Mindfulness not only improves performance, it can literally change the makeup of your brain.
Mindfulness not only improves performance, it can literally change the makeup of your brain. (Photo: Chris Bennett/Aurora)

Talking with Mindfulness Guru Pete Kirchmer

Mindfulness not only improves performance, it can literally change the makeup of your brain.

Every day there’s more research showing the benefits of mindfulness. It reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, and may even slow the aging process. What we’re only starting to figure out, however, is how meditation might improve athletic performance. Outside Editor Christopher Keyes caught up with Pete Kirchmer, program director of mPEAK, an eight-week class developed by neuroscientists at the University of California at San Diego. Their research shows that not only do mindfulness techniques improve performance, they can literally change the makeup of your brain.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.




Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Interview with Chris Keyes.

Peter Frick-Wright (host): I want to start this episode with a quick and easy guided meditation, so if you can just take the next 30 seconds for yourself to just notice things. Where are you? What's your body doing? What do your feet feel like? Your legs, your shoulders? Take half a minute and just observe.

Okay. It turns out 30 seconds is a bit ambitious for a podcast intro, but if you have the chance, go back and do it because it seems like every year day there's more research showing the benefits of mindfulness, how it reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, boost the immune system, increases our capacity to learn and may even slow the aging process, but what we're only starting to figure out, however, is how meditation might improve athletic performance. We just don't know a whole lot about how that might work. What we do know is largely thanks to the folks in charge of an eight week mindfulness class developed at the University of California at San Diego called mPeak. The acronym stands for mindful, performance, enhancement, awareness, and knowledge. And the class is an offshoot of a study conducted in 2014 when a group of neuroscientists and mindfulness experts from UCSD joined forces with coaches from the USA BMX cycling team to study a meditation based curriculum for elite athletes.

Over seven weeks Olympic level racers practiced mindfulness to increase interoceptive awareness, the sensations you feel in your body that signal emotions like fear or happiness. And afterwards cyclists were better equipped to handle stress during races. The athletes' brains changed as well. Before and after the program participants were given a stress test while lying in an FMRI machine. The results showed that the athletes had reduced connectivity between the part of the brain responsible for self awareness and the part that controls decision-making. So basically when stressed athletes were less self conscious, less distracted from the task at hand. And so word of the 2014 studies results spread quickly through the elite international coaching community and athletes from all over the world have been flocking to San Diego to take the eight week class. mPeak also as a teacher training. And the class is now being offered in select locations including Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Outside is based. Last fall, Outside editor Chris Keyes took the mPeak class joining 11 other students every Monday night for a series of exercises designed to promote mindfulness and then undergoing stress tests to try out those techniques. Chris wrote about the class in the January - February issue of the magazine and then more recently he caught up with the mPeak program director Pete Kirchmer to talk about the intriguing links between mindfulness and elite athletic performance. Here's Chris.

Chris Keyes: So you linked up with the center for mindfulness around the time that this study was finished and I imagine when the results came out showing these pretty remarkable changes in the brain -- I imagine the demand for this course just dramatically spiked.

Pete Kirchmer: Yeah, because this was unique. Most of the performance studies around mindfulness at the time, and, really still for the most part, are subjective outcome measures. There are flow scales and there's resilience scales, but these are just assessments that people are using to self report. And so this was one of the first studies that was beyond self report data that would show the neural correlates of performance in the brain. And so there was some excitement about that for sure.

Keyes: And you're charged then with overseeing the mPeak classes. Do you work with a lot of athletes and teams now?

Kirchmer: We have a pretty mixed demographic that come to the courses through the center for mindfulness. First responders, police officers and Department of Homeland Security. I've worked with athletic teams, groups of sports psychologists, and also worked with corporations. There's something that's very -- I would say there's this kind of common humanity or this universal truth of all of the high-performers that come in. These feelings of like they need to be on and performing at all times. Low tolerance for mistakes. High inner criticism, perfectionism. A willingness to strive and drive themselves towards injury or burnout and then tolerate the symptoms of that for an extraordinarily long period of time. Whether these are executives, first responders or athletes, they all seem to feel like, yes, this is true about them. There's more in common with the participants of an mPeak than there is difference no matter what their area of performance is.

