The Power of Meditation, Floating, & the Parasympathetic Nervous System
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I’ve always been a “balls to the wall” kind of guy. “High energy, fast paced, intense, and relentless” are some of the terms I’ve heard regularly throughout my life. AWESOME! I love the fact that my energy and enthusiasm are apparent to the people I choose to be around. I’d much rather be the life of the party, the little fireball that dominates the room, and the person that never seems to have a bad day versus being the slow, boring, careless bro who can kill the energy in a room. Merf! That’s right…I said Merf. It’s a totally made up word, but just sounds like it fits, doesn’t it?
Now, back to the topic of controlling the wild and crazy Type A’s of the world. If you’re anything like me, and you too have been classified as fast paced, high energy, and relentless, you better understand how to control this, or you’re going to be a nervous wreck. You’ll eventually experience adrenal fatigue; you’ll be irrational at times; you’ll have a short temper; your mental clarity will become foggier. Basically, if you don’t start to control the highs and lows, the yin and yang, you’ll wreak havoc on your body, specifically your nervous system. Hopefully, by the end of this thing, you’ll have a much better understanding of what the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are, and more importantly, you’ll have learned some techniques on how to create balance and harmony between the two.
Before we dive into the techniques to control the nervous system, let’s get a clear understanding of the two and how they differ. They’re pretty much the complete polar opposites of each other. If one is hot than the other is cold. If one is morning, the other is night. Check out the table below. This table will help highlight some of the differences between the two.
Looking at the table above, it’s pretty easy to see which nervous system dominates while we’re training. The sympathetic side, hence the nickname, the “fight or flight” nervous system is the driving force behind getting a killer workout in. Thinking about the polar opposites, it’s like trying to workout after a 90-minute massage, or smashing some weights after slamming a Redline in about 10 seconds flat. It’s not rocket science here…I’m pretty sure the person slamming the Redline prior to their workout will have a little better training session, and this is due to which nervous system is dominant at the time.
Training either nervous system will cost some energy and produce a certain amount of stress. Getting that 90 minute massage will still produce a stress response within the system, as will going for a run, hitting the weight room, or simply going for a walk. I don’t want to explain this in too much detail, but simply put…everything we do costs us some energy and produces a stress response.
Stress is stress, and there’s a price to pay for every activity we do.
The first time I heard about the currency analogy and relating stress loads to my bank account, it finally made sense. I want to briefly talk about it here, and if you’d like more info on this analogy, James Cerbie has a nice article on Eric Cressey’s blog that explains this well. If you read this article later, it will help drive home the point here. You can find that by clicking here.
Relating stress to your bank account can really help drive home this message. Think about your bank account. Have you ever incurred an overdraft fee? Many of us have, at one point in our lives. When this happened, you spent more money than you had in your account. In order to get things back in good standing, you had to add some more money into the delinquent account.
Stress and the human body are kind of the same way. You have only a certain capacity of stress that your body can handle before your account goes into the negative and is in bad standing. Your training intensity, volume, frequency, and other factors will play into your overall account tremendously. If you’re hitting it hard, you’re going to need some extra sleep and recovery time.
The training intensity, volume, and load is money out.
The rest and recovery is money in.
You’ve got to monitor stress if you want to have the best success. Having a terrible day at work can create the exact same stress response as an intense lifting session, so start thinking about all of the stresses going on with your clients, and ensure their bank account isn’t going into the negative. If it does, they’ll incur the penalties and this will start to have a negative impact on their health and performance. Again, I just wanted to briefly describe it here, and recommend checking out Cressey’s blog later to help elaborate on this very important topic.
Now that we understand that every result has a price, or a currency it’s going to cost us, it’s important to address some of the factors that contribute to the specific training adaptations we’re working for. If our bank account only has so much it can give, getting a clear picture of where our money, or energy is going is step number one. This is where we develop the plan, or the processes that we’ll be using to achieve the adaptation we’re looking for. Here are some of the factors that will drastically affect the money going in or going out:
• Frequency – How many days a week are you going to train? I usually try to keep this number the same. I may adjust what we do based on a number of variables on a given day, but the frequency is steady remains pretty constant.
