Written by: Joe Mosher
M.Ed, ATC, C.S.C.S, USAW
Assistant Athletic Trainer, Head Strength Coach NYU
We get better through training. We have to train everyday to get stronger, to become better technicians at our sport. We push our bodies harder and harder everyday in the pursuit of perfection. Hard work does pay off, but only if you can work hard. This is where recovery comes into play. If you cannot recover from the previous training session, than how can put in the same effort in the next training session?
Many athletes assume that fatigue is physiological; that their muscles are tired. They have been used and the energy stores are low. This assumption would be ok to make on a day-to-day basis, but when you look at training over a long period of time, it is a slightly narrowed view. So if it is not physiological fatigue then what can it be?
I would like to introduce you to the central nervous system (CNS), the KING of the human body. Nothing happens without it, good or bad. The brain and spinal cord, which make up the CNS, regulate almost every function in the body. CNS fatigue is also known as the dreaded “overtraining!” There are some great coaches and practitioners who do not believe in overtraining, they believe in under-recovery. If you properly recover from one training session to the next, then you cannot over train because your body is prepared for what each training session will bring.
When we talk about the CNS, we are talking about two specific components: the sympathetic (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Both are equally important to your success in sport but both can have detrimental effects.
The SNS is in control of our “fight or flight” response. The classic feeling is when the hair stands up on the back of your neck. Your muscles tense, your breathing get shorter, and your vision gets focused. Your body is literally getting ready to either fight for its life or run for it. This is the system we want working for us when we are training and competing.
The PNS is our “rest and recover” response. When we are done running/fighting for our life we need our PNS to help us recover and repair any damage that was done. This is the system we want to be using when we are done competing and getting ready for the next training session or competition.
We’ve touched on how these systems can be helpful to us, but if they are so helpful in one way, how can they also be detrimental? You might think that two systems that are so opposite would be like the on and off position of a light switch. Turn the light on, SNS; turn the light off, PNS. Simple as that may be, unfortunately the body does not always function like a light switch and the nervous system does not always simply switch from on to off. Sometimes that light switch can get stuck in one position. The “off” position is good for recovery but is terrible for competition. Too much relaxation and your body cannot react fast enough. It cannot deliver enough blood or oxygen to the working muscles fast enough. Our biggest concern is not being stuck in a relaxed state though; our biggest concern is being stuck in the “on” position.
The SNS is what we need to control if we want to compete at our best day in and day out. As modern day humans we have a lot of stimulus that humans did not have 50+ years ago. We are constantly being bombarded with sounds, images and media that are supposed to get us excited. They want to elicit that response to get you to pay attention to them. Even in our sleep we are being stimulated: the late night police siren, thinking about our heavy class load with a lot of assignments due at the same time or the noisy neighbor that wakes us from our deep sleep. We are constantly on edge and ready to go. If we are always stuck “on” we can never flip the switch to “off.” All too often we make the effort to flip the switch, only to be interrupted in our process by something else.
Now what can we do about it? There are a few methods that I picked up from Brandon Marcello from EXOS:
The first and simplest recommendation is to sleep! Sleep longer and more often. College athletes should be aiming for 9-10 hours of sleep per night. Is that always going to be possible? No, but when you can, you should. Setting up a routine goes hand in hand with sleep. Try your best to go to bed every night at the same time and rise from bed around the same time, even on the weekends. The body likes routine; try to give it what it likes. If you have the ability to nap during the day, take it. Naps are not a substitute for sleep at night but they are a great way to pay back the sleep you missed.
The Basics: How to stimulate parasympathetic nervous system
Immediately after training:
Try and restore fluid and energy levels back to pre-participation levels. This is simple; one idea is a recovery shake with a 4:1 carb to protein ratio. Most people are chronically dehydrated so I am under the impression that most people cannot get enough water to begin with, so start rehydrating now. Next, stretch lightly and hold the stretch for short period of time, 10 seconds and only at a very light comfortable level. We are not looking to gain length in the muscle, only restore what we had before activity. Other ideas are to walk or move lightly to help with blood flow and listen to music that is relaxing to you. If all else fails, lay with your legs elevated on a wall. This will help with venous and lymph drainage, thus bringing in new fresh blood.