Keyes: In taking the course, one of the things that -- I've taken other meditation classes before and one of the things that was unique about this one is that it really introduces you to a variety of mindfulness techniques. We started with the body scan, which walks you through really focusing and bringing attention and awareness to all parts of the body, moving up from your toes to your head. We learned box breathing, walking meditation, movement meditation, and then more traditional sitting. What's the thinking behind that? Or are you building towards a certain type of meditation? Are you trying to give your students as many techniques as possible to fall back onto?

Kirchmer: All of the above and  each formal practice cultivates something slightly different. And so the body scan really is building interoceptive awareness, the ability to sense with finer detail, the subtleties of sensation. And what we know is that stress can be felt first in the body, right? So, noticing anxiety as a subtle heartbeat, noticing then other things that are relevant to athletes; like this feels like it could turn into an injury if I don't pay attention to it.So these signs may come to the surface much quicker, right? They will be more closely attuned to their body so that they can then give themselves the rest or recovery or physical therapy they might need sometimes weeks before they would have done without the meditation. This also can be things like food intolerances. Just the awareness that that food did not energize me like another food. So they can be really relevant, this subtle body awareness that is gained through the body scan.

But then when you look at, we have two different types of sitting meditation, we can call it a concentration practice, which is this awareness of breath, and another which we call open awareness or open monitoring. And awareness of breath cultivates this ability for this focused, concentrated laser-like attention -- we would call it like the flashlight or spotlight of awareness -- where open awareness cultivates more of this kind of spacious awareness. We call it lights on in the room. Which is good for situational awareness, being able to walk into a room and be present to all that's happening rather than focusing just on one thing. And being able to have both of these capacities is important because there's different times in one's life or sport or work where this focused attention is required, where we can choose to sustain awareness on one object for a duration of time. And other times it's more appropriate to be able to take in the entire landscape, noticing the sounds, the sights, the smells, or  when the eyes are closed and we're sitting in meditation noticing, the subtleties of mind, thoughts, emotions, liking, not liking, things that would normally go under the radar of consciousness.

Keyes: Yeah. And another aspect that kind of drives it at the same goal is another aspect of the course I found fascinating was something called the unpleasant events calendar. And we were asked to record several times during the week, between classes, when something went wrong during the day and how we felt that in the body. What's the goal there?

Kirchmer: To just recognize the relationship we have with pleasant or unpleasant or what we sometimes call peak or off peak moments. So when a pleasant or a peak moment is happening, it's important to recognize the mind states that are there, the body states that are there. On one hand, maybe we can find our way back to that state more easily once we really recognize the causes and conditions of it, but we can also recognize how we can become attached to or begin seeking these pleasant or peak moments even when they're not available. And so rather than being present to what's actually here now, we're caught up in looking for something that feels more pleasant or more effective. When studying off peak moments or the unpleasant, we can recognize the patterns of aversion, the kind of mental stories we tell about how this isn't good or right, or I don't want this or need this. And then this even sense of aversion or escaping zoning out that can be experienced in the body. And when that's recognized, we can more easily be with whatever's there so that if it's a pleasant event or an unpleasant event, we can still hold this kind of awareness with equanimity rather than constantly running away from unpleasant and running towards the pleasant.

Keyes: Yeah, you said something there. And I know you work with all kinds of high-performers.  I want to specifically talk about athletes a little bit and what you said there, the kind of idea of zoning out, which obviously it can happen. I'm a runner. Anytime I've been in a race, there's definitely periods of zoning out or if I'm hurting -- why is zoning out versus kind of really recognizing maybe the pain I'm in not as good of a tactic?

Kirchmer: So I actually won't even say that zoning out is bad. You know, I've got some ultura and endurance marathon runners that are now taking the mPeak coach training. I've heard the stories of lots of endurance athletes and they may have strategies of singing songs or certain visualizations they'll do. And so I call that mindful zoning out, like you're choosing when it's appropriate to sing your song or using this mental strategy for a long distance run, but you're still aware you're doing it. And so there's this distinction between like an intentional zoning out and an unintentional zoning out where one just gets lost. And then maybe you wouldn't pick up the subtleties of mind and body that are holding you back, right?

