That moment in your workout, when you’re completely out of breath, can feel your heart pounding out of your chest, and your muscles about to give in, do you begin to doubt yourself and if you’re capable of finishing? In these stressful and physically-demanding situations, your mind generally gives up before your body does. I mean, how often is it that before you finish a few laps around the track your legs suddenly give out, while your thoughts are very much optimistic about completing the run?

Danielle Bruel, a visiting graduate student from Utrecht, agrees that when our minds wander into abstract levels of thinking during physically-strenuous situations, it becomes more of a limiting factor that hinders the maximum potential our bodies are capable of delivering. Much evidence suggests that mindfulness training can improve athletic performance, an idea that Bruel intends to further explore in the study she is expecting to conduct on 80 U of T student participants in the upcoming month.

According to Bruel, “Mindfulness is about being aware of your thoughts in the present moment, and not reacting to it or being judgmental towards yourself.” She finds that through mindfulness, you are able to get more in touch with your bodily signals, something called “interoceptive awareness.” This consciousness causes your attention to become more focused on the technique and performance of the task at hand, rather than on feelings of self-doubt and anxiety.

“By something called cognitive reappraisal, we might see that athletes get less distressed when they feel their heart rate increase and become short of breath by instead thinking ‘My body is working hard because I am giving it my all, this is just normal’.”

Her research is not only focused on how this mindful awareness can improve athletic performance, but she aims to tap into the effective mechanisms that actually cause this to happen through several practices done with the help of smartphone apps for the duration of the three-week study.

During the pre-assessment, participants will be asked to complete a bike test, which progressively gets more difficult. The test ends when students cannot maintain a pace of sixty to seventy rotations per minute. Then through several tests, including brain diagnostics, heartrate checks, and of course, mindful assessment questionnaires, things like stress tolerance, mental toughness, personality features, and emotional reactivity are measured and then compared to these exact same measures conducted during the post-assessment, which marks the conclusion of the 21-day study.

During the experiment, participants will be divided into two groups, where they are expected to devote a minimum of 10 minutes a day to either Wildflowers, a mindfulness app, or the 2048 app puzzle game, which trains for logical reasoning. Intragroup comparison will also take place to test the effectiveness of each app in achieving mindfulness.

By measuring changes in brain activity and heartrate, Bruel wants to see if there is a change in performance, for example, a longer power output on the bike test. In addition to power output, she also wants to look into the experience of the athlete during performance, and see if that decreases distress after learning mindfulness skills.

“Based on the literature, we would expect that emotional reactivity will be lower, and that shifts in brain activity (alpha waves) will increase, meaning it will be more inactive in the worrying areas of the brain, and more towards a focused calm mind.”

Either way, mindfulness training through apps such as Wildflowers would be valuable for athletes looking to improve their training results. “Mindfulness is really something you have to put time into, but it promotes the ability to deliver performance in highly demanding situations.”