell, meditation made people soft.  Bare feet, long robes, incense, and hand holding.  No thanks, I would rather race for a finish line than sit around “being”.

What I’ve loved most about cycling is the doing.  2 X 20’s, 2500kJ’s, it’s the doing work that drives progress. Beautiful and measurable through data and improved race results.

Doing Work

Successful cyclists do work month after month, year after year [1], and yet with all that is measurable in cycling, there are less tangible mental skills that underpin the foundation of long-term success.

When you look at the foundational “skills” required for cycling success many fall under the “mental skills” category and are more difficult to measure.

Training the Mind

It’s easy to identify essential mental skills, but how do you go about training something like mental toughness?  Can you improve a trait like resilience?  The short answer seems to be yes [2, 3], but before we take a closer look, I need to offer an important caveat.

I’m not a mindfulness teacher or a sports psychologist.  I’m an interested student.

My interest in mindfulness is threefold.  1. I want to be a better coach while directing the athletes I work with toward the best tools to support their success.  2. I want to be a better/less frustrated husband.  3. I want to figure out a more effective way to quell the rage I feel when my son hits me in the face as I’m putting him in his car seat (seriously it pisses me off so much).

With that disclaimer, let’s keep moving and take a closer look at what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness

In the book, 10% Happier, author Dan Harris shares a helpful analogy of the mind as a waterfall.  “The water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall” [5].

I understand mindfulness as the active skill of curiously observing thoughts and emotions then choosing how best to respond.  The opposite (or default mode) of mindfulness is the mindless act of allowing thought/emotion to drive a reaction or wandering mind [6].

As best I see it, mindfulness offers a powerful antidote to reactivity and mind wandering [12].

Being less reactive is the easy sell, but why is it helpful to do less mind wandering?

Mind Wandering

Research shows that mind wandering comes at a cost.  To further understand the effect of mind wandering,  researchers used a mobile app to randomly ask participants throughout the day what they were doing and/or thinking about.  Here’s what the researchers found [7]:

  1. People do a ton of mind wandering, no matter what they’re doing.
  2. People are less happy when their minds wander.
  3. Even when people’s minds wandered to pleasant topics, they were still less happy than when focused on their current activity (and considerably less happy than when thinking about neutral or unpleasant topics).
  4.  What people are thinking about is a better predictor of how happy they are than what they are actually doing.

The “emotional expense” of mind wandering might explain why mindfulness has been found to be moderately effective at reducing stress, depression, anxiety, and improving overall quality life [12].  So what does mindfulness actually look like in the real world?

In the Real World

Like everyone else, my mind wanders a lot.  Ruminating on the past, strategizing about the future, and over-interpreting the present.  Mindlessness is like an incessantly buzzing cell phone always dictating the terms of my present focus.  Mindfulness is the clarity that comes with being out of cell phone range.

Mindfulness isn’t about ditching the cell phone, it’s about developing the awareness to know when the cell phone is an asset and when it needs to be turned off.

Enough with the analogies, let’s take a graphical look.

Here’s an example from my life.  Start with the middle of the graphic which begins with me experiencing a bit of road rage.  No, I’m not proud of how easily I get pissed off, but it is what it is.  Sorry about the bad language, it isn’t me, it’s just my mind.

The left side of the graphic highlights the default mode of my mind, the right side is my attempt at explaining what a mindful approach looks like for me.  Note the difference in how long it takes to “return to present” with both approaches.  Is there any doubt which approach has the most potential to improve my quality of life?

Mindfulness in Life

On the Bike

In a general sense, it’s easy to see how mindfulness might help to improve the quality of life of a cyclist, but what about actually being on the bike?

In short, there isn’t any direct evidence to suggest that mindfulness can improve cycling performance, but there are a handful of studies that suggest mindfulness practice might help to strengthen some of the mental skills that help to define larger cycling success.  Here are a few highlights.  Mindfulness practice:

  1. Might help cyclists experience less pessimism while setting them up for more frequent peak experiences (described as flow) [8].
  2. Partially mediates the relationship between mental toughness and pain catastrophizing (the tendency to overemphasize or fixate on pain/discomfort) [13].
  3. Might help cyclists become more resilient in the face of intense training or competitive challenges [3].

In a sports psychology context, mindfulness doesn’t try to control or suppress, rather to increase curiosity of thoughts/emotions, then direct attention back to the present task at hand (like completing an intense interval or executing in a race) [14,15].