Let's use a marathon runner as an example. If someone passes them and they're zoned out,  they might not notice that what's happening subconsciously is the feeling or the thought process around being defeated. The wind out of the sails. But when they're kind of tuned in, they can recognize, Oh, that's a performance story that every time someone passes me, I start to give up some of my power and slow down a little bit. It doesn't have to be true. And instead I'm going to recognize this condition pattern and I'm going to keep my same stride or I might turn it up a little bit instead. So it gives them just more ability to make choices as they're performing in the event rather than being on autopilot, which, there’s a time and place for that, but it's not always effective.

Keyes; What about pain management, which is obviously another pretty common factor for anybody in the endurance route or actually just about any sport. But how can mindfulness be used as a tool when you're suffering?

Kirchmer: Yeah. So, there's for both physical and emotional pain, the condition reaction is to want to resist it, deny it, repress it, avoid it. And again, there may be a time and place for that. So I'm not going to take a firm stand and say that's bad and mindfulness is good. It's just recognizing our relationship to pain is what mindfulness teaches. So we do the exercise that you probably did in mPeak class called the ice bucket challenge, where we have them submerge their hand in an ice and then we time it and we just say, stay in for as long as you can. Take your hand out when you need to. And we have them do one experiment where they're trying to distract themselves. And on the other hand, they're mindfully monitoring their experience.

And the distraction technique --  what's found is it is only a temporary solution. You can distract effectively for a short period of time, but eventually there's this rebound effect, and the sensations are going to come back with a vengeance. Mindful monitoring is this willingness to feel the feelings rather than trying to get away from them -- in a way kind of accept them. Make peace with them might be a little bit too far of a stretch. But again, this word equanimity comes to mind. Being able to just allow that, yes, this is happening. And then let the sensations inform your choice. Some people are conditioned to pull out of the ice too quickly out of fear. Other people have this relationship to pain where they're going to stay in until they would get frostbitten. It's interesting for them to recognize the relationship to discomfort, to be striving and forcing or to be giving up.

And what mindfulness does is allows them to find this kind of balanced effort to know when like, Nope, it's uncomfortable, but I can stay in there a little bit longer. I can tolerate this. This is going to be okay. I'm going to stay in for a couple more breaths. Nope. Three more breaths. I still got this. And then at some point to say, you know, actually the symptoms of this suggest that it's time to take the handout of the ice. And again, this is a metaphor for any discomfort in someone's life. There's a time to stick it out and there's a time to mindfully, say, Hey, that's enough.

Keyes: Yeah. I found this one, one of the most fascinating exercises in the class, because it did sort of contradict my notions in my own techniques and I did find in the second go around like that really focusing on the pain and just being with it, I was able to withstand a lot more than I would've thought. Whereas before it would have been like, I'm going to do anything to not think about how much pain I'm in right now.

Kirchmer: The research strongly does suggest that mindfulness does increase pain tolerance and the ability to stay calm with physical sensations that are unpleasant.

Keyes: Over the years of teaching this class into different populations, do you find at all that there are certain techniques that work for some athlete groups versus others? Or is it hard to pin that down?

Kirchmer: I really reflect that back to the group and I have them identify what are your performance moments, your mindful moments. And so say like a mixed martial artist is going to have different mindful moments than a golfer or an ultra marathon runner. The practices all serve equally, but then how they integrate the insights from the mindfulness meditation practice into their area of performance varies depending on their sport. The mixed martial artists may find that it's a kind of pre-event routine of breathing and warming up, the mindful walk toward the cage, the mindful circling of the cage, being present to the eye contact with the opponent. And then once the bell rings, then the idea is you probably are going to enter more of a flow state and just trust that your training is going to be there. It's a little less intentional. It's a little more spontaneous. But then when the bell rings again, or maybe during a clench, the time when two fighters are, kind of clenched together or locked up, that might be a moment they've identified as time to pause, reflect, catch their breath, ask themselves, how am I doing? Is this working? A minute between rounds might be another opportunity that they've identified as being a mindful moment for intervention.

