Elite runners don’t make it to the top of their sport without training their legs, lungs, and hearts. But nearly any high-level competitor will tell you it’s difficult to perform your best if you don’t prepare your mind, as well.
Staying focused under pressure often comes down to mindfulness—the concept of presence and awareness that’s receiving increased attention in recent years.
“I’ve always thought about it as that time to quiet down and be in your environment fully, not actively trying to pursue thoughts, just letting things flow over you,” Olympic 400-meter hurdler Anna Cockrell tells Runner’s World.
Paralympic triathlete Hailey Danz defines it this way: “Being really aware of my thoughts, being in tune with how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, in a really non-judgmental way.”
Here, eight elite athletes—from sprinters to triathletes to ultramarathoners—share how mindfulness has enabled them to perform their best and improve their well-being. The practice looks a little bit different for each of them, but all say it’s proved invaluable in their sport, and outside of it.
Anna Cockrell: Music in Motion
Mindfulness and meditation have helped Cockrell through her biggest year yet—she won the 2021 NCAA Championships in both the 100-meter and 400-meter hurdles; made the Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles; and reached the finals in Tokyo last summer.
During competition, Cockrell practices diaphragmatic breathing, which allows her to focus while retaining intensity; in the past, she’s made the mistake of calming herself too much, then feeling flat. She places her left hand on her heart and her right on her stomach, expressing gratitude to her essential organs.
In that brief pause, she asks herself where she is, how she’s feeling, and what she needs to do to prime herself for performance. At the Olympics, she says, “I’m thankful that the camera was never really on me, because I was just laying on the ground in the call room, trying to breathe and be in the moment and be ready.”
Now, Cockrell is using mindfulness to help her adjust to her new life as a pro athlete. After graduation, she moved to Fort Worth, Texas, to train with coach Lawrence “Boogie” Johnson. She’s doing increasingly daunting workouts, including longer (for a sprinter) repeats of 400 to 500 meters.
“My natural inclination is to try to really force things, to tighten up and to push it,” she says. “In reality, it’s easier to get things done if you can breathe, if you can move, if you can let your arms swing and your chest rise and fall.”
To stay relaxed, Cockrell—who grew up performing in musical theater—sings to herself. Show tunes with a fast pace, a call-and-response section, and a build into bigger harmony keep her at ease until the rep is over (her two go-tos: “The Schuyler Sisters” from Hamilton, and “Mama Will Provide” from Once on This Island).
Hailey Danz: Riding the Wave
Danz, a two-time Paralympic silver medalist, once thought mindfulness was the province of intense yogis, not elite-level triathletes. But she was introduced to the practice by sport psychologist Sara Mitchell, Ph.D., while she was training for the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Now, Danz, who lives and trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, continues to work on mindfulness with Mitchell. Outside of their sessions, Danz checks in and calms down throughout the day with body scans and progressive relaxation, where she tenses up, then releases, groups of muscles.
During competition, she tunes into the sensations like the cadence of her strides and the heaviness of her breathing, treating this input as neutral data. (Positive self-talk doesn’t work for Danz; she finds she does better keeping emotions out of it.) If ragged breath indicates she’s working too hard, she backs off. When a competitor surges and she wants to keep up, she quickens her steps. When she starts to feel poorly, she doesn’t let her thoughts spiral.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned from endurance racing, it’s that what you’re feeling right now can be completely different in 10 seconds or in 10 minutes,” she says. “If I find myself getting caught up in that judgment, that storyline, I try to ride the wave. ... If you panic and let yourself get emotionally invested in how much this sucks, that’s not going to benefit you.”
McKale Montgomery: Grasping the Science
Mindfulness hasn’t always been top of mind for the Oklahoma State University assistant professor of nutritional sciences and 2020 Olympic Trials-qualifying marathoner. But when Montgomery recently attended a campus seminar on the topic, she realized she was already putting many of the ideas—such as avoiding multitasking, and building space in between different activities—into practice in her everyday routine.
To coordinate her roles as a mom, scientist, and athlete, Montgomery blocks her tasks into specific hours and days.
In the early mornings, she’s out on the roads (or on the treadmill, if the weather’s too nasty); after work, she’s attuned solely to the needs of her 3-year-old daughter, Logan. On Thursdays, she’s in the lab. If she has to change focus—say, to teach a class or take a student meeting—she stands up and takes a walk around the building to switch gears.
She aims to stay similarly focused during a marathon, following Ryan Hall’s advice to “run the mile you’re in,” rather than counting all the miles she has left. And if she’s nearing the metabolic and metaphorical “wall” late in a race, Montgomery avoids panicking by reflecting on what she knows about physiology.
