The Best Brain Training Apps for Athletes

The Brave Athlete Headspace-app

This story is adapted from The Brave Athlete by Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson. Their cutting-edge brain training guide solves the 13 most common mental conundrums athletes face in their everyday training and in races. With The Brave Athlete, you can solve these problems to become mentally strong and make your brain your most powerful asset.

The Brave Athlete mentions several smartphone apps that can help athletes focus or relax.


Does this statement feel familiar, “Other athletes seem tougher, happier, and more badass than me.”? If so, you have much to gain from a chapter in The Brave Athlete that considers the power and peril of comparison. This chapter focuses on the thoughts and feelings that can be inspired by our use of social networks like Facebook and Instagram. There’s certainly no need to delete all your social network accounts if you are using them in a healthy way. After all, there are many benefits to being connected to all your tough, happy, and badass athlete friends…


Mindfulness is really just a special kind of meditation—a word Dr. Simon Marshall avoids using with athletes because it’s laden with preconceived judgment. Yet he takes great delight in saying “there’s an app for that.”

Marshall and Paterson have spent years searching for great resources on mindfulness train­ing, and the single most useful thing they’ve come across is Andy Puddicome’s Headspace app. It’s a bullsh*t-free zone, it’s free to use the basic functions, and athletes love it. Marshall and Paterson both use it themselves and recom­mend it to all their athletes. (And no, they don’t earn a dime from recommending it.) They recommend Headspace because it works. Download it and give it a go—10 minutes a day for 10 days to learn the basics.

Why should athletes consider mindfulness training? Well, you can read all about the benefits to attention, focus, pain tolerance, and more in The Brave Athlete.

Google Calendar

Some athletes are wicked fast, but they don’t perform as well as they can because they keep making dumb mistakes in workouts or, heaven forbid, during races. (Think of that triathlete who has borrowed your extra set of goggles—maybe more than once—or your Saturday riding buddy who flats and never has a spare tube on hand.) Not only are these athletes penalized with worse times and less fitness, but also they often suffer from pre-race nerves and anxiety.

There are several mental skills that athletes can develop to avoid making mistakes and one of those skills is simple time management. Better time management can improve your focus and reduce anxiety, among many other benefits.

Two of the best time management tools that you almost certainly don’t take full advantage of is a killer calendar app with reminders activated (Google calendar is our favorite), and the humble Post-it note (physical or virtual). No anxious athlete should be without either. Developing ninja time management skills not only lets you get more done but helps compartmentalize and outsource things that are causing the worry in the first place.

Pacifica—Anxiety & Stress

For decades, many coaches have tried to reduce the stress, anxiety, and pressure their athletes feel with strategies that control the symptoms of stress, like negative thoughts and self-doubt. It turns out that this approach is not only scientific nonsense but it’s also entirely unrealistic. If fails for many reasons.

The Brave Athlete offers 12 evidence-based skills to reduce stress. They work in the lab and on real-live athletes, too. One of these skills is learning to physically calm yourself down by reducing muscle tension.

Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR) is one of those most helpful techniques to reduce excess muscle tension. Athletes prefer PMR over other methods because you actually do something rather than just lie there and conjure up swirly-whirly thoughts. PMR involves the maximal voluntary contraction of specific muscle groups, followed by their relaxation. Attention is focused on the differing sensations between the tensed and relaxed state (e.g., heaviness, warmth). With practice, you are able to induce a relaxed state by recalling the sensations associated with it.

Dr. Marshall recom­mends using an app to learn PMR because it can verbally and visually guide your pacing and progress. One of his favorites is the muscle relaxation program con­tained in the free app called Pacifica—Anxiety & Stress.

Breathing Zone and Paced Breathing

Another way to physically calm down is with breath control. There are plenty of great apps that you can use to learn breath techniques that incite a relaxation response. Two of Simon and Lesley’s favor­ites are “Breathing Zone” and “Paced Breathing”.

These apps not only help you pace the inhalation and exhalation phase of the breath, but they provide screen visualiza­tions to distract your Chimp brain. It’s like giving a four-year-old an iPad.

It’s good to practice these techniques daily, but Dr. Marshall especially recommends using it the night before a big race and the morning of the event—preferably within one hour of your start time. When you’re 3–5 minutes away from the gun going off, close your eyes and see the screen in your head as you complete a final 30 sec­onds of relaxation breathing.

The Brave Athlete solves the 13 most common mental conundrums athletes face in their everyday training and in races. Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson will help you take control of your brain so you can train harder, race faster, and better enjoy your sport.