I’ve always been in good health for as far as I can remember. I come from a very big family – we’re two brothers and three sisters – and from a very young age our father encouraged us to engage in sports, from football to running and ping pong to simply exercise at home with small weights or free-body gymnastics. He is over sixty now and still playing football and running every week.
Having moved to London nearly four years ago now, I’ve tried hard to keep myself going and not to let a week pass without some physical exercise.
I have attended kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts classes, been swimming, cycling and going to the gym. And of course, I never really stopped running – although I sometimes did let some time pass between one session and the other.
The perception of time spent on physical activity is something I’ve always perceived as one to develop myself, not only in body but in mind as well. Alone with my thoughts and through my body’s fatigue, I get to know more about my own self. My strengths and limitations, the extent of my will and the strain I can put on my body.
It also helps me relate to others. After a training session, I usually feel more relaxed and in a better mood than when I begin. This is because, as explained on the Fast Company website, when you start exercising, your brain recognises this as a moment of stress. To protect you from it, endorphins and other hormones are released into your system. These chemicals have a protective and also reparative function to your memory neurons and act as a reset switch.
That’s also why doing physical activity is connected to a self-esteem boost, mood improvement, better sleep quality and increased energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress and depression.
I’ve cherished this feeling since I was a kid, and even when I was angry at myself for not managing to break through a time record or win a game, I tried to learn and improve using that experience as a stepping stone.
In an attempt of improving the overall quality of my training, I have started researching and investigating on how I could become more self-aware when doing sports. According to Believe Perform, the application of mindfulness to sports performance has grown in popularity in the last few years. Since mindful practices are about increasing present-moment awareness of physiological, mental, and environmental events, it is only natural that performing sports when more self-aware will bring better results.
I have started asking people who regularly train what they think about mindfulness and sports. I have talked to two of the personal trainers at my gym, some people at the park where I go running and my training partner, Pietro. Their answers were rather vague in terms of knowledge of mindfulness practices in sports, and they had pretty different opinions on certain styles or timing of training, but they all agreed on one thing: the importance of breathing. And mindful breathing is undoubtedly recognised as fundamental part of training in many sports and physical practices: from yoga to martial arts and running, from weight-lifting to swimming.
While researching, I found an article by journalist and Yoga Expert Dana Santas, published on the CNN website in 2015. In it, she underlined the importance of the link between breathing and physiology – particularly during times of stress – and the mutual impact on breathing of our overall posture and mobility.
Since breathing is part of our autonomic nervous system – she explained – we are not aware of it unless there’s something wrong. However, unlike digesting food, we do have the ability to control our respiration. Potentially, the way we breathe has then the power to influence every aspect of our health and wellbeing, from our mindset to our physical perception.
When looking at the strictly-physical dimension of what happens to your body when breathing improperly – meaning if your breathing is primarily chest-oriented and shallow – your ribcage will get pulled into a lifted and flared state that will compromise diaphragm function. Consequently, it could become dysfunctional in terms of a postural role, too. Not breathing deep enough, when training particularly, could cause the diaphragm to pull into its attachments to your lumbar spine, causing disc compression and increasing your risk of back, neck and shoulder injury.
When trying to apply this technique to my training sessions then, I had to be careful, since an incorrect respiration pattern could have caused more harm than good to my body.
And, while it was relatively easy to control my breathing during running sessions, it was a completely different story when going to the gym. In my first couple of days practising this exercise, it was almost impossible to keep my breathing in line with my workout. As I was lifting weights or operating machines, the strain on my muscles increased and my mind started fighting back, eventually going blank and disrupting the quality of the exercise.
Reading an article on Military.com, I realised that a way of overcoming this difficulty could be to always exhale on exertion. In practical terms, when pushing a bench press off your chest, for example, you exhale on the push and inhale as you bring it back slowly to your chest.
I have tried this technique with less weight and reducing the number of lifts per session to begin with and, slowly, I started noticing some improvements. It’s truly amazing how our body can adapt and overcome its limitations with discipline.
Science comes to our aid on that as well. As mentioned on the LiveStrong.com website, when inhaling, air is pulled into microscopic air sacs in the lungs called alveoli, where oxygen is delivered to red blood cells and carbon dioxide is transferred from the blood to the air in the alveoli. The oxygen-rich blood then flows to your heart, which then pumps it out to your muscles, renewing your energy. You finally exhale the carbon dioxide, unnecessary for your body.
Towards the end of the week, I could see a moderate increase in my physical performance at the gym, although I had to diminish my original weight load to be proficient using this breathing technique.
Proceeding in my research into mindfulness and sports, I encountered another promising practice: the body scan exercise, which is aimed to focus your attention on specific areas of the body one by one in order to help you achieve a better overall awareness of your physical dimension.
I had previously explored one of such techniques when practising some forms of focused meditation, but I had never really thought of applying them strictly to physical activity.
The body scan exercise, as explained by the Mindfulness for Students website, is a form of seated or lying meditation that helps increase awareness of your body’s physical sensations. In 15-20 minute sessions, and closing your eyes, the objective of the practice is to mentally scan your body, sweeping your awareness through its different parts – all in a non-judgmental fashion.
It begins from the crown of the head, then through neck and shoulders, torso and stomach, down to your pelvis area, and ends with your legs and feet. Focusing on one part at the time, the importance of the exercise lies in noticing whether there is any non-acceptance towards any parts of the body as you become slowly more aware of it. Eventually, you should be able to feel a warmth stream of energy flowing through you.
I have practised the body scan exercise before and after every training session for a week, focusing my attention specifically to the areas of my body that I was training that day.
If you’re used to meditation, you’ll realise that this is a fairly straightforward exercise, if your body is not particularly tired or in pain.
However, practising it after my training sessions when most of my muscles were aching was not as easy. Accepting that burning sensation in a non-judgmental way was harder than expected. And it was only on the last day of my training for the week that I managed to complete a whole session.
I have practised the mindful breathing exercise and the body scan for a week now. Combining these two exercises in a regular fashion has helped me increase the quality of my training sessions as well as make me more aware of my body’s strengths and limitations. I believe I will keep using both techniques in my daily training and I’m confident that, by doing so, I’ll be able to develop the personal relationship with my body further.