A leading magazine recently made a claim that's not often found on the secular newstand: that prayer can improve athletic performance.
"When believers pray, something happens in their brains that actually makes them better athletes," Brandon Sneed wrote for the July edition of Outside magazine.
While Sneed cited Ryan Hall, an elite runner and devout Christian, in the article, he also talked with a renowned neuroscientist who explained what's going on in the brain of a believer conversant with God. And Sneed himself is something of an authority on the athlete's brain, having written a book titled "Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest Athletes."
The subject of how a relationship with God impacts the brain is trendy these days because advances in brain imaging have allowed scientists to study what happens in the brain when people pray, mediate, think about God or read passages from scripture. One study done at the University of Utah showed an association between spiritual feelings and increased focus. And the Outside article said that prayer may contribute to the phenomenon called "flow," the hyper-focused state of mind that accompanies peak performance in any endeavor.
Such findings suggest that both professional athletes and weekend warriors might improve their athletic performance by cultivating a deeper relationship with God. And that how far you are able to run, bike or swim may be influenced as much by the time you spend on your knees as the time on your feet.
Your brain on God
The frontal lobe is the area of your brain that is behind and above your eyes. A sort of central command for consciousness, this part of your brain is responsible for language, attention, reason and judgment. It's also a part of the brain that changes noticeably when we contemplate, or talk to, God.
To explain what happens, Sneed talked to Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, and a leader in the field of "neurotheology," the study of religious belief and the brain. For more than two decades, at Thomas Jefferson and in his previous post at the University of Pennsylvania, Newberg has examined neural activity in people as they pray.
"When the subjects begin, there is activity in the frontal lobe. Then, after anywhere from 10 to 50 minutes, that area goes virtually silent," Sneed wrote.
"Additional research has shown that during prayer, the frontal lobe is flooded with alpha waves. It’s the same result brought on by mindfulness and meditation, but adding in belief, Newberg says, can act as a powerful catalyst."
It's that quieting of the mind that can induce the mental state called flow that was introduced by the 2008 book by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow, also described as optimal or peak experience, is characterized by total immersion and effortless execution of a task. Some people refer to this as "being in the zone."
"During flow, a cascade of neurochemicals descend into the brain, including dopamine (which regulates pleasure), serotonin (which reduces stress), and norepinephrine (which activates the fight-or-flight response). The brain also undergoes electrical changes," Sneed wrote.
By shutting down the busy work of the brain which consumes lots of energy, prayer and meditation can free us to focus on something else, such as a mantra, our breathing, or a 90-mile-per-hour pitch headed toward home plate.
Ryan Hall reacts to the crowd as he nears the finish line in first place during the 2008 Olympic team trials for the Marathon on Nov. 3, 2007 in New York. Hall finished with a time of 2:09:02.| Frank Franklin II, AP
In fact, meditation, sans religion, is increasingly used to enhance performance in athletes. Florida researchers recently found that 12 minutes of daily meditation made Division 1 football players better equipped to withstand the physical punishment of training, The New York Times reported. Researchers said that people's minds tend to wander off task anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of our waking hours, and that the ability to focus is essential to athletic success.
The results suggested that mindfulness meditation — sitting quietly while focusing on breathing or being "in the moment" — could also help people training for a triathlon or 5K, Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times wrote.
But, according to other research, if you're meditating on God, you'll perform even better.
What's God got to do with it?
Mindfulness is essentially a spiritual practice scrubbed clean of God. “We sort of cleaned it up and secularized it so that it’s more available to everyone, which is good. But in many ways it isn’t as good or as powerful as prayer," Newberg said in Outside magazine.
In Newberg's research, prayer is more effective at calming the mind than secular meditation; focusing the mind through prayer enables people to more readily reach a state that is relaxed and instinctual, both components of peak athletic performance. Moreover, our capacity for this type of focus can increase over time.
In their 2006 book "How God Changes Your Brain," Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman wrote, "the more you think about God, the more you will alter the neural circuitry in specific parts of your brain." Neither author professes a strong religious faith, but they contend that the effects of God on the brain are resoundingly positive, and spiritual practices enhance both physical and emotional health.
"Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appears to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions of the world," Newberg and Waldman wrote.
But what about other changes, such as the experience that Ryan Hall had in 2007, while competing in a half-marathon in Houston?
Hall was in first place and about three miles from the finish line when he was stricken with a painful cramp in his side. Hall has said that he started to panic, but then began to pray as he ran. After about a minute of prayer, the pain stopped, and Hall won the race in record-setting time. "There's definitely power in prayer," he said.
Hall, who has retired from competitive marathons, drew derision from some corners for saying that God was his coach. Critics have suggested that Hall, along with other athletes whose faith is well-known, such as former NFL football player Tim Tebow, might have performed better if they'd focused more on earthly things, than things above.
And in fact, to many people in an increasingly secular society, even rituals like a post-game prayer may seem offputting or bewildering. A prayer of thanksgiving for a game well-played — whether won or lost — is different from a prayer to help a hurting runner through a race. And a prayer before an event — like the ones that storied Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz used to lead — might have nothing to do with an individual's athletic performance.
"Usually you pray for togetherness, for overcoming problems, and for each other. We never, ever prayed for victory," Holtz once told Beliefnet.
As for whether or not God had a hand in vanquishing the side stitch Hall experienced in the 2007 race, Hall himself has noted that athletic performance can falter among even the most fervent of believers.
"With that said, I can't deny that sometimes God does choose to come to the aid of maybe just one in a race allowing him/her to break free of physical limitations," Hall said in Runner's World magazine three years after that race.
"While I cannot coerce God into moving in this way, I still have childlike faith knowing it’s possible, which I reflect in my running by being bold, taking chances and giving God an opportunity to do something amazing." Hall added that he believes the Bible is the "best sports psychology book out there."