But then when you look at, say like an ultra runner where it's just the gun goes off and you're going for forever, really there's infinite opportunities for mindfulness. And so they may choose certain legs of their journey where they're gonna do their distraction techniques. And then there are certain ways that they'll say, check in with themselves at certain mile markers or certain time markers and just become present to the body for a minute, two minutes, really assessing their pace, the sensations, their energy level and then can make any changes necessary based on the feed that the feedback they get.

So I can't be an expert on all sports, and then even with first responders, different law officers do different work, different companies have different opportunities. So really it's a discussion or an inquiry where all of the individuals get to -- once they have this foundational understanding of mindfulness, get to identify how they can use mindfulness in their areas of performance best. And then we create what are called informal practices,  where they would consistently apply mindfulness in the areas that they've identified.

Keyes: So I want to talk about flow, which is something we got into in the later stages of the course. First, what exactly is flow?

Kirchmer: A state of high performance. When I say state, it really is that. It's a state that's usually temporary, hard to control but possible to prime for. So flow kind of just happens when all of the conditions, both internally and externally are aligned. Some of the internal conditions that we know about are usually there's this kind of loss of thought -- what they call sense of self and we'd say self is only made or created through thought. So there’s less thinking, more a deeper embodiment, and this balanced effort where one's skill level is equally proportionate to the challenge or maybe where the challenge is just a little bit higher than one skill. External conditions like a novel environment, some unpredictability, some risk. So when all of these factors come into play, this kind of flow experience is available where the high-performer merges with the activity. And usually it's said to be quite pleasant and a high degree of effectiveness.

Keyes: And so obviously for any athlete that would be the optimal state to be in competition. What's the relation and the connection with mindfulness? And you had mentioned earlier that there are ways that we know we can prime ourselves for that state. What do we know about that?

Kirchmer: Yeah, so we can take one factor, like selflessness, and we'll take the opposite, which is being caught up in thought, or in mPeak we call it the performance story. And so this might be, rather than really just being in the flow, being a body running, the mind would be consumed with, Oh no, maybe I didn't eat enough. I'm feeling like I'm going to bonk, I don't usually bonk this soon. What did I do wrong? What do I need to do to keep this -- just ruminating, which would be a flow killer. But with mindfulness we can recognize and even label, Oh, that's rumination, that's not going to be supportive. And the meditation trains us how to let go of that thinking and come back to just the embodied experience of running. And so we become out of our mind. The mindfulness training can help us get out of the mind and into the body.

Another flow condition is this balanced effort. And so being able to monitor on a spectrum from striving to giving up how much effort one is exerting. What we know is that in a long distance race, you can't sprint the whole time. This is not going to be conducive to flow. There's going to be a sense of overwhelm or anxiety. And yet the opposite is also true. If you're not exerting enough energy, there's going to be boredom, apathy. And so being able to check in with the body and assess how much do I have to give and then to give just that right amount and maybe just a little bit more, based on what's needed rather than being conditioned to just sprint right out of the Gates. And so I would say this balanced effort and the ability to get out of the mind and into the body are how mindfulness help us to prime for flow the best.

Keyes: And are there athletes who can literally switch on flow or is it something that you set the conditions for it and hope?

Kirchmer: Yeah, I mean that's my understanding of it. In meditation training, there's a saying that says enlightenment is an accident; meditation makes you accident prone. And I kind of feel the same way about flow; flow is an accident, meditation makes you accident prone. Again, that's my understanding of it. I have absolutely heard athletes claim that they have the on switch for flow. So to be determined, I don't think research has said one or the other.

Keyes: So athletes and other groups do this course, can you give people a sense of -- so during the eight weeks, I think a lot of people think of, Oh God, meditation practice, I gotta sit for an hour a day. Is that the case for this eight week course for the people who saw these literal brain changes? What kind of a commitment are they making for those eight weeks?

