While phrases like “being thankful for your practice” are second nature in yoga studios, the general population is increasingly seeking to understand how to bring mindfulness and gratitude to their preferred exercise modality. Now, more than ever, coaches, athletes, and sports psychologists are united in their belief that being in the moment will result in a more rewarding experience.
This is something that Melissa Wood, creator of the Melissa Wood Health method, speaks at length about. Once the former model-turned-health coach learned to “listen” to her body and move in a low-impact way that felt intuitive and purposeful, the results were transformative: physically and mentally.
But what does this actually mean and how can we apply that mentality? Wood says being “grateful” while working out can even be the simple acknowledgment of how lucky we are to move right now.
“I believe we’re really able to tune in and listen to our bodies on a much deeper level when we’re mindfully connected to the moves and muscles we’re using,” she explains. “I still work at showing up for my practice every single day. Even if I hear my kids screaming in the background, I say to myself, ‘This is your time to fully focus on being right where you are to serve your mind and body.’”
Sports psychologist Dr. Megan Cannon notes that exercise is, in itself, a form of mindfulness and meditation.
“If you’re intentionally paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment, your brain is focusing on what’s happening in the now—versus the multitude of thoughts we have going on at any other point in time during the day,” Dr. Cannon says.
“It’s all about purposeful practice. If we are paying attention to what we’re doing, we’re going to do it better and get better at it,” she adds. “If an athlete intentionally goes into a workout and identifies one to two things to focus on, they’re going to make gains in those areas. Whereas juggling 10 different areas of improvements can be overwhelming.”
Adding time dedicated solely to the mental aspect will ultimately help your sport too, says Chevy Rough, a London-based performance coach and wellbeing specialist.
“If I asked you to ‘mind your step’—you would suddenly become fully aware of your body and environment for the best possible path from A to B, with the least likelihood of injury,” Rough says. “By developing and practicing our meditation skills, it teaches us to slow down and focus on what’s happening within and around us. Does this help on race day? 100%.”
And while some may be deterred by the idea of sitting cross-legged and chanting ‘Om’, Rough doesn’t believe meditation has to be so formulaic.
“You don’t have to close your eyes and get all zen. You can just go for a walk, remove your headphones, and slow down your pace. The secret is realizing that it won’t come easy at first, the same way running a marathon doesn’t. Break it down into small sizable chunks; a [metaphorical] mile at a time.”
Irish endurance athlete Shane Finn successfully applied this mentality when he cycled and ran from San Francisco to New York City over 36 days in 2019. With a motivator in mind—raising funds for a Spina bifida charity, inspired by his cousin who was born with the rare defect—he was able to push past the physical toll of such a mammoth task.
“Heading through states like Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, I faced some setbacks, but I kept focused on one single task: moving forward. I remember saying to myself on day 19, ‘If I keep moving forward, America will run out of land.’ It was a really simple concept, but it helped me hugely. Feeling pain and soreness when running, I can’t really complain. What my cousin and many others go through on a daily basis is far worse than aching quads and sore calves.”
Finn, who also once ran 24 marathons in 24 days in aid of charity, says that he dedicates time to being thankful every single day: whether it’s naming a handful of things he is grateful for, or simply enjoying the views as he trains around the southwestern Irish coastline at present.
“Get your feet on the floor and then start your day,” he advises. “So many others would give anything to do the same. I might run for one hour or four; either way, I can totally switch off from the world, focusing on my feet striking the ground, my breathing and my form.”
“Sometimes you just need to get out there and run to feel,” he adds. “Don’t worry about personal bests, zones, or intervals in every session—just let the legs flow. No beeping bike computers, no watch notifications, no high tempo music. Just running or bike shoes and the open road. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much you enjoy it!”
Especially now as work/life balance is so askew and stress is at a peak, Rough offered advice for those who are struggling to “switch off” while training at home.
“Realize that your brain isn’t broken when you can’t get it to shut up!” he laughed. “People are so used to being ‘on’ that when they slow down and are left with their own thoughts, it’s overwhelming. When thoughts come rushing at you, your brain is just trying to do what evolution has programmed it to do. You have to accept that, listen, and program in small daily chunks of processing (solitude) time throughout your day.”
He adds, “You wouldn’t drive a race car while scrolling on your phone, you’d want to be as present as possible. Athletes follow a training plan, get injured on that plan, and then go straight back to the plan that got them injured in the first place. If you were a little more engaged, maybe consistency and performance would come easier?
“By learning to listen to our bodies, we can hear the niggles in the knee or make a smart choice about whether this high-intensity session is actually what we need to do today. We can adapt and training is adaptation,’ he concludes.
Wood thinks that the silver lining for triathletes is that this pause from normality can allow them to explore new avenues.
“Experiment with meditation and slow things down to tune into what really serves you and what doesn’t. Maybe more slow, controlled movements are what your mind and body needs. When the noise is too loud, it’s hard to listen.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Cannon advises people to “use their senses” to keep themselves present.
“Intentionally focusing on what you can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste is incredibly helpful in grounding us back to the moment that we’re in,” she says. “Trying it inside and outside of workouts can help to develop the skill and preference.”
To remain fully focused during your at-home workout, turning your phone off was unanimously recommended (remember: our stress response is triggered every time we hear a notification ping!) Similarly helpful tips included avoiding falling prey to the constant news cycle, working out without music, and scheduling time in your calendar dedicated to movement, as you would a Zoom call.
When asked for a mantra that everyone can think to themselves while exercising, Wood offered the simple: “Be here now.”
And while none of us knows when races will be back on the calendar or when gyms will reopen, that grounding statement will always be relevant.