Being Mindful With Your Training and Nutrition – Setting A New Standard For Yourself

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mindful

It’s the middle of February. Where are you in your current health and fitness plan? Are you still on track or have your New Year’s Resolutions gone completely awry?

Are you back into your old habits, or have you successfully created new ones?

This year will mark the 13th or 14th year I’ve been doing some form of strength training. Within the last 3 years I’ve hit a few of my strength-related goals such as a 500lb+ deadlift, being able to bench 225lbs more than 10 times (I believe my best was a set of 15).

A year ago I got heavily into full range of motion Olympic style squats, and quickly got up to doing more than twice my body weight for singles and doubles. This year one of my goals is to hit a 2.5x Olympic squat and if I can manage to stay injury-free, I will surely smash it.

But this past year, my mindset about training and nutrition has taken a major turn for the better, in my opinion. Back on July 1st, I began a journey I had no idea would lead me to the interests I have now regarding a concept called Mindfulness and today I want to discuss how you can apply it to your training and nutrition.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it’s pretty simple. A working definition is this: a state of open attention in which you observe thoughts, feelings, and ideas without judgment, and with the idea of remaining focused on the present moment.

Of course, there are other definitions primarily derived from Buddhism, but that’s way beyond the scope of this piece.

In case you didn’t know, I’ve opened up on my personal blog, jcdeen.com about the topic. In fact, I’ve written a lot about my journey with meditation, and how it’s affected my life thus far. The link above is a handful of posts I’ve written that pertain to meditation, and mindfulness.

Something I never thought I’d be doing is sitting by myself in silence, and counting my breath. In fact, I used to scoff at people who practiced because I deemed it a monumental waste of time.

I’ve since eaten my words, and I’m glad I gave in.

I want to give you some ideas of what it’s like to be more mindful about your fitness and nutrition. I’ll give you examples of how I do it, and how I’ve benefitted as a result.

At this stage in my training career, I now simply train because it’s more a part of me, rather than something I’m making much of an effort to do.

So what’s different than before?

Awareness + the deliberateness to be mindful about something.

Have you ever noticed yourself doing a certain task, but find your mind in a completely different place? This is the opposite of mindfulness.

It’s like when you’re driving… The last thing you’re thinking about is how the steering wheel feels in your hand, or your ability to fumble through your Facebook feed while changing the radio station.

Or what about when you’re on the phone with someone, but grocery shopping at the same time?

Your attention is somewhere, but it’s probably not where it needs to be.

Practical Application in Training and Nutrition

When I used to train, I was wrapped up in a certain goal – both short term and long term.

For the short term, I was all about progressive overload. Wednesday, I hit all of my reps on my squats; so today it’s time to increase the weight.

With regards to the long term, I was always shooting for a certain number – oftentimes a percentage of where I wanted to be that would promise an improvement in my one-rep max.

I found myself too focused on the future, without acknowledging the present. Even when I’d reach my goals, I was still unfulfilled, and scrambling to make new ones, or just falling off the grid altogether and losing my momentum with another training routine or schedule.

In comes mindfulness.

As I began to meditate in July 2012, things started to change. At first, I was sitting for 5 minutes per day – in silence – and going absolutely mad, just waiting for it to be over. All this stuff about counting my breaths and focusing my senses inward made me a little uneasy.

But it got easier with patience and time.

I felt like a veil was being lifted from my eyes as I started to pay attention to everything in great detail.

I noticed the way my hands felt when I’d grip the steering wheel on my way to the gym. I’d drive without my shoes on to see how the brake pad, clutch and accelerator felt on my bare feet.

Then when I got to the gym, I started to lose sight of what I wanted for the long term. All that mattered was I was there to do work, and I would focus on enjoying every moment – every single contraction, and every second loading and unloading the weights.

My mind was opening. I was becoming aware, and very intent on what I was doing.

This is mindfulness.

