Meditation basics with Sonya Looney

Just 10 minutes of focused breathing can make you a better mountain biker

How To
Meditation basics with Sonya Looney

Just 10 minutes of focused breathing can make you a more mindful person — and better mountain biker. Photo courtesy TrainerRoad

Last year, I was searching for ways to feel more grounded in my overly distracted, busy life. I love to be busy with projects and the maze of moving parts in my life, but I was over-scheduling myself so much that I often felt overwhelmed. I was starting to lose the joy and exhilaration of my busy racing and travel schedule, meeting the demands of media content, speaking engagements and sponsorships, and staying healthy, organized and connected at home. I was addicted to getting through my to-do list and achieving my goals as fast as possible so I could move on to the next thing. I also took on a new racing discipline (enduro).

True to my “all-in” personality, I picked three blind enduro stage races in my first year in addition to all the endurance single day and stage races. Enduro added a different skillset of mental tactics to navigate extremely technical trails (like six days of Trans BC Enduro Stage Race in the rain). I needed a way to calm my mind both on and off the bike, and step off the ever-accelerating train. I had trouble being fully present when someone was speaking to me because I’d get lost in my head thinking of things I needed to accomplish.

One of the hardest things to do is to look in the mirror and be honest with what needs improvement on a personal level and then take action to fix it. I kept seeing studies about how meditation helps with stress management, sleep, and a sense of inner calm, things I desperately wanted. As a yoga enthusiast for the last decade, I participated in breath-body movement (inhale with one movement, exhale with another) and awareness of the mind, but I was resistant to trying actual meditation. I pictured some person on a cushion in a cave burning incense for hours on end and laughed. That definitely wasn’t me.

Meditation basics with Sonya Looney

Using breathing techniques when things get really technical have helped Sonya relax and commit to technical features.

The biggest hurdle was that I’d have to sit still with no inputs, no phone, no music, no computer, no book. I thought that I didn’t need it and I didn’t want to be bored just sitting there with my eyes closed wasting precious time. I initially resisted meditation by thinking, I won’t be able to sit there and not think anything, or I don’t know how to do it, or riding my bike or going to yoga counts as meditation. But I decided to drop my preconceived notions and commit to it for one month. Simply adding 10 minutes of meditation into my day has been immensely helpful.

So how do you meditate? The simplest form I’ve discovered is called Mindfulness or Vipassana meditation. You sit down on a chair with eyes closed, do a scan of your body from head to toe including the contact points of your body, and simply focus on your breath for 10 minutes. I have tried different apps and have been enjoying Headspace the most. There are so many different types of meditation that use focal points, music, mantras and I’m just scratching the surface with basic guided meditation. Most guided meditations have short prompts to remind you to come back to your breath because you will be constantly distracted by your thoughts.

The first five days were incredibly difficult for me. I almost gave up because I could not distance myself from the to-do lists, aspirations, and thoughts that crushed down on my brain, but eventually it got easier. The point of meditation is not to stop thoughts and feelings from arising, but to change the way you relate to the thoughts and feelings. Andy Puddicombe, Founder of Headspace says, “We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life, but we can change the way we experience it.” You can take this meditation into your daily life. When things start feeling out of hand, too busy, or stressful, I simply remind myself that I’m breathing and focus on 10 inhalations and exhalations. It has reminded me to focus on the task at hand, not what I need to do in an hour or next week.

Meditation basics with Sonya Looney

Studies show that meditation can help with adrenal fatigue by lowering cortisol levels in endurance athletes.

Here are some ways this can make you a better mountain biker.

  • Using breathing techniques when things get really technical help me relax and commit to a technical feature. I focus on my breath when riding down something that intimidates me. I forcefully exhale in that moment when it’s important that relax. (Being rigid on your bike increases your risk of crashing because you won’t absorb the impact of the trail.)
  • Controlling my breath on a climb. I know what my respiratory rate is when I’m pushing too hard and where my optimal respiratory rate is during a race or hard ride. If you can focus on taking deep breaths and forcing the CO2 out, you actually start utilizing more of your lung capacity.
  • Dealing with things that happen out of your control. Meditation raises your awareness when you are being distracted by emotions or stories you create around things that happen to you. Mountain biking has a lot of variables, including weather, mechanicals, frustration with ride buddies (see my article on how to ride with a slower rider), feeling insecure as an athlete, and time management (we have all been frustrated when something delays you from starting your ride). Dr. Kris Keim, a clinical sport psychologist, recommends meditation as a tool to her athletes. She says “You can work on improving your physical/mental training, skills, and coping mechanisms. This serves you to build your athletic identity, self-confidence, and improve performance. Furthermore, the meditator learns to enhance awareness of each muscle which can help pinpoint an injury to prevent further damage.”
  • Meditation helps with adrenal fatigue by lowering cortisol levels. Endurance athletes are sometimes diagnosed with over-worked adrenal glands. Studies have found that meditation also lowers blood pressure, pulse rate, and enables your body to cope with stress without triggering your adrenal hormones.

So now that know the basics of meditation, give it a try and let me know how it goes. You can post in the comments section below or send me a message on Instagram or Facebook.

Read more How To posts from Sonya Looney

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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  • Brian says:

    Hi Sonya,

    I started using the Headspace app recently as well (after hearing it on the Tim Ferriss podcast) and now I look forward to that 10min break every day. His prompts and voice are very relaxing. Nice writeup !

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