“The known is less scary than the unknown,” she tells Runner’s World. She understands her body can store enough glycogen for about 20 miles, and that if she falls behind on fueling, her muscles will begin to shift to less-efficient fat-burning.
To further motivate her to swallow the next gel, she visualizes the sugar going down her throat and infusing energy throughout her body. “I’ll think, it’s gonna enter my bloodstream, it’s gonna go to my muscles, and they’re gonna feel it,” she says.
Natasha Hastings: Knowing Yourself
The two-time Olympic gold medalist first experienced the power of paying attention to her thoughts after the Olympic Trials in 2012. After finishing a disappointing-to-her sixth in the 400 meters, she began working with a sport psychologist, Alan Friedman.
With Friedman, Hastings reviewed what she was thinking when she raced and found every single thought was negative—that she didn’t belong, and things might not go well. Day by day, she began replacing that negative self-talk with positive messages.
Almost a year after the 2012 Trials, she lined up for the New York Adidas Grand Prix at Icahn Stadium in New York City on a cold, rainy day. As she took her spot in lane 7, she repeated to herself, “The sun is shining in lane 7, it’s a great day in lane 7.” She ran 50.24, her fastest 400 meters since college.
“That was the turning point for me,” she tells Runner’s World. “I was putting in all of the physical work, all the hours, but tapping into that mindfulness is what actually changed my career.”
Hastings continues to work with a counselor to strengthen her mental health and performance. Mindfulness, she knows, doesn’t mean clearing her mind; rather, it’s about understanding and adjusting what’s going on inside it. One tool she uses is the feelings wheel, a cue to identify her emotions and better cope with them.
She also aims to be a mindful mom to her 2-year-old son, Liam, by staying calm even during toddler tantrums. “I get down on his level and look him in his eyes,” she says. She’ll tell him: “I know you’re frustrated right now and having trouble finding the words, but let’s try to figure this out together.”
Hastings is so committed to mindfulness and mental health that in addition to motherhood and training, she’s now in school at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology to become a counselor herself—she’ll graduate in May of 2023.
Sam Parsons: Getting to Flow
Parsons, a 5,000 and 10,000 meter specialist with Tinman Elite in Boulder, Colorado, was first introduced to the practice of mindfulness when he visited the headquarters of District Vision, a sunglasses company that also offers mindfulness courses and meditation cushions. Now, he views it as a critical way to get his mind and body in sync.
“The higher fitness you are, and the more mindful you are, that’s your best potential to get to the flow state,” he tells Runner’s World. In a way, it’s counterintuitive, he explains: “Flow state is when you’re not thinking about anything, you’re just moving, whereas mindfulness is the act of awareness. But in order to get to this place of flow, you need to have heightened awareness.”
Parsons aims to spend time in quiet reflection most days, if not every day. When he’s diligent, he can see the results: Not only does he feel calmer, his resting heart rate and recovery, as measured by his WHOOP strap, actually improve the more he meditates.
The summer after he began the practice, Parsons felt the dramatic effects at the U.S. Championships. As a newly minted pro racing in the 5,000 meters, Parsons found himself effortlessly keeping up with Olympians like Paul Chelimo.
But when the bell rang on the final lap, the sound—reminiscent of the chime that traditionally ends a meditation session—broke the spell. “I totally panicked,” he says. “I stopped being mindful of what was happening. I was looking around, got jostled and hit a few times, then I just got swallowed.” He wound up finishing eighth, in 13:35.16.
Rather than dwell on the lapse, Parsons has aimed to practice non-judgment, using it to inform his future efforts. Since then, he’s put an emphasis on staying mindful even in the finishing kick, when adrenaline’s surging.
And his go-to trick for regaining focus: Listening for chirping birds. He lets the sound bring him back to the present moment. “If you’re willing to listen, you can hear birds at any point of the day,” he says.
Abbey Cooper: Seeing Success
Cooper, a psychology major and star athlete at Dartmouth University, came across the concept of mindfulness while doing an undergraduate research project. Now, she’s married to Jacob Cooper, Ph.D., a clinical sport psychologist and director of sport psychology services at Appalachian State University who defines the concept simply: “awareness plus attention.”
Cooper had flirted with visualization and other techniques throughout her career as a pro athlete and 2016 Olympian. “It really wasn’t until COVID, where there was more urgency in life in general to really learn how to shepherd my mind well and stay present, that I first started to try out more practices,” she tells Runner’s World.
