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We tend to approach recovery with different tools and techniques—foam rollers, compression, massage, physical therapy, and even different approaches to sleep and nutrition. It’s ironic that our restorative activities tend to first focus on our muscles, even though they are the part of our body that naturally recovers the quickest because they receive direct blood flow. You might be less aware of the system that has the biggest impact on your ability to restore body and mind after a big output: your nervous system.
Your autonomic nervous system regulates your body’s instinctive, unconscious actions and influences the function of your internal organs. It includes your brain, spinal cord, and nerves; and it regulates many bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, blood pressure, and respiration—all of which keep you going and moving forward, and play a critical role in movement, exertion, and ultimately performance.
Your nervous system sounds the alarm by way of a chemical stress response when you’re confronted with life-threatening events, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This is governed by your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which under duress triggers a reaction where blood pressure increases to supply more oxygen to your brain and muscles, and all your systems are optimized for you to defend yourself or run for your life. Your focus narrows to meet the challenge. This is all incredibly useful if you’re attacked in a dark alley. Or running from a tiger. Or, more likely, when the fight is on for first place or a new PR in the last 100 meters of your race.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, your relaxation response is governed by your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—this is where you rest and digest. Since your nervous system is designed for self-preservation, your PNS should kick in once threatening events have passed to slow your heart rate, aid in digestion, and return you to a baseline of calm. It broadens your perspective and helps you to be more aware of where you’re at so that you can more clearly discern the most appropriate course of action, rather than just react.
Strengthening your PNS increases your resilience and helps you to more easefully manage whatever comes at you.
The problem is that because we are doing so much, all the time, we get stuck in fight or flight and can’t wind down. As a result the SNS response is easily triggered by normal day-to-day occurrences like rushing to get to the gym, or triaging a full email inbox. When you’re in this frame of mind your brain perceives the threat of failing to hit your pace in a key training session the same way it perceives the threat that you might be late for your meeting because you’re stuck in traffic. While you need to get fired up to nail your workout, getting amped up in gridlock confuses your body with unnecessary stress and deprives you of spending time in a more relaxed state. The physiological design of the nervous system is disrupted by the pace of life. Stress management might be a big motivator of your workouts, but without consistent, effective PNS activation you’re merely creating a vicious cycle of SNS stimulation.
We’re so busy that we marginalize recovery and keep putting it off, quarantining it to the off-season or rest days rather than prioritizing and normalizing it as a critical daily occurrence. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that even when you do have the opportunity to rest, relaxation can feel elusive. If tension lingers long after your workout is over, or if you find yourself lying awake at night with your mind abuzz, you’re well aware of this all-too-common scenario. You have to intentionally calm your nervous system in order to shift from effort to ease—from SNS engagement to PNS response. Use your nervous system to full advantage to optimize your recovery. Now more than ever, optimal recovery requires tangible skills, practice, and diligence—it requires you to work in.
This article is adapted with permission from Work In. In the book, coach Erin Taylor gives you practical mental focus and physical relaxation tools to optimize your recovery anytime, anywhere.