Training (and the adaptation that comes along with it) is really just a balancing act between the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. It’s a balance between stress and rest. Between strain and recovery.
If we know a little about stress and recovery, then training becomes simple.
Stress the body in the type of way you want it to adapt. Then rest and allow your body to recover. And repeat.
The problem with athletes is that they’re constantly chasing more. Their answer to everything is always, work harder. Do more.
While this is a positive attitude to have (certainly better than having to motivate Karen to get to the gym every day), if they learned a little bit more about down-regulation and stimulating the recovery process, they’d be better athletes and they’d see better results.
The sympathetic system
Think of the sympathetic system as your flight or freeze system (we’ve recently learned that that the ‘fight’ response is only true for trained personnel… fighters, first responders, soldiers etc.).
What stimulates this system?
Hot and cold exposure
Stress at work
Trouble in relationships etc.
Sympathetic stimulation is good for us in the short-term. It drives us towards ACTION. Our heart rate jacks up, we perspire, blood is shifted away from vital organs, our muscles are stimulated, we’re ready to move.
But over stimulation can have negative long-term consequences. It can be a drain on both our emotional state and our cognitive state. It also depletes our energy levels.
We need sympathetic stimulation to change. But we need to balance it out with more parasympathetic stimulation to allow the body to adapt, prevent injury and overuse (see photo below)
In comes the ‘Parasympathetic System’.
Think of the parasympathetic system as your rest and digest system. It’s an ANABOLIC (build and repair) state. It’s part of the sleeping process. It allows us to recover between training sessions. It consolidates memory and learning. In this state blood flow is shifted to vital organs and our muscles get a chance to relax.
In a parasympathetic state we’re our most creative and we can solve problems better. Without this system, we don’t get better from training. We can’t recover, so the body can’t adapt.
As we mentioned earlier, the problem with athletes is that they’re always hard charging. They always want to do more. They’re not ones to slow down and focus on recovery. And as we’ve argued, recovery is equally important to the recovery process.
Here’s where things may start to get a little confusing.
Stress is stress.
We need to balance training stress and recovery to adapt. But that’s not all. We need to add in stress from work, life, personal relationships, sickness and other areas into the equation. If you’re going through something serious like divorce, getting fired, having a baby or going through exams, your training may need to take a back seat. During these times the body is constantly in a heightened state. We’re stressing the body more and more throughout the day. We’re overstimulated sympathetically in our general wanderings of life, then what do we follow that up with? 10km road runs, CrossFit classes or basketball training. SYMPATHETIC STIMULATION OVERLOAD!
This means we need to focus more on down-regulation and recovery. The problem is, we’re extremely bad at switching back and forth between a sympathetic state and a parasympathetic state.
The animal kingdom is extremely good at switching back and forth. The cheetah and the antelope are going through the exact same sympathetic stimulation. If you looked at their heart rate, respiratory rate, blood flow to muscles and the like, you’d find it extremely hard to figure out which numbers belonged to which animal.
The only difference is...
One of the animals wants to be there.
But let’s say the antelope gets away...
What do you find the cheetah doing within a few seconds?
Walking off and finding a tree to nap in, right?
What about the antelope?
He walks a couple metres, bends over and starts chewing on some grass.
Both animals we’re in an extremely heightened state of sympathetic stimulation. It was fight and flight in the truest sense of the word. Only seconds later, they’re able to switch 180 degrees to a complete rest and digest state.
We’re terrible at it. We think about shit for the rest of the day. We let things effect us over and over again. We’re constantly stimulated by our phones, our thoughts and other people that we rarely get a chance to rest, relax and recover.
If we’re not very good at switching to a parasympathetic state, then we’re not going to get the most out of our training. We need to be just as good at turning off, as we are at turning on and training hard.
Every kind of stressor in your life needs to be balanced out with at least the same amount of recovery. All the weights you lift, kilometres you cover, time you spend in ice baths or general stress you experience at work (and in life), should be balanced with rest and recovery. Aim for the same time - if not, more!
Fortunately, we have a natural drive to flick the dimmer switch to almost 100% parasympathetic for roughly 1/3 of the day (during sleep). And it is a dimmer switch – not and on / off light.
We’re never 100% one or the other and it’s common now for people to be fumbling through life never being great at either. As James Nestor puts it in his book ‘Breath’ -
“It’s much more common, especially in the modern world, to never experience full-blown, life-threatening stress, but to never fully relax either. We’ll spend our days half-asleep and nights half-awake, lolling in a gray zone of half-anxiety.”
We need to learn how to switch from one to the other, like the cheetah and the antelope.
Sleep is the truest expression of the parasympathetic system. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get enough sleep. If you’re not getting enough sleep, then you’ll need more tactics on top of your training to help you down-regulate. Things like meditation, stretching, foam rolling or massage all can help bring you back down.
Sauna’s and ice baths are a tricky one because they have an immediate sympathetic response, but a net parasympathetic response (if you know how to down-regulate afterwards). Making them a great way to recover – especially if you use them often.
The actual practices of down-regulation and the ability to switch between them are outside the scope of this article but something we will absolutely look at in the future.
Just understand that STRESS IS STRESS. We need to take into account all the stresses that are present in our lives: training stress, relationship stress, work stress, emotional stress and so on. And balance is out with more parasympathetic states: sleep, relaxation, massage, breathwork, and the right fuel. Recovery is part of the training process!
Learning to consciously switch from sympathetic (lifting, running etc.) to parasympathetic (deep nasal breaths, relaxation etc.) is important. Just becoming more aware of this will help you in your days.
Take a look at your own lives and try to figure out if you’re in balance. If not, ask yourself the question – what could I do to shift my state?