Hydrotherapy after training:
There are a few options for what you can do after you train. Most people gravitate to the cold tub after training sessions. I personally enjoy cold tubs after training but too much of a good thing can be bad. There is an economical phrase called “the law of diminishing returns.” It basically states that there is a level to which something is good and beneficial, but past that, more of it does not yield greater results.
Cold tub research has preliminary findings showing that the benefits are lesser after twice a week treatments. Also timing is important, only using the cold tubs after your most intense training sessions of the week. The cold tub should be kept between 50-54°F and last about 10-15 minutes.
Warm tub is another option. This is not as well-known as the cold tub, but can also be beneficial. The warm tub may seem counter intuitive but if we are looking to stimulate recovery through PNS it can help in two ways: it will draw more “fresh/good” blood to the area being soaked, which will bring in oxygen and nutrition to the area as well as remove the “old/bad” blood from the site, it also provides relaxation. Anytime you can get your heart rate and blood pressure to drop, you are getting yourself into a parasympathetic state. The hot tub should be kept at 102-104°F and should last between 12-15 minutes. This can be done up to 4 days a week, however, should not be done if there is another training session planned the same day.
For the athlete who is short on time after training, there is still a good option for you: contrast showers can be very beneficial. For the novice or someone short on time: hot water for 1 minute, then cold water for 30 seconds, repeating 4-5 times. If you have another session that day, end on cold; if nothing else is planned, end on hot water. For someone who has more experience with contrast showers than you can start with hot water for 3 minutes and then use cold for 30 seconds, repeating 4-5 times. Again, end on cold if there is another session planned that day, if nothing else is planned, then end on hot water.
For those who like to shower before training/games you can use a contrast shower. Start with 30 seconds hot and then go cold for 30 seconds, repeat that 3 times, end on cold. Ending with cold water will help to ramp up the SNS and help you be ready for the pending contest.
Once you are home:
Shower as soon as possible, continue to hydrate and eat a high quality meal with quality carbs and protein as well as plenty of veggies. Most people don’t eat enough vegetables, so go ahead and load up on them. Continue to light stretch, self-massage, shaking the muscles out, foam rolling, and any relaxation technique that works for you.
In the evening:
Relax; shower again if you want. Most people watch TV in the evenings during downtime. A friend once told me that the only TV someone should watch is comedies because they make us laugh. When we laugh we are automatically put into a state of relaxation. TV dramas are doing their best to tap into our SNS to get us hooked into watching them. I am not saying to do one versus the other, but it might be food for thought. Whatever TV you choose to watch it is a great time to start your static stretches. This is the time to start to stretch to improve tissue length using longer holds. Most suggestions are to hold a muscle for anywhere between 30 seconds to 1 minute. I, however, feel you should hold a stretch until you feel a tissue length change and then hold it for 30 seconds to a minute. Tissue length change is when you feel the tension in the muscle decrease and the discomfort of the stretch begins to dissipate and you can move the limb a bit further than where you started.
Sleep: SLEEP! It is the most undervalued recovery method. Sleep debt is crushing us. Sleep debt is the accumulated time that you did not sleep the night prior. If your body needs 8 hours of sleep a night to function but you only get 6 hours, you are accumulating 2 hours of sleep debt a night. The more sleep debt you have the worse you will perform. You need to pay back sleep debt back if you want to perform at your best.
Preparing for sleep is easy, but it does take some time. You typically want to give yourself an hour to wind down from the day. This would be a great time to, if you want to, take another shower or read a book for pleasure. The real danger in this time is blue light. The blue light I am referring to is the light from electronics like cell phones, TVs and computer screens. This light has been shown to throw off your body’s natural clock. The light suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that stimulates sleep. Decreased melatonin equals less restful sleep and therefore less recovery.
In the morning:
Evaluate your previous night sleep and the day ahead of you. Make any changes to your day that you foresee needing. As always, no one plans to fail but a lot of people fail to plan. Make your recovery a priority and see what is possible.