Kirchmer: So for the initial mindfulness based stress reduction research, there was a fairly large commitment of 45 minutes, like six days a week. Now, whether people actually complied with that, we don't always know, but that was the bar that was set. mPeak takes a slightly different stance towards how much one can practice. My intention is for the participants to build a sense of autonomy and self efficacy and what research says around the best way to do that is to let them set up experiments with how much they're going to practice. And so there are guided audios of various lengths; mine are 15 minutes in 30 minutes. But I also share with them different apps that may even have 5 minute, 10 minute or 45 minute versions.

And then each week is an experiment where they set an intention for how many days they're going to meditate and for how long they're going to meditate. And then each week we would evaluate, did that feel like it was workable? And can we stretch it just a little bit further? Or maybe you overshot, got a little ambitious, and need to back it off a little bit to find your sweet spot. There is some research that suggests kind of this minimal effective dose, which is around 20 minutes, four times a week to make brain changes. And so we also do equip them with like, Hey, most of their research on MBSR is 45 minutes,  six days a week, kind of minimal effective dose is this. Now you choose now that you have the research, do the experiments, find what works best for you. And I find that that's more accessible for most people than to hang this really high bar where, especially when high performers already tend towards perfectionism and this all or none behavior, this really, it's more inclusive.

Keyes: So after students take this class, does that effect essentially wear off over time or are there permanent changes made? Or is it only if you keep up with this practice for the rest of your life?

Kirchmer: Well, these are still areas that are being studied, and there is a lack of longitudinal studies. It does seem pretty obvious that meditation is dose dependent, and so the more you meditate, the more changes you're going to get. But it's also looking like the changes in the brain that come from meditation are similar to muscle adaptation to exercise. And that, if you don't ever meditate again, the benefits may last for weeks and even months, but you probably would start to lose them if this was not kept up as a life practice.

Keyes: And one of the things I found unique and again from other meditation programs I've taken, this one's designed for high performers and people who set big goals and are really sort of invested in outcomes. And it would seem in some ways, at least on the surface, to go against kind of the traditional Buddhist approach to mindfulness of sort of non-attachment and striving. And is there any resistance among the high performers that you work with to kind of that aspect of mindfulness, of sort of that letting go aspect?

Kirchmer: Not in the way we frame it. And so I can even speak directly to non-attachment and non striving, when we frame it as non-attachment to outcome, and then explain it, people do understand that if your mind is only focused on some experience of winning three months from now and not present to the opportunities in each moment to practice, that that wouldn't be beneficial. People understand how getting caught up in the results rather than really just focusing on what can be done now and training themselves to be their best is counterproductive. And so we kind of set it up as a like a both. Yes, you're finding winning important. That's okay. You can want a certain outcome but let's set that on the shelf, focusing on that every single day is not going to be helpful. Let's set that intention for whatever your external goal is, but then let's stay present to the process of the training.

And when it comes to the non striving, instead of saying don't strive cause that is kind of hard for athletes and high-performers to understand. I again use this model of balanced effort where I'll say, let's define striving as being this white knuckled jaw clenching teeth grinding, nail biting effort to force something to happen that often results in injury and burnout. When we define striving to that extent people like, yeah that doesn't make sense that that wouldn't be effective. But on the opposite side, it's this giving up, this learned helplessness, this fear of failure that results in paralysis, and yep, that's not good either. And then we encourage them to find what is the most you can give that feels sustainable and safe in any given moment, depending on all of the different variables that occur from day to day so that they can stay on that edge. And again, the flow model would suggest that if the challenge is much greater than one's ability or competence, they would experience anxiety and overwhelm. And that's not effective, right? And so the idea is to have people experiment with how much effort can you give while still staying in your own zone. And  that seems to be accepted and also stay consistent with the traditional




Frick-Wright: That's Chris Keyes in conversation with Pete Kirchmer. This piece was produced by Chris, Robbie Carver, and myself, with music by Robbie, and help from Mike Roberts. It was brought to you by Strava and their new podcast Athletes Unfiltered. Find it wherever you get your podcasts. The Outside podcast is a production of PRX and Outside Magazine. We'll be back in two weeks.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.