Posted 09.28.2015 | by AMRA

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Skilled athletes must retain focus and maintain bodily awareness while resisting distractions. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Haase et al. [Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience] explored whether a Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness, and Knowledge (mPEAK) intervention improved elite athletes’ bodily awareness and examined the underlying brain patterns associated with improved awareness.

Seven young adult, male members of the USA BMX cycling team underwent fMRI scans before and after participating in a 7-week mPEAK intervention. The intervention included traditional mindfulness practices along with didactic presentations on topics such as mindfulness, mind-wandering, self-compassion, and self-criticism. Athletes were assessed before and after training on measures of bodily awareness, emotional awareness, and mindfulness (FFMQ).

During fMRI scanning, athletes engaged in a computer-assisted attentional focus task while breathing through a mouthpiece that could variably restrict airflow making breathing more labored and effortful. At various times during the task they were given visual cues about the likelihood of future airflow restriction, so that the fMRI measured the brain changes associated with anticipating, experiencing, and recovering from restricted airflow.

Following mPEAK training, the athletes significantly improved their abilities to identify feelings (Cohen’s d = 1.1), self-regulate distress by attending to the body (Cohen’s d = 1.5), trust bodily sensations (Cohen’s d = 1.0), and describe emotions (Cohen’s d = 0.8).

Right insula and left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activation increased after mPEAK training during the time periods when athletes were anticipating restricted airflow. The magnitude of increased ACC activation during anticipation periods correlated with increases in the ability to describe emotions (ρ =.78).

There was also a negative association between increased insula activation during periods of recovery from restricted breathing and the ability to identify feelings (ρ= -.76). Decreased functional connectivity was observed following mPEAK training between the right medial frontal cortex and ACC and the posterior cingulate cortex, a brain structure associated with mind-wandering and self-referential thinking.

This pilot study suggests that an adapted mindfulness-based training is associated with greater attention to bodily sensations, feelings, and increased neural processing while anticipating and recovering from the distractions associated with restricted breathing. Future research is needed to clarify whether this increased bodily focus translates into improved athletic performance. The study is limited by a small sample size and the absence of a control group.

Reference:

Haase, L., May, A. C., Falahpour, M., Isakovic, S., Simmons, A. N., Hickman, S., . . . Paulus, M. P. (2015). A pilot study investigating changes in neural processing after mindfulness training in elite athletes. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9, 229.

[Link to abstract]