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December 12, 2014

Research suggests that meditation may help U.S. military personnel cope with the stresses of combat more effectively. Now, UC San Diego researchers are looking at whether strengthening the mental muscle of Olympic athletes could confer a competitive edge in the world of sports, too.

The early results, though not definitive, are promising: The first group of athletes to complete a mindfulness training program developed at UC San Diego won first, second and third place at the 2014 USA Cycling Elite BMX National Championships.

Though the podium sweep is not being directly attributed to the mind-focusing benefits of meditation, the athletes, their coach and the health care practitioners who developed the mindfulness training program acknowledge the value of addressing psychological dimensions of winning races.

"You hear athletes say, 'My head wasn't in it,' " said Lori Haase, a postdoctoral fellow at the UC San Diego School of Medicine who developed the mPEAK training program with Steven Hickman, director of UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, at the request of the USA BMX team coach. "Most of the time, people in sports have focused on the neck down. They focus on nutrition, on building muscle or eye-hand coordination, but they ignore what is going on in the head. Scientists are really beginning to be able to see that thoughts can get in the way of performance."

The mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness and Knowledge (mPEAK) program is an intensive course on meditation and body awareness. It also teaches athletes how to better deal with pain, stress and failure and how to cultivate a positive mental attitude. For example, perfectionism is considered to be an impediment to reaching one’s full potential.

After completing the program, the cyclists were directed to practice mindfulness training 20 minutes, twice a day, and to attend weekly 90-minute follow-up sessions with instructors for six weeks. The team has since incorporated meditation practices into its training routine.

In terms of how meditation has sharpened the team’s edge, researchers said the most obvious change has been at the race’s start, saying their body language is calmer, they move their hands less on the bars, and they get out of the gate a little faster.

Connor Fields, winner of the 2014 USA Cycling Elite BMX National Championship and the 2013 BMX World Champion, agreed that meditation has helped. "But the biggest thing I have learned is how to be consciously mindful and aware of my current situation,” he said. “I am more present than I used to be."

Indeed, the goal of mindfulness training is to help people become more fully present in the moment by training their minds to notice when their thoughts are wandering, and then to bring their attention back to the current moment. Repeated over and over, the researchers say, the brain’s baseline functioning changes and so does its anatomy.

Recent studies with U.S. Marine Corps personnel have shown that mindfulness training reduces neuronal activity in the anterior insular cortex and anterior cingulate, regions of the brain responsible for integrating emotional reactivity, cognition and interoception. High-activity levels in these brain regions are associated with anxiety and mood disorders.

The scientists hypothesized that the BMX team members who participated in mindfulness training will respond to the mind exercises in much the same way as the Marines did, and if this were true, it would lend further credence to the idea that mindfulness training can teach the brain to respond to potentially stressful situations with less emotional affect.

To test these ideas, the scientists recently completed a second round of functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of the athletes’ brains. These scans measure blood flow in the brain (a proxy for neuronal activity), while the person performs a stressful task, such as breathing through a narrow straw that restricts airflow.

Reduced blood flow in the anterior insular cortex and anterior cingulate suggest that the brain is interpreting the experience of breathing through the straw as a bodily sensation (the feeling of restricted airflow) with less emotional reactivity added to the experience. In this way, meditation is helping the body optimize its response to unpleasant or stressful experiences, preventing a cascade of thoughts that could sabotage performance, the scientists said.

“We know pretty conclusively that mindfulness training can help people with chronic pain and illness and this has been the focus of mindfulness training for 30 years,” Hickman said. “We also know that there is an amazing parallel between what we teach in mindfulness and the brains of peak performers. People have wondered if there is a ceiling effect and whether people who already have attributes of mindfulness might not achieve the same benefits. It’s looking like peak performers can benefit from mindfulness training and this means recreational athletes, as well as other peak performers in business, academia and other fields, could likely benefit, too.”