The same goes with my relationship with food. Many years ago I used to become a real glutton around the holidays. It was a challenge to see how much food I could stuff myself with. I am not proud of this.

I was hyper focused on the future holidays, parties, etc. that when they finally came, I didn’t take any time to enjoy the food. I merely pigged out because I could, only to feel like a sack of crap afterward for my behavior.

But that’s all changed now. In fact, my negative relationship with food is completely gone. I view it all as nothing but both essential nutrients and fuel for my body. I don’t restrict myself, and I always listen to what my body wants and needs… even if that means going to the local fast food joint for something very salty (burger and fries, anyone?).

After coaching many people, I’ve been reminded of my once negative relationship with food. I recently had a few clients who harbored such anxieties when it came to their food choices that I began to dream of how I might explain my journey to the other side – completely free from any negative relationships with my intake.

I haven’t quite figured that part out yet, but I do have some ideas and I think they’re valuable enough to share with you.

For me, when I made the decision to meditate daily, it was because of two reasons.

  • I needed peace – both mentally and physically. My mind is constantly racing and as a result, I tend to neglect things like sleep, and planned time away from work, and even casual social outings such as coffee or lunch with friends on occasion.
  • I needed a challenge – meditation is hard as hell. The goal is to focus on something (it can be your breath, a candle flame, a thought – whatever), and only that one thing. When your mind wanders, you accept it, forgive yourself, and bring your mind back to focus, all without judgment.

The first thing I experienced was the challenge. Later I experienced the peace.

It was super hard for me to sit still, and many times in the beginning I just said, “screw this” and quit after a few minutes.

But I kept at it. 5 minutes turned to 10, and 10 to 20 eventually.

I only had a few really inspiring and moving moments when I was actually meditating but experienced some cool benefits outside of the silent sitting.

The fist thing I noticed was my ability to focus had improved.

I used to have a hard time keeping my phone out of sight during a meeting with friends, but a few weeks after consistent meditation, I couldn’t help but be absorbed in that moment. I didn’t feel a need to constantly check my texts or Facebook feed. It was liberating.

In fact, I haven’t had Facebook or Twitter apps on my iPhone for over 3 months!

I found myself having moments of hyper attention to whatever I was doing – training clients, working on articles, journaling.

This made me realize I was onto something.

So how can you apply any of this to my training or nutrition?

It’s simple.

Pay attention to what you’re doing, and take it way slower than you normally would.

Previously I used to be very outcome-dependent. This always added unnecessary pressure, which in turn made me anxious. I was too worried about hypothetical situations such as what might happen if I included a different exercise into my routine, or did something differently with my diet.

I’d keep goals in mind, but would never actually focus on what I as doing currently. This produced a lot of anxiety, and made me feel like I was never going to make it so to speak.

Training wasn’t fun any more because I was always dwelling on an end-goal, instead of being present, and enjoying that one training session.

This is why I love bodybuilding training. Most bodybuilders will tell you to make the mind-muscle connection when you’re lifting. In order for that to happen, you must be present in that moment. You have to really think about what you’re doing, and focus on making that connection happen.

In fact, I get the most joy out of my sessions when I’m training frequently, and with some moderate bodybuilder-style volume.

The same goes with your nutrition.

What I noticed this past Thanksgiving was zero preoccupation with. I was present to the moment, and what I was experiencing – my company, and the various delicious food.

I had no desire to become a glutton because I knew there’d be more parties, and family outings. The future doesn’t matter when you only have the present to focus on and why do you want to ruin it by stuffing yourself to discomfort?

Some Mindful Ideas

I know I just threw a ton out there at you. So let’s think of it like this. We should never live in the past because we can’t change it, and living in the future often creates unnecessary anxiousness, and worry.

All we ever really have is this moment. How can you enjoy it? What can you do now that will make you feel good?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t make plans, or set goals… quite the contrary. I am saying you should slow down and take time to focus on the individual steps you’re taking toward said goals.

