We live in a society constantly inundated with stress, work, information, traffic, and countless other distractions that disrupt our system. This frenetic pace leaves us in a constant fight or flight aka the sympathetic state. Sympathetic isn't the enemy, it is quite awesome when you're training hard and need that extra push or when we react quickly to avoid danger. We were not made to stay there for extended periods of time, though.
Quick Review of Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic system comprises of two states:
Sympathetic: Fight, flight, protect. This is a state of slight to high stress. We want high levels at appropriate times (danger, competition, training) while minimizing throughout the process of the day.
Parasympathetic: Relax, restore, digest, rest. We want more time in this state. Here is where our body makes the magic happen by restoring our immune system, building muscle, synthesizing memory and motor patterns (while sleep) as well as digesting our food.
The goal is to be in a more parasympathetic state especially after training, before eating, and prior to bed. We want a slight to high sympathetic state whenever we are training or about to compete.
Ways to Achieve a Parasympathetic State
Meditation: Short stints of meditation can go a long way. Just five minutes daily have shown proven health benefits including the decrease of anxiety, improvement of focus, and sleep quality. All you need is five minutes of alone time, a comfortable sitting position and your breath to take you through. Personally, I aim to consciously slow my heart rate by breath and solely focusing on breathing for five minutes. Nothing more or nothing less.
Breath: Like meditation, breathing is the direct link to bringing our bodies out of a sympathetic state. Belly and expansive breathing are extemely valuable tools to practice on a daily basis. Belly breathing aids in restructuring our breathing patterns that most of us seem to when awry with.
Stretching & Self Myofascial Release Work: Stretching and myofascial work signals to our mechnoreceptors that it is ok to relax. The signal of external pressure delivers the message to our nervous system to release the tone that we would otherwise keep in our body. Simple flows of five minutes prior to bed can really enhance your sleep quality. The following are a few examples.
Foam roll entire body with couple trigger points with lacrosse ball
Big bang stretches such as lateral line stretch, Hip flexor, cat/camel, and glute stretches open the body while relaxing.
Ensure you are breathing slowly through the abdomen in a controlled manner to associate your flow with a calm state.
Kick Up and Relax Post Exercise
This is my athlete's favorite portion of the session. After all trainings, I have my clients kick their feet up on to a wall, place their hands behind them, and concentrate on just being still for the following three minutes. My goal of this is to place their mind and body at ease since this delivers the message to the nervous system "we are safe now." This in turn aids in signaling the recovery process especially since food will be coming shortly in which we want to be parasympathetic for so that we can digest and assimilate that food for gains and adaptations.
Placing ourselves into a parasympathetic state is of our utmost priority. It not only aids in placing lean muscle mass while removing fat, it gives our body the ok to clean up the immune system and repair all of our bodily functions. Being relaxed and in a good state of being allows our body to do it's normal maintenance that keeps us performing at a high level while feeling our best. Place the above factors to your daily routine and find yourself more recovered and relaxed throughout your days.