If you’re someone who wants it all, from the Job to the Family to the Body (and who doesn’t?), then you know how easy it is to just keep piling more and more on your plate. If you’re like me, then it seems like every time you turn around there’s either a new demand or a new opportunity waiting for you, and it’s all going to take some of your attention and energy.
It’s totally that way in my life. Between running the training facility, training online clients, having a relationship, training myself (what’s that?), learning, writing, and everything that goes on between and around those things, it’s easy to just get totally caught up in it all.
Unfortunately, like a cruel joke, it’s exactly that constant drive to do more that can often be what holds you back from actually accomplishing and succeeding in the things that you want to do, especially when it comes to your physique.
How does that work?
So, let’s start with a little biology. Our nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system is what fires you up and stimulates you. It’s our “fight or flight” system and it responds to stress. It’s also catabolic, which means it’s responsible for breaking down your body to provide fuel for your upcoming activity. This isn’t a bad thing, generally, it’s how you get the energy to move around and how you have that extra gear to make shit happen when you really need to.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic system is all about the “rest and digest” mode and it’s what helps your body recover from injury or training, replenish your energy stores, and build muscle. The parasympathetic system is what allows you to relax, refresh, and recover between bouts of exercise or stress.
Both are important to our survival and our success. However, they should operate in a balance. The sympathetic system is largely a “situational” system for when you are training, operating in a stressful environment, fighting off an illness, etc. The rest of the time is best spent getting ready for those bouts of activity, and that’s what the parasympathetic system is all about. We should be spending a lot of our time with the parasympathetic system dominating.
That’s not what’s going on for a lot of high-performers, though.
Because you’re always rushing to get things done, dealing with stress, training hard, and trying to keep all the balls in the air, you spend way more time in a sympathetic state than you should. This results in chronic inflammation, which not only is bad for the cardiovascular system but also weakens your connective tissue and makes your joints hurt/susceptible to injury, less optimal muscle mass (too much wasting), the propensity to store fat (food not being able to be stored properly), cravings for carbohydrates, and so on.
This high stress often why people get caught in a vicious cycle of fat gain and water retention when they try to diet hard AND train hard, for example. These people probably already have a baseline of stress in their life. Then they cut their calories way down to drop fat. Then they start training harder, longer, and more frequently. All that combines to a super-stress load which results in injury, massive food cravings, and/or loss of muscle mass.
Right, so what can you do about it? I mean, you have goals, so you have to do the things you need to do in order to reach them, and it’s not like you can just tell your boss or kids that they need to tone it down a few notches because you want to recover faster.
The key is to set yourself up for success as much as possible by doing the right things to shut the sympathetic system down with the time and availability that you do have. When it comes to recovery mode, the priority is going to be to break that sympathetic hold as much as possible.
Here’s three ways to get parasympathetic that we work on with our clients:
1. Get a fifteen-minute meditation or “quiet” time per day. If you can’t get fifteen minutes, get ten. Get five. Do what you can to unplug and unwind for a few minutes per day. If you’re into meditation, great, then this is a perfect time to do that. If you’re not then simply having some unplug time to relax a little is still very effective at bringing down your overall stress load.
2. Cool down properly from your training. This is something that a lot of people skip. Once they’re done training they want to bounce out the door and into their next, probably high-stress, activity. This never lets the parasympathetic system ramp up and the sympathetic ramp down, so they are operating at a reduced rate of recovery.
A great cool-down is a little bit up to what you prefer as an individual, but it could include a few minutes of very low-key cyclic activity like biking, rowing, or walking, some foam rolling/soft tissue work, static stretching, and working on some deep, slow breathing.
At Relentless we push our clients to foam roll, stretch, and do some deep breathing before they head out the door. Those that do that consistently recover faster and find that they are less stressed overall, which leads to better long-term progress.
3. Get some manual therapy done. Manual therapy can be either stimulating or relaxing. For the purpose of reducing your stress we lean on the relaxing massage end of the spectrum as far as the manual therapy of choice. Harder, more stimulating massage has its place in many training programs, too, but this isn’t it.
As the son of a massage therapist, I can’t recommend it enough, especially for the relaxation factor. In a perfect world I would recommend everyone to get some sort of massage work done once per week. Obviously, for most people that’s not going to be feasible from a financial or schedule standpoint. The more frequently you can get it done, though, the better.
Combining a smart recovery and relaxation strategy to compliment the already-sound sleep, nutrition, and training program that you’re on will go a long way to keeping your health and progress going well. For more info on training, nutrition, and the mental side of the high-performance lifestyle in your inbox, sign up on the right!