Diet-Related

Most of us get preoccupied with our diets or our training goals because we are thinking too much about the future. We’re too concerned about getting the 6-pack in 12 weeks – so much that we can’t stop thinking about it.

Sometimes, we overeat because we’re not thinking about the food that’s going into our mouths. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a meal, only to sit down and devour it without being able to tell you much about how it tasted, or if it even made me full because I was lost in thought about something going on later that day.

What’s changed for me now is that I’m in tune with my eating habits, and what I’m consuming. If I’m having some cake for dessert, I take it slow so I can take in the flavor and the feeling it gives me. I think about the moment I’m spending with friends as we enjoy something together.

Now I know you probably won’t do this with every meal and the truth is you probably can’t… at first, anyway. However, if you’re prone to overeating at parties and around the holidays, it might be worth trying.

Instead of pigging out like normal, just eat regular-sized portions and place all of your attention on the company, and the make food you’re eating secondary to the experience.

No need to stuff yourself because it’s the last time you get pumpkin pie for another year. You can make pie any time you want.

Training-Related

Some of us are way too concerned with getting it right instead of just focusing on what we’re doing, and course-correcting along the way.

The Internet is an abyss of people scouring thousands of webpages for the perfect routine, or perfect diet. Oftentimes people will waste months, and even (sadly) years of time trying to get it all figured out before they ever take action.

It’s this odd fear of actually doing something that keeps them from their goals. Their excuses are many: “I need to make sure my routine is optimal before I start. I don’t want to miss out on any gains.” Or “I’m looking for a magic macronutrient ratio that will limit my fat gains while allowing me to pack on muscle.”

You’ll sometimes find these people giving others training advice on forums, or social platforms because they read a few books about proper lifting technique. They’re quick to pick apart what you’re doing, but my gut tells me it’s because they’re secretly upset they haven’t begun taking any action yet.

Don’t think too much about what’s perfect or optimal. Just start doing something.

Put It Into Practice

I’m not asking you to begin a journey into meditation.

I am asking you to give your daily actions – mainly those pertaining to your training and nutrition some more thought.

If you’re usually eating while watching television, take your meal into a room with no visual distractions, and focus on how the meal tastes – each bite. Be mindful of the experience.

The next time you train, make a point to focus on everything from beginning to end. Focus on how you feel during the warm-up. Feel each contraction of every set of every movement you perform.

Try to feel the muscles resisting and tensing under the heavy loads.

Pay attention to the moment your body begins allowing the fatigue to set in. Notice how your muscles become tight and quiver as your energy levels deplete.

Try this out over the next week and report back.

Further reading: Building Your Strength In The Present Moment – this is a piece I wrote for ZenHabits.net back in August 2012. It will further explain the importance/practicality of mindfulness… if you’re interested.

— Image Credit: Wiertz Sébastien

 

Comments

  1. Khuyen says

    Hey JC, great post! Have you by any chance read the book “Peace is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I just read it and felt incredibly connected to what you said about mindfulness in life, and given training and nutrition are such big parts of it, I’m really thankful you have this post :)

    Khuyen

  2. says

    What an article! Sooo many things that totally resonated with me in this. But one of my pet peeves are armchair scientists. You see them on youtube videos and forums giving their $0.02 on what others are doing. You couldn’t have said it better;

    “You’ll sometimes find these people giving others training advice on forums, or social platforms because they read a few books about proper lifting technique. They’re quick to pick apart what you’re doing, but my gut tells me it’s because they’re secretly upset they haven’t begun taking any action yet.

    Don’t think too much about what’s perfect or optimal. Just start doing something.”

    For me, one thing that’s allowed me to focus better is actually low rep high load work. Either I focus and give all my attention or I get buried. If my mind wanders for a split second, I’ll either time my breathing wrong for loosen a muscle that needs to stay tight and the whole lift disintegrates into a big bundle of avoidable fail.

