Olympic steeplechaser Colleen Quigley calls it her “secret weapon.” Deena Kastor, the American record holder in the marathon, says it’s aided her performance throughout her legendary career. And 2018 European marathon champion Koen Naert surmises he wouldn’t be where he is without it.
In recent years, this mental health practice has become more mainstream, and perhaps that’s no surprise in today’s increasingly wellness-focused world. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of American adults who meditated at least once in a year more than tripled between 2012 and 2017.
And as meditation has grown in popularity, so too has our knowledge of its potential benefits. Certain research suggests that meditation may help reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia, among other health issues, per the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. And a recent study found that people who meditated daily were less prone to making errors.
But Quigley, Kastor, and Naert have found that meditation has an additional benefit: it’s a potent training tool for stronger, and faster running. Here, the Olympians explain how they use meditation to their athletic advantage.
Who: 2016 Olympic steeplechaser, 2019 USATF indoor 1-mile national champion
Meditating Since: 2017
Started Because: Quigley’s mom, who Quigley describes as “granola gal” with a long-held interest in alternative methods of health and healing, encouraged her daughter to meditate. Initially, Quigley dismissed the idea, but “I eventually just decided to give it a try,” she says.
“I don’t know what flipped the switch for me, but I was looking for that ‘something’ in my life, looking for that extra bit of just mental support, I guess.” She’d heard about the Headspace app through a podcast and figured she’d simply start there.
Preferred Type of Meditation: Guided meditation with Headspace.
Meditation Routine: Quigley tries to meditate most days for about 10 minutes, typically first thing in the morning while still in her pajamas. When she’s at home in Portland, Oregon, the Bowerman Track Club runner meditates atop a round beige cushion that she places against the wall. During higher stress periods—like when she’s at altitude training camp in Colorado Springs, for example—she meditates every single day.
Benefits Gained: Quigley first noticed the impact of meditation during the 2018 Millrose Games. In the weeks leading up to the race, she’d adopted a rhythm of waking up and meditating every day before practice. She also practiced visualization meditation, which involved rehearsing the ideal race day scenario over and over in her mind.
When Quigley toed the line for the Wanamaker Mile, she felt calm. After the gun went off, Quigley was able to stay relaxed and execute her race strategy as planned, finishing first in 4:30.05. “Everything was clicking,” she remembers.
Since then, meditation has helped the runner “get in the zone” before races and workouts. When negative thoughts pop up in workouts, Quigley says she’s able to recognize them simply as thoughts and then release them. This technique proves especially helpful during weekly tempo runs, her “big struggle day.” She allows herself to recognize that the workout’s hard—and then tells herself that she’s going to forge ahead anyway.
Meditation also helps her better focus on the present moment without getting overwhelmed by the big picture. On the track she concentrates on just finishing one lap at a time without worrying about the total distance. With that step-by-step mindset, “all of the sudden you’re in the fourth mile,” she says.
Who: 2004 Olympic bronze medalist and American marathon record holder
Meditating Since: Late 1980s
Started Because: A sports psychologist introduced Kastor to meditation when she was in high school. She initially adopted the habit as a way to strengthen her mind and refine her focus for running, but today sees its benefits in many other aspects of her life.
Preferred Type of Meditation: Solo meditation and guided meditation
Typical Routine: Kastor meditates every single day, devoting anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour to the practice. Oftentimes, when she picks up her 8-year-old daughter, Piper, from school, the duo listens to the Headspace app together in the car.
On days when Kastor has a more flexible schedule, she’ll meditate by herself without the app. During these solo sessions, Kastor lies down and focuses on her breathing as a way to quiet the chatter in her head.
The Mammoth Lakes, California, resident also says that running, in the right scenario, can double as meditation. If you “don’t have music on but to get into the rhythm of your stride and your breath, it becomes a little hypnotic,” she says.
Benefits Gained: Meditation has heightened Kastor’s awareness of her surroundings, a skill that has paid off on race day. In certain races, “I was able to feel a competitor before she made her move,” she says.
Other times, Kastor noticed her cadence slowing down, which signaled that she needed to pick up the pace. And in other situations, she heard her competitor’s cadence slowing, which prompted Kastor to make a move.
Who: 2016 Olympian for Belgium, 2018 European Athletics Championships marathon winner
Meditating Since: 2012
Started Because: About seven years ago, Naert hit an invisible roadblock. The young elite runner felt well-prepared going into races, but would then fall apart during the actual competition. He tried adjusting his training and tapering to no avail. “Then I started to think how important it is to work on your mind,” he says.
At the urging of his wife, Elise Cappelle, and mother-in-law, Naert attended two info sessions on transcendental meditation, a simple form of meditation centered on personal mantras. The experience convinced him to sign up for a multi-day course, which he now considers it “one of the best investments I’ve made in my life.”
Preferred Type of Meditation: Transcendental meditation (TM) and visualization meditation.
Meditation Routine: At his home near Bruges in northern Belgium, Naert meditates a minimum of 20 minutes every day. He doesn’t have a specific place or time of day that he meditates; he simply fits it in whenever—and wherever—he can.
Benefits Gained: Naert says meditation gives him a more peaceful, positive mindset when his physical training and racing aren’t going well. In December, he ran a disappointing race at the Fukuoka Marathon after battling injuries earlier in the year (Naert finished in 2:15:51, about eight minutes off his PR). With the help of meditation, he was able to move past the setback.
“I have a very exciting year coming up with the Olympics, so I focused on that,” he says.
The practice also helps Naert tap into his subconsciousness, which he says enhances the effectiveness of his pre-race visualization. Before the 2018 European Marathon Championships, he spent months visualizing a first-place finish. And when race day rolled around, he made that scenario a reality. He used the same visualization process—plus lots of training—to set his PR at the 2019 Rotterdam Marathon.
Jenny is a Boulder, Colorado-based health and fitness journalist. She’s been freelancing for Runner’s World since 2015 and especially loves to write human interest profiles, in-depth service pieces and stories that explore the intersection of exercise and mental health. Her work has also been published by SELF, Men’s Journal, and Condé Nast Traveler, among other outlets. When she’s not running or writing, Jenny enjoys coaching youth swimming, rereading Harry Potter, and buying too many houseplants.