She started by simply heading to a stream in the backyard of her Boone, North Carolina, home to observe nature for 10 minutes. When competition returned, she harnessed that focus more intentionally on the track. In the leadup to the Trials, Jacob led her through guided visualizations, beginning with mindful breathing through her diaphragm.
“That was a technique to not only help me manage pre-race anxiety, but also to cultivate some of the skills that are necessary in racing itself, especially championship racing,” she says. “Most of the time, there are situations that surprise you, that you can’t control, that you have to react to immediately.”
They’d set a timer for 20 minutes and talk through every moment of the race, from warming up through the finishing line. She’d call to mind every sensation, including sights, smells, and feelings, playing the race out lap by lap. Then, she’d do it all again, with a slightly different scenario.
One she didn’t envision in those sessions was running by herself in the semifinal of the 5,000 meters to hit the Olympic standard, a gutsy plan she and her coach Chris Layne hatched just before the race. Still, the many rehearsals infused her with the self-assurance she needed to make the move when it counted most.
Adam Kimble: Moving Reflections
Mindful running comes fairly naturally to Kimble, a trail and ultrarunner living in Lake Tahoe, California. Some days, his runs are mind-clearing meditations, where he’s barely thinking about anything other than the majesty of nature. On others, he specifically ponders what’s going on in his life, aiming to solve problems.
Starting early in 2020, he turned his mental awareness up a notch by journaling after every run. The goal was to compile prose, poems, and other reflections to serve as inspirational prompts in Chasing Twilight: A Joy Journal for Runners, a new book he co-authored with fellow athletes Connor Crouch and Jim O’Brien.
In the process, Kimble found himself paying even closer attention to both his surroundings and his frame of mind as he trained.
“I would go out, come back in and then think about what I went through mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally during that run,” he tells Runner’s World. “There’s a lot of value in in that reflection, and recognizing what you were going through and how it impacted you instead of just kind of doing it and then it’s over.”
Now, he’s continued the practice, writing reflections in the blank spaces of one of the early proofs of the book. The notes remind of what he’s long known: That he can go farther, and faster, if he avoids “negative feedback loops” in his thinking.
During the types of events he completes—100-mile races, the 171-mile Tahoe Rim Trail (for which he holds the fastest known time of 37 hours, 12 minutes, and 15 seconds), and a 60-day transcontinental run—many things are bound to go wrong. Reminding himself of all the tough moments he’s pushed through in the past can help him conquer the current challenge, he’s found.
“When you’re in a situation where things aren’t going well, you have to be mindful of the fact that your brain is going to try to get you to stop,” he says. “If you’re aware of that and recognize when those things are happening, you can then try to overcome them.”
English Gardner: Letting Go of Pressure
After her junior season at the University of Oregon in 2013, Gardner moved from Eugene to Los Angeles to start her career as a professional athlete. Finding her footing in the big city, and on the sport’s biggest stages, wasn’t easy.
But Gardner, whose parents were both preachers, recalled the power of quiet prayer and began incorporating periods of peaceful silence into her day.
“I call it my be-still moment, where I really just sit, and I don’t feed myself any kind of media,” she tells Runner’s World. “Run Walk Pace Calculator.”
Mindfulness, she says, has helped her ride out the highs and lows of a high-pressure track and field career—from torn hamstrings and a performance slump in 2014, to winning the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 100 meters and Olympic gold in the 4x100-meter relay in Rio.
That victory came as Gardner managed a serious episode of depression and anxiety, a struggle about which she’s spoken openly. Mindfulness and meditation, along with support from her family and professionals, helped her regain stability, she says. And talking about it enabled her to spread the message of meditation’s powers to others—she began a formal relationship with the app Headspace, recording guided runs and reflections in which she shared some of the lessons she’d learned.
Now, before each workout on the track, Gardner walks a lap, shutting out external noise and listening to her body. “I talk to myself. I tell myself, today is just a day to be able to get better,” she says. “I fill my atmosphere with gratitude and appreciation and willingness to learn, an open mind and spirit. I tell myself the pressures are done.” Only then does she begin her training session.
Of course, 2020 and 2021 brought new challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled competitions and upended routines; Gardner tested positive in April, two months before the Trials, and was still coping with symptoms when she lined up for the 100 meters in Eugene in June.
She ran 11.16 to finish sixth in the final, and went to Tokyo in the relay pool, where she won gold in the 4x100 meters. Mindfulness once again helped her navigate the whirlwind.
“I realize this is something that is not just a thing that I have to do every now and then, it’s a daily process,” she says. “There is no end goal, it’s mostly just a journey.”