• Intensity – How hard are you going to train on a given day, week, month, or training block? Using a tool like HRV can really help you dial in the appropriate level, so if you don’t know much about HRV, I suggest looking into it. The three HRV tools I have personal experience with are: Omegawave, Bioforce HRV, and Ithlete.
• Time – How long are your training sessions going to be? How long will each block of training be? When will you add de-load weeks? These are a few of the factors that I think about when designing a program. Don’t forget that high volumes can drastically affect the body’s bank account, so plan time accordingly.
• Type – I like to think of this as the specificity portion of training. What specific goals do you have? Do you want to slam-dunk a basketball? Run a faster 40? How about deadlift 500 lbs.? Each one of these programs would have a different type of training, and each program will also affect the energy stores differently.
Nutrition: This one isn’t rocket science. I’m not going to get into any specific nutrition information here, but what you put in your mouth plays a major role on your ability to adapt and achieve positive changes from your hard work and efforts. Eat like shit; get shitty results. Putting processed foods and other poor quality choices in your diet and you’ll pull money from that account. Fuel your body with things like grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, quality eggs, fruits, and veggies, and you’ll add money to your account. If you’re not getting the results you want, be sure to address this category and don’t neglect it. Let’s not try and fool ourselves thinking we can out-train a poor diet.
Sleep – This is one of the best, and most important things you can focus on to ensure you’re always working to improve the energy stores in your body and build up the bank account. Getting the right number of hours each night is a good start. If you’re not getting 7-8 hours each night, I’d recommend changing your schedule around as much as possible to make it a reality. Poor, inconsistent sleep patterns will lead to poor, inconsistent results. Be sure to address sleep, rest, and relaxation when your training load goes up. If you’re training more, your body will need to rest more. Here’s an article I wrote a while back with some tips you can use to help improve this area of your life so you can get better results. You can check it out here.
Stresses of Life – This category is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to explain in full detail, so let me get things started so you can reflect on your life and the stresses you face on a daily basis. My daily stresses are going to be different than yours, and yours will be different from the next person’s. We all have outside stresses going on in our life. Some of them are positive, and some of them are negative. Life will happen…and it will generally happen in the snap of a finger. Outside stresses are a constant. They’re not going anywhere. Unless you have some sort of protective bubble to live in, the stresses of daily life will begin to stack up. Using a tool like HRV (heart rate variability) will help show you how these stresses affect your ability to recover and adapt to your training. Since we can’t live in a protective bubble, free from stress, we better learn how to manage it properly and adapt the other stresses in our life accordingly.
Now that we know some of the factors that contribute to depleting our body’s bank account, it would be wise to discuss some of the things we can be doing proactively to help fill the bank account back up. I’m a big fan of adding these recovery strategies with our clients. Most of our clients are probably very similar. If your clients are stressed out from their work, kids, travel, or countless other variables, try to get them involved in each one of the categories listed below. These categories are designed to help melt the stress away and restore your parasympathetic side of things. They work well for me, and I’m sure if you give them a shot, they’ll work well for you too.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite methods to work on rest and relaxation:
Meditation – I’ve had tremendous success with breaking through plateaus by having people add daily meditation into their routines. Some of our clients, and ourselves, are on the go, all day long, every day of the year. When we’re in constant motion, our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. We have text messages dinging at us, honking cars, kids misbehaving, and life is going on around us at 1000 mph. Taking as little as 5 minutes a day to add some quiet time can provide you with outstanding results and will start to let your “fight or flight” nervous system start to calm down a bit. Many people struggle with meditation to start with, so I recommend starting with guided meditation. There are some good apps out there for free that will help with guided mediation. Start there and then progress. Eventually, you’ll be able to meditate almost anywhere, shut off the distractions going on around you, and focus solely on your breath letting your thoughts and cares dissipate for the time being. If sitting still for 5-10 minutes is challenging for you, that’s a pretty good sign that a little meditation in your life wouldn’t be a bad thing 🙂
Floating – If you’re unaware of what floating is, it’s something I highly recommend looking into. Basically, with floating, you’re laying in the dark, complete silence, while your body is floating on top of water. The pod or float tank you get in is filled with a heavy concentration of Epsom salt water. The salt-water concentration is so dense, it makes the body completely buoyant and floating is effortless. You can just lay back, shut everything down, and go into a deep state of rest and relaxation. Floatation tanks used to be called “sensory deprivation chambers.” This lack of stimulus is the primary benefit of floating. You also get the benefits that the Epsom salt provides, but the main reason I like floating is the fact that there is no light, no sound, no distractions, and no gravity. You can just lay there, completely lifeless, and let all your thoughts just melt away. The water is regulated to stay at your own body temperature, so your body doesn’t even have to regulate it’s own temperature. This is about as close as you can get to absolute nothingness, and it’s glorious.
