When most people think about what it takes to get stronger, fitter, faster or even just lose some excess weight, they often only think about what happens in the gym. In fact training breaks the body down, while the period of rest and recovery afterwards builds the body back up. Without good recovery there are no gains.
Rest and recovery are an important part of any training or exercise program and often the most over looked way to enhance your performance.
When talking about recovery, It is important to understand the role of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is like the accelerator in your car. It triggers the fight or flight response, the release of hormones cortisol and adrenaline, increasing heart rate, blood flow, alertness and providing the body with a burst of energy. While the parasympathetic system is often referred to as the “rest and digest” state as it reduces the heart rate, conserves energy, down regulates the nervous system and allows the body to heal and repair.
The sympathetic system kicks into gear when we are stressed, whether that is a physical stressor such as working out or playing sport, or mental and emotional stress like feelings of overwhelm, work deadlines, traffic, screaming kids, etc. The nervous system and endocrine system can not tell the difference between physical, emotional and mental stress. Being stuck in or spending too much time in a sympathetic state makes recovery difficult.
Without the correct amount of recovery our body (and mind) spends too much time in the sympathetic state, which leads to reduced performance, tiredness, decreased motivation and eventually burn out and illness.
It is the parasympathetic state that allows us to recover from bouts of stress.
Switching to the parasympathetic state and prioritising recovery allows the body to adapt to the stress of exercise, assisting the body to replenish energy stores as well as repair and strengthen damaged muscle tissue. Recovery is where the real training effect takes place. Without sufficient time to repair and replenish, the body will continue to breakdown from intensive exercise and both physical and mental fatigue will set in.
After training, playing sport or any physical activity it is crucial to switch from the sympathetic state back to the parasympathetic so the body and mind can start the recovery process. The quicker and more complete this switch takes place the better the recovery and the better the results from the training stimulus. As mentioned earlier the nervous system does not recognise the difference between physical and mental or emotional stress. How many people with good intentions wake up early to a hash alarm clock, jump out of bed to quickly get ready for their early morning workout, go to the gym for some high intensity training, “cool” down with a few token stretches while worrying about all the things they need to get done that day, get home for a rushed breakfast and coffee while getting ready for a jam packed day of traffic, work, never ending to do lists, more coffee… At the end of the day they might finally “relax” with some mindless TV (which actually stimulates many parts of the nervous system) before turning in for a restless sleep and doing it all again. The body never gets a chance to recover from their morning workout and they wonder why they aren’t making any of the improvements they were hoping to get at the gym.
To enhance your performance, don’t forget to make rest and parasympathetic states a priority, whether by taking a long bath, getting a massage, listening to relaxing music and resting, or getting acupuncture.