No time to meditate? Or have you just never been able to sit still long enough to get through a 10 minute session on the Headspace app? You are not alone. Many of us now know that practicing mindfulness and meditation has many mental and physical benefits, but still struggle to make time for it on a regular basis.
But there’s good news: You may be able to get most of the benefits of meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, while pedaling. Read on, and the next time you’re on the bike or indoor trainer, consider giving meditation another try. You may find that meditating while moving works better for your busy brain.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness – a focus on the present moment – is the easiest form of meditation to begin with. Many of us might assume that yoga would be a better medium for practicing meditation, but Scott Anderson, a meditation teacher and researcher in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin, says cycling might actually be better.
More from cycling
“Yoga has the potential to be mindful, but when we look at this standard definition of mindfulness, which is to purposefully pay attention to the present moment in a certain way without judgment, then yoga almost never meets those criteria, especially if you’re a competitive person,” he says.
Imagine yourself in the yoga class. When was the last time you felt meditative, instead of sore, stuck, or just super focused on following the teacher’s instructions? Now imagine riding instead – how you could take a moment to feel the breeze against your skin, or focus on your pedal stroke and the feel of your feet pushing into the pedals.
“If only for a moment, that recognition is mindfulness,” says Anderson. “And if you can consolidate those moments, you have a mindfulness practice… And while I think there’s no substitute for a mindfulness practice that includes some stillness, cycling is a great active mindfulness practice and starting point.”
Mindfulness meditation techniques to try
So, how do you do? Start by removing your earbuds and turning off your screen when you’re on the trainer. Be present with the sensations happening around you. “Take a moment to feel the sensations of the movement, without trying to change the experience,” says Anderson.
“And as long as it’s comfortable, just be with the sensations as they are. It’s not about clearing your mind, it’s about being aware of what’s in the present moment,” he adds. “So maybe your mind is going 100 miles an hour and you’re really worried or stressed. Mindfulness doesn’t try to stop that, it just helps you become aware of your state of mind.”
Lean into suffering
According to Anderson, mindfulness originated in Buddhism, a religion and philosophical system that, in part, discusses the nature of suffering — something cyclists and other endurance athletes are no stranger to. Doing a demanding workout like intervals, Anderson points out, can create a mental state that’s actually quite conducive to doing advanced mindfulness practice.
“When you’re in the pain cave, you feel like you’re going to break. There are those voices that tell you to stop, and you get to look them straight in the eye, and you can see that while they seem real, they’re not. And if you keep going, you’ll be fine,” says Anderson. “In fact, you get through the pain cave and you feel good. That is the fundamental element of reframing suffering and seeing that this too shall pass. So just letting yourself feel that suffering and going through it intermittently is meditative. Fully inhabit the cave of pain, and that is mindfulness.
Find a meditation mantra
A Sharpie’d memento on a piece of masking tape reading “smooth is fast” was taped to the top tube of professional cyclist Ruby West at this year’s Cyclocross World Championships. That mini-mantra was one she’d repeated to herself over and over—during practice, during the warmup, and now at the starting line. Maybe you’ve done something similar. Many riders use tape to make reminders for themselves, and it turns out there’s a reason these mantras can help you ride.
Mantra meditation – essentially repeating a word or phrase over and over in your head – helps you focus on that one important thing. In this case, “smooth is fast” helped West ease the starting line jitters and worries about speeding up the track’s steep climb, reducing the race to a single goal.
Use Mindfulness Meditation to Improve Performance
A former national high jumper, Anderson began meditating as a teenager in search of a way to cure his competition anxiety. (Sound familiar?) After discovering mindfulness and meditation, he taught yoga and meditation for decades before going back to school to explore exactly why meditation can improve athletic performance—something he already knew but couldn’t explain. Now it is his life’s work.
The same goes for former BMX rider and mindfulness expert Brian Shiers. He works with UCLA athletes, the SWAT team, and the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. Shiers has been meditating for decades: “It’s probably the reason I did well in BMX as a kid,” he admits. “Mindfulness gives a boost to mental training. If I was racing BMX I was so dialed in that I knew my foot would push in when I felt that initial loosening of the gate as it dropped. I had trained not to have mental noise without really realizing it.
Race days are stressful, but not for the reasons you think. If you have nerves on race day, you’re probably making them worse by judging yourself and trying to suppress them, which Shiers says is a futile practice.
“It is important to understand that it is normal to be nervous. Nerves show that you really want to do well, that you care about the outcome,” says Shiers. “Accept that it’s true and normalize it; hiding it makes it bigger. This is radical acceptance.” Radical acceptance is also a principle of mindfulness and meditation practice – the goal is simply to observe thoughts, accept them and let them go.
But on race day, it’s still not optimal if your hands are shaking and you sprint to the port-a-potty two minutes before the start. “We want some anxiety. We want the bodily sensations that let us know our bodies are getting stronger, but we want to modulate them,” says Shiers. “Start noticing your thoughts and then focus on modulating them.”
For example, Shiers explains that anxiety is the series of bodily sensations associated with an exaggeration of a threat and an underestimation of your ability to deal with it. Apply this to the starting line of a race and ask yourself, “What’s the real threat here?” There’s no grizzly bear chasing you, this is the local race on Wednesday night and you’re competing with 15 of your friends. Your meditation challenge here is to really see your anxious thoughts and let them go without judgment. “Ask: ‘What is the worst case scenario?’ Get clear on that and then check the facts,” Shiers says. “How often does this happen? How often doesn’t it happen?”
This may not sound like a difficult task, but it’s hard to do it effectively if you haven’t done it before. Sure, you can logically tell yourself that race isn’t a big deal, but actually suppressing your body’s chemical response to stress? That takes practice.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation on a bicycle
If you have particular trouble with starting lines, or whatever, focus your mindfulness practice on that.
“Rehearse your starts during practice and treat them like real high-stakes starting lines,” says Shiers. “Pay attention during this one so you can remember the feeling of a good start, with the pedal where it needs to be. Practice it physically and mentally so you can remember that quiet space when you get to the start.
You do this on the trainer with your eyes closed. “Let your body relax, then let the tension kick in from the start and really feel it,” says Shiers. “Meditate to mimic the experience: This is a pain tolerance exercise within your mindfulness practice. Invite these nervous sensations into meditation, let the sensations engulf you. Allow yourself to breathe into them, welcome them. These are signs that your body is ready for action. You try to find that good activation level, try to recreate those optimal conditions.”
When you visualize the onset, Shiers suggests focusing on sights, sounds, and sensations. You can also do this outside, with your eyes open. “Really see what’s in front of you, hear what’s around you, and feel everything in your body, holding all three at once without thinking about it,” he says. “You can practice this on a walk, on the trainer, or even on a ride…preferably on an easy path with no traffic.”
When you can stabilize your attention, you learn to suppress the chatter and you can choose what information to let in. “And that translates to riding and racing,” says Shiers. “I see the terrain, I hear the environment around me, I feel my body on the bike.”
So, next time you’re out and about, consider doing a mini mindfulness meditation practice. You may even find yourself taking a few extra minutes for some sitting meditation as a bonus after driving.
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