Massage – Everyone reading this article probably has a good idea on what a massage can do for you. Going in for a regular massage can help keep the rest and digest system keep going strong. Professional massages and luxurious day spas are very popular and pretty mainstream. I have a few massage therapists that I recommend to clients. Referring them to the right professional is critical though. Even though they’re going in for a professional massage, they could be getting a completely different experience. I have a therapist I send clients to for structural integration, trigger point release, and other specifics that will help that individual get better. The type of massage I’m talking about here doesn’t require a bad ass in the field. Sometimes my recommendation is purely from a standpoint of getting that client to chill out and have another human being touch them. Nothing sexual here, but there’s something powerful about relaxing, shutting off the mind, and having the warmth and gentle hands of another human being touch us.
Active Recovery and Cardiac Output Workouts – Working on rest, recovery, and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t always have to come from taking a day off of training. It does, however, mean you’ll need to alter what you’re doing if improving parasympathetic actively is a goal of your session. One of the best things you can do to stimulate the rest and digest system is to go for a walk outside in the natural sunlight. There’s something about getting outside and soaking up all the goodness that Mother Nature has to provide…simply put, it’s just flat out good for you. Foam rolling, mobility work, light sled work, and other various low level, low heart rate, low blood pressure skill work are ideal for training your parasympathetic side. Once again, if you’re using HRV, you’ll eliminate the guesswork. If you’re on a red day, adjust your training accordingly and you’ll always keep progressing.
Hot Tubs or Saunas – Just talking about the benefit of hot tubs makes me miss mine. At my old house, I used to have one of these bad boys. There was nothing like getting into the hot tub on a frosty winter day and just chilling out. My muscle soreness would be reduced dramatically. My mood would be instantly improved. The use of hot tubs and saunas are great for rest and relaxation. I’ve almost been tempted to join the local gym near my house due to the fact that they have a hot tub. I’m surely not going there for their quality weight machines, lines of treadmills, or quality training staff. If I’m almost willing to pull the trigger on getting a local gym membership when I own one, which should tell you how much I like these luxuries.
I know that was a lot to digest, so let me give you a quick breakdown on what we just covered.
1. Most people are stressed out. Their sympathetic side overpowers their parasympathetic side. Mr. Yin kicks Mr. Yang’s ass on the regular.
2. There are a lot of variables that affect our ability to maintain homeostasis, or to keep in balance. The exercise program we’re following; the sleep we’re either getting or missing out on; the quality of the food we’re putting into our bodies on a regular basis; the kids kicking and screaming because they want ice cream. Stress is stress is stress! Did you get that? Stress is stress and we need to be aware of that.
3. If you’re not using HRV, you should. It’s the only way I know of to actually manage stress, training and non-training related.
4. Try out some of the techniques used to stimulate the parasympathetic side of things. This will help recovery, results, and enhance your ability to train tremendously. If you get good at this, you’ll be able to out-train your opponents without killing your body and mind in the process.
5. Keep studying and learning about this stuff. Learning how to create intervention strategies in and away from the gym will help you get better results with your clients…GUARANTEED!