    It’s not at all dissimilar from what you advocate; focusing on how everything feels – the tension in the muscles etc. In essence that’s what I’m also doing.

    Great stuff as per usual,

    Cheers!!

    Dennis

  3. says

    Really love this JC – it’s been really cool to follow your progression and mindset shift a bit since you started with mindfulness training. Your original post way back when actually inspired be to start exploring mindfulness meditation. Looking forward to sharing some of my thoughts on that as well.

    I also really like the part about eating with no distractions, and really being present and enjoying every aspect of your meal. Too many people get caught in bad cycles of cues and context around their eating habits. Enjoying meals for what they are in really a beautiful thing (not to get all sappy).

  4. rafa says

    Thanks J for this article. I have been thinking about this exact subject for a year basically. Do you have any suggestions as to how to start in meditation and mindfulness, meaning books, websites, etc?

    Thanks.

  5. Joe Weaver says

    Thanks for this insightful article, JC. I had the great good fortune to start meditating 40 years ago, and I don’t think I’ve missed a day since. The benefits are THAT good, and it keeps getting better.

    A couple years ago I made a fascinating discovery that has radically changed my relationship to weight training. I found a way to get ‘in the zone’ every time I train by adding a couple ancient techniques from yoga and ayurveda. One is a mind/body technique and the other is a specific breathing technique.

    Now my workouts are like active meditations and, at age 62, I am more muscular than at any other time in my life.

    Contact me if you’re interested to know more details. I’d be happy to share this knowledge with you.

  6. says

    JC,

    Great post, man! Being mindful of eating makes it easier to make good food choices and to not overeat because it removes the constant struggle with dieting. And mental focus is very important in training, keeping targeted muscle groups engaged and making workouts more effective. Mindfulness produces results. Keep up the good work!

    Alykhan

  7. says

    JC, this was a great post man. I’ve tried mindfulness so many times and had such a hard time being successful at it–my mind just goes off in all directions. I think thats my problem; I need to just let it do that and be in that moment instead of worrying about what I can’t control. I’m going to try and start putting a lot of this into practice, as I think it will really help me with my training and hopefully with my eating too, which is always a struggle.

    Looking forward to catching up with you soon man

  8. Christian says

    Good article. I think if you take it session by session you don’t really realize how much progress you make. Then one day you wake up a bit surprised.

    I think mindfulness in class and homework pays off a lot too. It saves me a lot of time to work intensely when I have to.

    I’m still rocking the same program (the one you guys wrote) as I have for the last 2-3 months. Still making awesome gains.

  9. Nicole Smith says

    Loved the article . I am just starting to appreciate the whole mindfulness thing, has taken me a long time to understand it in terms of, being a goal orientated person which is very much how our society measures things we always want to physically measure things., instead of looking that little bit deeper :-)

    • says

      Yeah. I am still very goal-oriented, but I take time to just be still now and then. Nothing is worse than not having a goal, but you don’t have to be super strict and rigid all the time, either.

  10. says

    Great article JC. I have never tried meditation but I recently started knitting again. Last year, I took my first knitting class and for two hours, I sat in a chair, focusing all of my attention on the needles and yarn in my hands. And I can clearly remember thinking of nothing else but the way the yarn felt in my hands, how the needles moved. It was so liberating. For two hours, I freed myself from the daily noise and hustle and bustle. For someone who cannot sit still for more than 10 minutes, this was a miracle. I discovered that I felt more relaxed, less agitated when I was knitting. Once I had finished my project though, I stopped knitting. For about five months. I noticed a difference in myself. I needed to get back to it. I needed to slow down again. I started back two weeks ago and as I sat in my chair at Lorraine’s shop, focusing on each and every stitch, the world stood still for a time and when I left her shop to head back to my gym for classes, there was a renewed sense of being. I had more energy. I was focused and mindful of my surroundings. Knitting may not be pure meditation but it certainly has made me stop and slow down and become more mindful of who I am and what my needs are in the gym and in my life. Thank you.