Let’s take another graphical look of how this might look in a bike race.  We start again with the strong thought/emotion in the middle, then compare the default mode of thinking on the left with how a more mindful approach might look on the right.

Mindfulness in a Bike Race

Like our example from the real world, the mindful approach offers a clear advantage when it comes to reducing mind wandering and staying focused in the present.  Past experiences and future worries might drive strong emotions, but these emotions don’t have to dictate our choice of action or inaction on the bike.

“Knowing” isn’t Enough

By now we’ve developed a few examples of what mindfulness might look like in practice.  Is this basic understanding enough?

Just knowing about mindfulness doesn’t seem to offer the same benefits as actually doing it.  It’s about the practice.

Just like physical training, it’s the doing of mindfulness practice/meditation that confers the benefits of greater awareness and less reactivity [4], [9], [10].  So how exactly do you become more mindful?

Sitting Meditation

As best I understand it, the core of mindfulness practice is sitting meditation using the breath as an anchor for the present moment. In a practical sense, the most basic mindfulness meditation looks something like this [4].

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your back straight.
  2. Close your eyes and focus on the feeling of breath as it comes in and goes out.
  3. Whenever you find your attention drifting elsewhere, make a mental note of whatever was on your mind that carried you away from the present moment, then return to feeling the breath.
  4. Begin again and again.
Nothing fancy or woo-woo. Basic mindfulness practice is about focusing your attention on the breath

It’s in the repetition of becoming aware of your mind wandering, then bringing your attention back to the breath, that you can train “your mind to be less reactive and more stable” [4].

Through formal mindfulness practice, we develop the ability to more skillfully navigate challenging scenarios like road rage or bike racing.  We’ve covered some basics; where do you go if you want to learn more?

Learning More

I’ve mentioned the book 10% Happier, but there are countless other books and smartphone apps that might be helpful in your own research.  My suggestion is to first learn about mindfulness in the context of daily life, then research how you might best apply it to your cycling.  Above all, be curious but skeptical [4].

Mindfulness resources often tout incredible benefits but the returns are likely much more subtle (or maybe even non existent) [11].  Do your own research, try it out if interested, then stick with your default or experiment with a new path.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete

References

[1] J. Pinot and F. Grappe, “A six-year monitoring case study of a top-10 cycling Grand Tour finisher,” J. Sports Sci., pp. 1–8, 2014.
[2] A. L. Baltzell, Ed., Mindfulness and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
[3] L. Haase et al., “A pilot study investigating changes in neural processing after mindfulness training in elite athletes.,” Front. Behav. Neurosci., vol. 9, p. 229, 2015.
[4] J. Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. 2013.
[5] D. Harris, 10% Happier, 1st ed. HarperCollins, 2014.
[6] R. L. Buckner, J. R. Andrews-Hanna, and D. L. Schacter, “The Brain’s Default Network Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease.”
[7] M. A. Killingsworth and D. T. Gilbert, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.,” Science, vol. 330, no. 6006, p. 932, Nov. 2010.
[8] J. Scott-Hamilton, N. S. Schutte, and R. F. Brown, “Effects of a Mindfulness Intervention on Sports-Anxiety, Pessimism, and Flow in Competitive Cyclists,” Appl. Psychol. Heal. Well-Being, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 85–103, Mar. 2016.
[9] A. B. Morrison, J. D. Rooks, A. P. Jha, S. L. Rogers, and M. Goolsarran, “‘We Are Talking About Practice’: the Influence of Mindfulness vs. Relaxation Training on Athletes’ Attention and Well-Being over High-Demand Intervals,” J. Cogn. Enhanc., vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 141–153, 2017.
[10] J. A. Brefczynski-Lewis, A. Lutz, H. S. Schaefer, D. B. Levinson, and R. J. Davidson, “Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners,” 2007.
[11] N. T. Van Dam et al., “Mind The Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation HHS Public Access,” Perspect Psychol Sci, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 36–61, 2018.
[12] B. Khoury, M. Sharma, S. E. Rush, and C. Fournier, “Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis,” 2015.
[13] M. I. Jones and J. K. Parker, “Mindfulness mediates the relationship between mental toughness and pain catastrophizing in cyclists,” Eur. J. Sport Sci., vol. 18, no. 6, pp. 872–881, 2018.
[14] F. Gardner and Z. Moore, The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance. Springer Publishing Company, 2007.
[15] S. C. Hayes, K. D. Strosahl, K. G. Wilson, and L. Landau, Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. 1999.

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now Founder/Head Coach at Data Driven Athlete, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.