In fitness, your brain is just as important as your body. At the most basic level, your mind is sending signals to your muscles, bones, tendons and other organs to make them move the way you need them to.
But in a less obvious sense, your brain sends your body cues consciously and subconsciously that can improve or hinder your performance.
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The world of sports psychology research is constantly evolving to figure out how this mind-body connection affects athletes, but there is an easy way to train your brain to work for you and not against you. How? By creating trust.
Why Is Mind-Body Trust Important for Athletes?
Brain-body trust originates in our most basic needs, athlete psychotherapist Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW, explains. For example, needing to urinate.
"Our brain is communicating to our body and signals to us that we have to pee," she tells LIVESTRONG.com. "When we go to the bathroom, it's a safety measure. That tells our body that the brain will take care of it."
The problem is we sometimes neglect signals we should be paying attention to, which creates a sense of distrust.
"Think about when you're hungry and you constantly neglect that need — you can tell your brain to be quiet and say, 'I'm fine.' And maybe you can override it enough until you crash. If you're an athlete ignoring all of your needs, like hydration, fuel, sleep or medical treatment, your body is going to suffer."
Ignoring pain and hunger has physical implications, but it also creates a bigger issue. The more you neglect what your body is trying to tell you, the less in-tune you are with your physical being.
How to Build Mind-Body Trust
To make sure your body and mind have each other's backs, the first thing you must do is take care of yourself. It seems easy, but too often Roth-Goldberg encounters athletes who are struggling and who have not met their bodies' basic needs.
"The first step is creating safety," she says. "That would be like, 'I have pain, let me stop and take care of that. Or I'm hungry. Let me eat.'"
Noticing and reacting to the physical signals while you work out — like heart rate, tiredness or butterflies in your stomach — can help clue you into how you should be training on any given day. That feedback is essential, and if your body needs something, it will tell you.
For example, if you are running and notice a feeling of fatigue and ragged breathing despite going at what you consider an easy pace, something might be causing subpar performance. Maybe you didn't have a good night's sleep, or maybe you skipped lunch. At any rate, you will know to slow down and check in with yourself.
Roth-Goldberg suggests asking yourself some questions: Should you finish the run? Did you eat the right pre-workout fuel? Do you need to slow down? Feeling for and creating solutions to problems will help you perform better more often and help your brain and body be in alignment.
"The more you pay attention, the more you will start to naturally do these body scans," Roth-Goldberg says. "You will notice patterns that lead to good and bad performances and make adjustments based on what you find. How we continue to make ourselves feel safe is by listening to the cues in our body."
Having Mind-Body Trust Can Motivate You
One of the best ways to create trust between your body and brain is to give yourself a choice to exercise, Roth-Goldberg says. If you're not feeling like running or training on a particular day, ask yourself: Do I really want to do this right now?
Now, that works well if you actually do want to exercise and might legitimately need a rest every now and again. But if your answer is "no, I do not want to move" for months on end, you might be disconnected from your body.
"You might be paying too much attention to how tired you are or how uncomfortable the work is, and it becomes de-motivating," Roth-Goldberg says. "But some of that may not be real. You've convinced yourself that it's hard to get out the door and it's hard to move."
In a sense, that is your brain lying to your body. "Here is where imagery practice really comes in handy," Roth-Goldberg says.
A September 2014 study in Current Psychology identified a link between imagining exercising for a period of time and feeling more self-efficacy — or the belief you have in your own abilities — compared to those who did not imagine exercising. (It's worth noting this was a small study where only women were observed.)
"Picture yourself putting on your leggings and getting outside," Roth-Goldberg says. "In your imagination, feel that it is warm outside and that this movement feels good. Smell the spring flowers. See yourself starting the walk or run. You can build neuropathways to help you look forward to training."
Using Imagery Techniques to Create Mind-Body Trust
Anxiety is the enemy of peak performance. Creating trust will relax tension and stress in the body. But even when you've nurtured your limbs and created a safe space for your body to train, the pressure of a big game or race can wreak havoc on your nervous system.
But if you are adept at feeling your bodily sensations, you will notice where you are holding stress. Once you notice it, you can take steps to ease muscle tension or a racing heart or breath. Accept the nerves and use deep breathing to calm your body.
Roth-Goldberg also says that reminding yourself to trust yourself is crucial in easing any fears.
"One way your body knows what to do is by repetition, and that is why you train and practice," she says. "Assume that your body knows what to do. You should set realistic goals based on what your body can already do, so when anxiety creeps in, you can remind yourself, 'I know how to do this because I trained. I've got this, I can do this, I've prepared for this.' You can recall the last time you succeeded on a run, on the court, during a lift, and that is your brain telling your body that you've been here before."
Struggling with performance anxiety is just a hiccup in the brain-body connection. Imagery techniques go a long way in building confidence and creating a deep understanding of your mental and physical self.
When you imagine yourself — using all your senses — running, walking or engaging in sport, your brain fires in the same way it would if you were actually doing it, an April 2017 article in Psychology observed.
So essentially, if you practice imagery, it can help in the same way a training session would and build your brain's confidence in your body's ability.
"When you practice in your mind, you set yourself up to execute your plan," Roth-Goldberg says. "So if you are training for a race, for example, you can imagine the race — on the start line, settling into a certain pace within your ability level and crossing the finish line strong. On race day, you can recall that and achieve the results you want and the finish you visualized."
- Current Psychology: "Walk this Way: A Brief Exercise Imagery Intervention Increases Barrier Self-Efficacy in Women"
- Motivation and Emotion: "The use of a mental imagery intervention to enhance integrated regulation for exercise among women commencing an exercise program"
- Psychology: "Psychological Imagery in Sport and Performance"
- Imagining Success: Multiple Achievement Goals and the Effectiveness of Imagery
- Psychological Imagery in Sport and Performance
- The use of a mental imagery intervention to enhance integrated regulation for exercise among women commencing an exercise program