So this week I’m going to talk about something I’ve been playing with recently, meditation, and I’m going to try and avoid all the foofy language that goes with it, but unfortunately we’re not dealing with the hardest form of science here so I might have to resort to discussing my feelings at some point but you’ll just have to deal with that when we get there.
So why meditation?
With my vast injury history, I’d always had a major focus on the physical aspect of training and competition, and my frustrations with this. Having now found an equilibrium of training where i still see improvement but my rapidly deteriorating tissues are ono longer at the forefront of my mind, the search then moves on to the next choke point of performance, and personally I see that as the mental side.
You’ll hear people throw around such scientifically proven facts as “performance is 10% physical and 90% mental” or the cliche “its all in your head”. Now as much as I disagree with the validity of the research conducted to reach those conclusions, I do believe there is a massive mental component to competing at a high level.
Take the 100 meter final of any major championship, statistical analysis of the runners in the final will show no significant difference between first and last place, so scientifically speaking, they all finished in the same time. So what makes the difference that the favourite guy still wins on a consistent basis despite the fact he statistically shouldn’t, could it be the mental?
You’re either born with it or not
I’ve heard some coaches refer to the mental aspect of elite competition and say “you’re either born with it or you’re not”, and I certainly believe that if you believe this statement you won’t be able to change it. This would fall into the category of a fixed mind-set, (if you’ll allow me to reference Carol Dweck for a second) I don’t believe you can change it so why try. A growth mind-set approach would be someone who believes that by working on it they can change it, and believing you can change has to be the first step.
So what do I want to change?
I’ve always considered myself a pretty good, big-time competitor. Put me in that big meet and I’ll do some ridiculous personal best that I really wasn’t worthy of (or at least I think that, and by thinking it, it makes it true, a bro-cebo maybe?). What I wanted to work on was my ability to reproduce this in more of the meets I go to, make myself more consistent, make my state something that I was in control of rather than something that controlled me.
Whether rightly or wrongly I decided meditation could be an answer. The other reason I decided to try meditation was my inability to calm myself back down after training or competition in order to sleep or be productive in work (yes I have a job, for all those people who wrongly think Welsh Athletics have enough money to support athletes to train full-time). Even if I learned a way to bring my mental state down more quickly, this would be massively beneficial. So I went onto youtube and typed in “guided meditation”.
Even when I can read the research benefits of meditation or mindfulness (which seems to be a more socially acceptable interchangeable term nowadays) like this on its ability to lower cortisol, my scientific brain still won’t allow me to dedicate 20 minutes a day to something with no immediate tangible benefits. And this was a problem for me. I tried a couple of different things, but with no goals or targets or way of measuring improvement I knew this wasn’t for me.
After discussions with my yoga teacher housemate, she explained to me that meditation wise, it wasn’t necessarily important what sort you were doing, it was more important to find something that worked for you, this would help build the consistent practice and it is there that the true benefits can be found.
So what next
Heartmath is a company that make devices which measure coherence, “coherence” being a term coined by them to describe when your heart rhythms fluctuate in a more balanced and smooth way. Generally a coherent state is related to positive feelings, gratitude, happiness relaxation and love. An incoherent state being indicative of stress, frustration, anger etc.
Going into coherence is akin to a kind of meditation, but a kind of meditation with feedback on how well I’m doing, this I had to try. I read their e-book and there was enough science explanation for me to deem it worth trying and honestly I’m really glad I did. I could try going further into the details but for anyone interested its probably best to try their website or contact them directly.
The Inner Balance Sensor
Heartmath sent me an inner balance sensor, this is basically a clip you put on your ear that plugs into your iphone and the whole thing runs through and app, really easy to use and super convenient to carry around in your bumbag so its ready any time you have a spare 5 minutes. You can set sessions to run as long as you want, but generally I’ll stick to 5 minutes, you can set a breath pacer to keep your breathing constant or use it without, but the whole time it gives real-time feedback on your heart rate and coherence level.
This real-time feedback aspect was super important for me to get my head around this whole thing. It means I can see when I’m doing well and when I’m not doing so well, I can see the coherence drop off as I forget to focus on my breathing and my mind begins to wander. So far positive feelings do help me stay in coherence better, and just saying that I can quantify a positive feeling with a physiological response does make me feel a little weird.
The app monitors your sessions and gives you a running total score for all the “coherence” you’ve built up. Theres even achievements you unlock as you go along similar to Call of duty, unfortunately theres not currently an online multi-player option in the app so it won’t be quite as addictive. I don’t know how against the principles of yoga that is, but the idea of meditating head-to-head against someone really interests me. An applied stressful situation, whilst you continue to try and relax more than the guy your against and the app keeps score? Just putting it out there heartmath.
Is it worth it?
So this was a little bit more about the journey of how I got here than I planned, and a little bit less about the tech than I planned. So far, if anything, I’m sticking to it, and racking up some good time in coherence across the last few weeks. The main things I’ve noticed so far are:
- Productivity (away from the track) has shot up, my ability to get stuff done has gone through the roof, just the ability to put myself into a productive working mindset is actually invaluable and I can’t believe I’ve managed without this skill for so long.
- This also means I feel like I have more energy all of the time, which I can see having a positive affect on my life in terms of being able to socialise more rather than spending every night monger out in front of the tv.
- I feel like I’m re-sensitising myself to caffeine, I hadn’t really noticed a tolerance building up, but had my normal two double espresso’s pre-training the other day and it felt like it really blew my socks off, more than normal. Being generally calmer the rest of the time meaning the change in state when I drink coffee becomes more noticeable? Plausible? Caffeine can be a contributor to adrenal fatigue where you’re constantly in a stressed state, so maybe I’m reverse engineering this
- I’m getting better at my slack lining, but this could also be just because I own my own one and am practicing more, but it can’t be just coincidence that theres a tight rope walker on the box. Better inner calm, more zen, better balance?
- Monitoring my sleep, I am actually sleeping slightly less now, and waking up earlier. This could be partly because being the summer now, the light through my curtains is waking me earlier, but even when I’m using my sleeping mask I’m still awake earlier. I may have to re-assess the 9h13m optimal sleep time I’ve worked out for myself
- I still monitor my heart rate variability every morning as a rough objective marker of recovery, since using this device to train, I’ve registered my highest hrv values ever i.e. most recovered, but also some of the lowest. It feels like this training has amplified the changes and actually made the hrv measure a more useful metric, but this I will look into further.
- As unquantifiable as this is, I genuinely feel a little bit happier, and why wouldn’t I with all those other benefits.
The performances on the track and in competition I guess will be proven over the coming season, and I’m guessing will probably take a more longer term use to realise. Even if nothing else, the improvements I’ve seen in the other aspects of my life I’d highly recommend meditation, or this device if you have a similar mind-set to myself and can afford it.
Thanks for reading, and if you’re interested in updates on how my coherence training is going, it might be worth following me on twitter @PaulJamesWalker, any thoughts or feedback always welcome.