Crafting the Conscious Athlete
by Melissa Braun
Freshman year of college, I tore my right labrum in the shoulder that takes the brunt of force when I pole vault. I kept competing, with intense pain, for half a season. Once I finally allowed myself to rest, my recovery catapulted me into a deep, lasting awareness of my body. Ever since, I have trained and competed fully each season, without major injuries.
I learned to listen to my body and honor my needs. I committed to recovery and quality of movement. In return, my body began to trust me. The trusting relationship among mind, body, and actions might be my most valued treasure. I created it. I continue to nurture it, every day. You can too.
A healthy self-relationship comes in an unbounded number of forms. Throughout this article, you will find keystones—things that accommodate all people and various situations. What works for me may not work for you, so these guidelines exist to help you craft your own tools. Be patient as you explore. Then use your tools to compose the greatest life—as an athlete and as a human.
Knowing yourself takes consistent effort. Invest curiosity, time, and attention, and the rewards in return will be immense. Are you ready?
This post is written with athletes in mind, but its roots extend far beyond athletics—to all humans and all arenas of your life. The value of cultivating a relationship with yourself is an everybody thing. You are the only person you spend 100% of your time with. Do you want to spend that time with someone you like, trust, and really understand?
Why Does This Matter?
Up to 85% of runners are likely to undergo an injury. Big numbers. But 60-70% of these are preventable, developed from training errors1
. The errors often relate to imbalance—between exertion and rest, in pace of overall training, or within an athlete’s body and movement patterns. Restoring balance begins with recognizing where it is missing.
Few things sustain health as well as knowing your own body. Others may be more educated about strength training, muscle groups, biomechanics, statistics, et cetera, but no one—no one—other than you can feel the sensations in your body or inhabit your unique perspective. Once you commit to performance, athletic or otherwise, you have a duty to commit to knowing yourself as deeply as possible.
The importance of communication for interpersonal relationships is astounding. Yet, the gravity of effective self-communication is rarely discussed; even less often is it taught.
To effectively listen, you must understand what’s being said. Establish a language that both your mind and body speak, so they may communicate about your needs—caring for the whole you, not just the physical needs. If your emotional repository is compromised, it will affect your physical body and may diminish output abilities. Sometimes emotions work inversely, enhancing the focus, speed, intensity, or duration of your training. It is different for each person and each scenario. Attuning to yourself and to the moment makes discerning what to do fairly easy. Establishing that common language is essential for attunement. Hint: all living things and all parts of you speak the language of awareness...if you let them.
When communicating with yourself, be realistic, genuine, and compassionate. There is no need to exaggerate or underplay how you feel, whenever you feel it. Meeting yourself right where you are facilitates health.
Three simple ways to become aware of your own awareness...
They are always an available tool to expand awareness. Engage with your world; smell, feel, hear, see, taste deeply and consciously.
You have senses, then you have the sensations your senses detect as you train, compete, or rest. Stretch, muscle work, discomfort, pain—differentiate these sensations in your body. They can seem quite similar, to the novice observer, yet clarifying the sensation is a powerful tool. It aligns your mind and thoughts with your body, thereby easing communication. Do you know the difference between physiological relaxation and holding tension? If not, challenge yourself to learn. Without complete relaxation braided into your rest days, it becomes much tougher for your body to use time off for efficient recovery. Differentiation provides another opportunity for awareness expansion.
Asking other people questions can be useful, but asking yourself questions is essential. Knowing what to ask, and being open to whatever answers appear, can lead to better questions for others. Turn inward, and ask—even when you don’t know the answer. Especially when you don’t know the answer. Unknown answers will come to you if you pose the questions. And known answers will change. Like the Hogwarts staircases, the same questions may lead you to new places within yourself at different times. (Check out the list below as a start. Writing may help.)
- Movement Challenges
Think of these like questions for your body. Walk in a half squat, with a cup of water filled to the brim—no spilling! Squat slowly up and down, pretending you’re standing in sand, and challenge yourself to maintain even depth across your whole footprint. Notice details of your walk. Though simple, these encourage higher levels of awareness than automatic movements. The task itself is small potatoes compared to the observation—how each part of your body feels, where you hold weight, what is easy, what is hard, whether movement is smooth or jerky. See how much you can notice, without judgement or assigning meaning. Approach a movement challenge with curiosity and simple observation.
Senses, questions, movement—these are opportunities to recognize just how much there is to discover about yourself. Familiarizing yourself with these tools makes them easily accessible in pivotal moments of training—the moments that separate health from injury.
Awareness helps you establish a baseline. By listening, you compare your physical, emotional, and mental state on any given day to what you know to be a recovered state. Breath is an excellent tool, always with you, always a trustworthy indicator of your physiology’s capacity2
. Among its many gifts, your breath can indicate the quality and extent of your recovery. Are your breaths more frequent and labored during your warm up, or are you breathing with ease? (Try this: during rest intervals in your next training session, only start activity again once you can smoothly accomplish three 7 second nasal exhales in a row.)
If what you notice is better than what you’ve experienced before, you can recalibrate what ‘best’ is. If it’s worse, change the plan to fit your state of recovery. Maybe even take a rest day when you had planned in a work out (gasp!). Be okay with changing the plan. This is essential for your health. And it may require standing up to a coach.
As you start listening to your body, be liberal and innovative in using your tools. However, it is not enough to know how to listen. You must act in the interest of what you hear.
This bit is simple. Match your actions to meet your needs. Once you can read your internal compass—having learned the language and begun to listen—the actions will be clear. The more you practice honoring your needs, the more your self-trust will root. If athletic performance is your priority, you must know when to rest and when to train hard. You must know when your body is asking for a change, though you don’t need to identify or implement the change all alone.
Surround yourself with those who care about more than just the athletic side of you. Find people with expertise in facilitating healthy, sustainable, elite performance. Find coaches, trainers, physical therapists, teammates, and friends who trust you to make your own decisions and applaud your commitment in caring for your body. Limit the value you place on those who give mediocre reasons for doing specific exercises and who measure your worth by how much you lift or the extent of your ‘grind’.
From this article, here’s your toolbox
- Open communication between body and mind.
- Observation. Noting sensations and patterns.
- Asking questions of yourself. Frequently. Discoveries await.
- Choosing your people.
Using these tools, create a habit of attuning to yourself in each moment, rather than habituating specific actions or thoughts. Attuning allows your self-commitment to shape shift when necessary and avoids adhering to patterns that served you once yet are ready to transform. There is honesty, respect, and compassion in ritualizing your habits instead of habituating your rituals. And one of the healthiest habits you can choose is attunement.
To attract balance in your training, show up for yourself. It starts with you—learn your language, listen to your body, honor your needs, and build an unshakable foundation of self-trust.
P.S. You already know more than you think :)
Questions to consider
- What change(s) do I want?
- What am I doing to initiate this change?
- Why do I want it?
- Who am I outside of my sport?
- What key parts of who I am show up in my athletics?
- When do I notice them?
- In what ways do I limit myself?
- What are my strengths?
- What are my weaknesses?
- What brings me joy?
- What do I really want?
- What do I know I don’t want?
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- Nielsen, Rasmus Oestergaard, et al. Training Errors and Running Related Injuries: A Systematic Review. 2012. The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.
- Brian MacKenzie. ALTIS Presentation: How Breath Affects Cognitive Performance. More info on breathing at Power Speed Endurance.