We live in a ‘more is better’ culture, where a higher degree of effort or exertion reaps more significant rewards. This is something that transcends into human performance.
We have a firm belief that we need to do more, push harder, train longer and diet more restrictively in order to get the best results.
Yet, despite this assumption, our bodies just don’t function this way.
By focusing on our training, we are missing something crucial to our progression:
It just so turns out that this often negated factor is critical to our success... and we’re all missing out.
A Few Scenarios
Let’s set the stage for three typical clients that we have at Integra:
- First off, we have Wendy. She's 48 years old, has three children, and runs a successful business, which requires her to travel every month.
- Secondly, we have a competitive bodybuilder (Let’s call him Geoff) approaching a competition, whilst maintaining a job within a fitness facility and working with clients of his own.
- Lastly, we have Sam. She used to be a competitive triathlon athlete in her late teens and early twenties. She now practises law.
All three of the above individuals train in some way physically, but they also experience other stressors from work, family and more. Regardless of the avenues from which these stressors emerge, they all make their way into the same ‘stress cup.’ This means that if we have a particularly stressful week at work, it has the potential to impact other areas of our lives. Because of this, we may want to back off or limit stress in certain areas to allow for the added stress in others.
The Nervous System
So, we have mentioned that stress is abundant, especially in the lifestyles that we all lead. On top of this, when we train, we could say that were are exercising the Sympathetic Nervous System. Its important to see the Sympathetic & Parasympathetic not as opposition, but as one that complements the other.
If we look at this as the ’50%’ to our success, then the other 50% comes from the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Both of these two branches are members of the Autonomic Nervous System & they both have polarised roles.
The Sympathetic Nervous system traditionally prepares us for fight or flight scenarios. Getting chased by a bear? Your sympathetic nervous system will kick in which brings about the following responses:
- Increased Heart Rate, supplying oxygen & nutrients to the brain & muscular system
- Glucose release from the Liver, providing instantaneous energy to the body
- Dilation of bronchioles, increasing oxygen uptake (which makes its way into the bloodstream whilst that heart is pounding)
- Digestive function is reduced in order to triage energy output. Not essential for survival? Put it on a backseat
- The release of epinephrine & norepinephrine. These hormones act as neurotransmitters & have a prolonging effect on the above responses. The duration of effect from neurotransmitters far exceeds that of nerve impulses.
As you can see, the above scenario would be ideal if you were planning to run away from something looking to eat you (I personally wouldn’t fancy fighting), and it would make for a pretty kick arse training session. The issue is when we are in this state for a prolonged period of time.
When we are in this state, the rate of energy consumption increases dramatically. This enables us to perform at an enhanced rate. In order to recover from this, we need to consume energy: firstly due to the energy requirements the body has placed upon itself, but also the potential damage that has been imposed if we looked at it in a training scenario.
If digestive function is compromised, we can wave goodbye to any hopes of digesting & absorbing the Macro & micronutrients that our body needs. On top of this, if we become sympathetic dominant, we can experience issues such as:
- Sleep disturbance
- Anxiety / Depression
- Digestive issues
- High blood pressure
- Feeling ‘run down’
- Impaired recovery
- Systemic & localised inflammation
- Thyroid & hormonal issues
In order to ensure optimal recovery, we want to encourage activity from the Parasympathetic Nervous system. This branch allows us to rest & digest, emphasising processes crucial to recovery. In contrast to the SNS, the PNS reduces heart rate in order to conserve energy & places a triage on energy used for digestion. Intestinal activity is also up-regulated via a Neurotransmitter called "Acetylcholine", leading to an increase in the uptake of nutrients along with the stimulation of the Salivary Gland ultimately leading to an acceleration in Peristalsis.
So there you have it. Two sides of the coin, equally as important as each other. How can we ensure there is balance, or how can balance be restored?
Minimising Excessive Sympathetic Activity & Maximising Parasympathetic Activity
- We must train appropriately for us as individuals & according to the other stressors present within our routines. Everyone has a different tolerance with respect to volume & frequency.
- We can actively assess whether we are recovering properly & not exceeding our tolerance by using Heart Rate Variance. Heart rate is a major way to assess whether we are overtraining or not recovering optimally. There are a few HRV apps out there, but I would recommend HRV4Training & Elite HRV to be among the best.
- Meditate once a day. Meditation is known to bring awareness to your own body as well as promote activity from the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
- Supplement to support Gamma-aminobutyric Acid. GABA acts as a neurotransmitter that has an inhibitory effect on the Sympathetic Nervous system, whilst having an excitatory effect on the Paraymathetic Nervous System.
- Supplement with Magnesium. The Sympathetic Nervous System is inhibited by Magnesium, allowing Parasympathetic to kick in.
- Supplement with CBD. Research shows that CBD can cause an inhibitory effect on the SNS & reduce anxiety.
- Eat minimally processed, natural foods that minimise inflammation of the GI tract. This inflammation is a form of stress.
- Ensure that you get 7-9 hours sleep daily, with consistent time patterns. Check out our article on Circadian Rhythm.
- Limit stimulants throughout the day such as caffeine. Stimulants tend to promote effects identical to that of the Sympathetic Nervous System.
So where does this leave us?
It’s true, many of us admire those who grind for 18 hours a day or spend upwards of 3 hours training six times a week. But in reality, it’s all a matter of diminishing returns. Just because we do more, it doesn’t necessarily mean we actually DO more (or at least, we don’t get more out of doing more!). Coming up with a routine in order to maximise our downtime is critical to our success. After all, by focusing on our training, we are taking a half-baked approach.