Utilizing Buddhist Teachings to Increase Your Performance
Written by Kirsten Ahrendt

There is a moment that occurs in the midst of difficult workouts, events, trials, or physical undertakings – when signals of physical and mental stress begin to register (but not peak). The moment occurs at a point of effort when your mind can still comprehend the remaining volume of work to be completed and can consider your body’s best chances for survival – quitting, slowing down, changing course, or continuing on. Emotional reactions often accompany this moment arising as thoughts of anxiety, doubt, or fear, such as:

“I can’t maintain this pace.”

“When will this hill/interval/minute/mile end?”

“How many more rounds?”

“This is too fast/steep/difficult”

“I don’t think I can finish”

“My legs feel like lead.”

Have you ever muttered sentiments like these inside your own brain? I have. 

I recall encountering “the moment” at various times such as CrossFit Open workouts, soccer tryouts, rugby training, mountain bike rides, Assault Bike intervals and difficult Engine workouts. I am certain many of you have met this moment as well – it’s normal! While no one is immune to the moment’s arrival, it is the difference in our response to it that will dictate our performance. 

Sports performance scientists and psychologists have studied various tactics to trick, amplify, or “hack” the brain and body into better performance. Visualization strategies, positive self-talk, training mental focus endurance, have all proven effective strategies. One concept that I am particularly fond of (in sport and life) is rooted in Buddhist concepts of mindfulness and non-judgement. By cultivating these skills and applying them to our physical and mental state during workouts, we can foster the ability to remain more focused and able to execute uncomfortable but accomplishable paces, efforts or tasks. Perhaps you’ve heard me reference it in class – I call it “being the CrossFit Buddha”. Let’s dig in, grasshoppas!

What is the CrossFit Buddha?

Being the “CrossFit Buddha” is contingent on two skills rooted within Buddhist teachings and applied in a state of physical duress (such as midway through a 40-minute EMOM):

  1. Staying present in the moment of effort we are in rather than worrying about work or effort still to come in the future.
  2. Cultivating the ability to suspend judgement on how our body feels. 

Staying Present in the Current Moment of Effort

Staying present means not dwelling on the future work, duration, effort, or intervals to come. Which is different from willfully ignoring an appropriate pace and hoping for the best. First and foremost as athletes, we must know ourselves and have a general idea of what we’re capable of. But to increase our ability over time, we must be willing and prepared to live and go beyond those uncomfortable edges of perceived thresholds. Existing at those edges will undoubtedly bring effort, discomfort, and fatigue. How we deal with them is important.

Once we have reached the point of the workout where our body’s fatigue catches the mind’s attention – fatigue, mounting effort, elevated heart rate, discomfort – it will only cause further stress to anticipate and worry about the remainder of the work. Instead, borrow from Buddhist mindfulness practices – staying present, focusing on the task (or exercise) we are performing in that exact moment. Worrying about the future only causes stress and suffering in the present. Marathon runners call this “running the mile you’re in”

In an EMOM, it means existing entirely in your burpee-box-jump station instead of dreading the upcoming Assault Bike station. 

In Engine class, it means focusing on the calm, yet intentional effort you can give NOW in round four without letting your brain wander and create fear/anxiety about round eight. When cycling or hiking the steep hill, it means shifting your focus from concern over “when will this climb end” to elements that you control now – such as the synchronicity of your breathing, the length of your exhale, relaxing the muscles of your jaw, unshrugging your shoulders, the cadence of your leg drive.

Dwelling on future work detracts precious brain power and focus that can be utilized to accomplish present work faster or more efficiently. In addition, stress about the future increases present-moment anxiety, heart rate, breathing rate, shallow breathing and more sympathetic activation. Remind yourself – the Assault Bike station is going to arrive whether you worry about it or not; the top of the hill will arrive whenever it does. Instead of contributing to panic or dread, simply narrow our focus to the moment you’re in and focus on what you can do to accomplish the present moment’s task at hand – it’s often more than you realize.


The best athletes in the world feel similar pain and discomfort as novice athletes do (simply at higher thresholds of output). The difference lies in their ability to attach less concern and reactionary behavior to those signals – it turns out that over years of difficult training, they’ve learned that effort and discomfort will in fact not kill them. The brain’s job is to constantly scan our body’s input and adjust physiological responses accordingly to keep us alive. To be the CrossFit Buddha, we must recalibrate our brain’s relationship to signals of discomfort. This starts by evaluating our reactionary feelings and actions in response to effort.

Now is a good time to differentiate between effort and pain.

“We often think of races as ‘painful’ but physical pain is completely distinct from the sense of effort – the struggle to keep going against a mounting desire to stop – that usually limits race speed. 

– ENDURE Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, Alex Hutchinson

So, to become the CrossFit Buddha, we cultivate “non-judgemental self-awareness”. 

Exercise-self-awareness is first recognizing, A) my legs feel heavy; the non-judgemental part is allowing ourselves to not freak out about that! Cultivating the belief and mindset that we can still continue on, maintain the pace, and accomplish work with heavy legs, it may simply require more effort. The increased effort will bring more signals and self-awareness, and the cycle repeats.

“For a marathoner, leg pain and shortness of breath become neutral sources of information to be used for pacing, rather than emotionally charged warnings to panic about. You learn to monitor how your body feels, while suspending judgement about it.”

– Endure. by Alex Hutchinson

 Endurance vs Intensity

You might be wondering – does this “CrossFit Budhha” mindset apply only to endurance events? No way! The ability to stay in the moment AKA “in the fight” – or to – “keep your foot on the gas pedal” – regardless of signs your body is sending to your brain can most certainly be utilized during short bursts of intensity as well. Have you ever noticed how a minute on an Assault Bike can feel like an eternity? 

Einstein said it first – time is relative! Intensity slows down our experience of time by narrowing our focus and attention to only what matters to keep us alive.

To implement CrossFit Buddha mentality in a short-bout of intensity requires that the skill of “physical-mindfulness” be extremely honed since everything happens on a much quicker timeline. The time to be mindful, focus on something we control in the present, and apply non-judgemental self-awareness is very short! Try “looking” for the moment where your mind wanders on any of these shorter-duration tests. It is usually very near to the peak of discomfort!

60-second MAX effort Assault Bike/Row

50/30 calorie Assault Bike for time

200 meter Sled Sprint 

1,000 meter Row

400 meter Sandbag Carry

Next we’ll discuss some tactics you can use to develop your own internal CrossFit Buddha. For now, practice bringing attention to the feelings and signals you get in tough workouts and identify your reactions to them.

Notify me of
1 Comment
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bradley Oliver
Bradley Oliver
May 16, 2021 10:15 pm

That was very interesting!!
I need more

Scroll to Top