Yeah, But Can Yoga Improve My Mental Performance?

You’ve probably heard about the physical benefits of yoga for runners but you may be less aware of the ways yoga can boost your mental performance.

In yoga philosophy, the physical postures are just one part of a full yoga practice. For many people, the non-physical ideas fall outside of their comfort zone or purpose in practicing yoga. There are a few concepts, however, that apply well to runners—primarily focused concentration (or visualization) and meditation. In fact, research is overwhelmingly positive on the benefits of visualization on race performance as well as on the benefits of meditation on everything from stress relief to disease prevention.

Here are 5 ways you can use the mental aspects of yoga to improve your running:

  1. Breathe deeply and slowly. Breathing is something we take for granted. We walk around taking short, shallow breaths that utilize only about 20 percent of our lung capacity. Each breath in brings fresh new oxygen to our blood and cells, including our muscles. Focusing on taking full, deep, slow breaths (both while running and at rest) can improve this reoxygenation, which provides more fuel to your body and your brain.

  2. Find a focus. We’ve all had those runs where our minds quiet, the miles click off quickly and it’s over before we know it. In contrast, we’ve all had runs where the exact opposite happens—our minds wander and each mile feels slower than the last. Finding a focal point for your mind during those runs can make all the difference. Whether you focus on the sound of your footsteps or on your breath or on a point on the road in front of you, focusing the mind allows it to stay calm enabling background noise to fall off.

  3. Pick a mantra. A mantra is a set of words or a phrase that is repeated silently to yourself. Finding a positive saying or a couple of words that you can repeat in cadence with your stride can help regulate your breathing, focus your brain and keep you moving forward when the running gets tough. Keep them short, sweet, energetic and positive, such as “I am strong, I am powerful” or “I can do this.”

  4. Visualize important workouts and race days. Studies have shown that the practice of visualizing an event or competition is just as effective as physically practicing for that event or competition. The day or night before an important workout or race day, take the time to sit quietly and mentally rehearse your entire day. Start with waking up in the morning: Picture your alarm going off and getting out of bed with excitement. Then go through every step of your morning routine: eating breakfast, getting dressed, lacing up your shoes and getting to the start of your race or run. Next, picture having the perfect run: How does it feel, how is your breathing, how is your posture, what does your stride feel like? Finally, picture finishing your run or crossing the finish line exactly according to your plan. Visualize how you feel and how good it feels to accomplish your goal. This positive visualization helps hardwire your brain for success.

  5. Meditate—every day. There’s a common misconception that meditation is a practice done in a silent room, with monk-like quietness, while sitting in an uncomfortable position for hours at a time. But there are many types of meditation—from mindfulness to transcendental to walking meditation. Even just sitting quietly, focusing on your breath for five minutes every day can be considered meditation and can have exceptional benefits—from a 90 percent reduction in anxiety to an improvement in focus to decreased stress. Meditation can help prime your body and mind for success. (There’s even an app for that! Check out Headspace or Calm in the app store for free guided and timed meditations.)

So whether on your mat or in your running shoes, don’t be afraid to go beyond your physical body and into your mind. Remember: The mind is powerful, use it to your advantage.