  11. says

    Thanks for another great article, JC. I started doing this through my self-guided yoga practices last year. Like you said, it has helped me to focus in my regular day, but I’m thinking by adding the “sitting quietly” step to this, I might even experience more benefit.

  12. says

    JC — this was dope. Thanks. I like how you brought us through your journey and tied it back to nuts and bolts gym/diet. Being a few years older and having to work around a shoulder injury I had to detach from my numbers long ago and have come to enjoy the same approach to training you mention, in the moment, tension. I am pleased when I happen to be able to move more weight but not worried about it if it doesn’t happen. Grateful to be in the gym, focused, contracting MOSSLE instead of flapping my gums like so many others next to me. Uninstalling the Facebook app now.

    • says

      It’s a good place to be mentally… when you can ignore how much you’re lifting, for sake of ego, and just concentrate on how it feels and how it makes you feel.

  13. Sean says

    “Most of us get preoccupied with our diets or our training goals because we are thinking too much about the future. We’re too concerned about getting the 6-pack in 12 weeks – so much that we can’t stop thinking about it.”

    I know exactly what you’re getting at here. Although I do not engage in regular, dedicated meditation at the moment, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to tear myself away from preoccupations like this to do a bit of reflection on the big picture. I’d love to get to that point you mentioned where I’m training just because it’s part of me and what I do. It’s a work in progress.

  14. says

    JC, this is the best damn article I’ve read so far in 2013!

    I had a somewhat similar experience two years ago, when I blocked out the “noise” of the mainstream fitness industry and went back to old school bodybuilding.

    Personally, I consider bodybuilding to be an art form. For silly reasons we get labeled as Meatheads, but there is beauty and intention in everything we do. As you mentioned, the mind muscle connection is a very big deal to a bodybuilder. We are very “In-Tune” with every movement throughout the entire process. Although we’re training hard, this intuitiveness creates a sense of inner peace.

    I thank you for this incredible share! It made my day. Training for many of us, becomes a form of evolution. It can take time to discover what truly resonates with us… and in order to do so, we have to block out the noise, experiment, challenge ourselves, and become aware of how we feel throughout the process.

    If this is to become a lifestyle thing, you’ve got to find the joy in the process.

    • says

      Totally on the same page with you when it comes to ‘art form’ talk. This is primarily why I love traditional bodybuilding training.

      You focus on the feeling, as opposed to trying to inflate your ego with big numbers. This has gone very far in keeping my joints healthy and stable.

  15. Stephen Kwiecinski says

    JC, have you run across any articles about brainwave entrainment or binaural beats? There’s a theory that we’re able to listen to certain sounds that will “reporgram” our brainwaves to put you in a desired mindset – one way lifters use this approach involves listening to music to “get in the zone.” A quick YouTube or Spotify search for binaural beats will bring up a ton of results – try it and see if it doesn’t help clear your mind, help you to relax easier, and bring on better mental clarity.

    • says

      Actually, yes I have. I’ve been learning more and more about this the last few weeks.

      Any particular beats you like? I actually emailed you.

  16. says

    This was great. It’s such a useful practice in all areas of life, but the practical applications in the gym help so much. It’s like reclaiming your training. The awareness has helped me get the most out of the movement, less likely to hurt myself by ignoring the warning the signs or focusing too far ahead on “must hit this number or else” or “what happens if I don’t do X for X sets of X?” or “what am I doing after this”.

    I’m waiting for the book: Zen and The Art of Awareness Curls

  17. says

    It’s amazing how success and happiness in any area of life can relate to mindfulness. It’s one of those things that until one “gets it,” talking about being present and mindful as “the answer” just seems like a bunch of nonsense.

    Then when you experience it, live it, and be it, somehow one can look back and realize that just about all perceived problems stemmed from not being mindful in one way shape or form.

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