Rest and recovery protocols are a vital part of any athletic training or fitness program, no matter if you’re an elite athlete or a gym rat. With the level of stress in our culture, there’s never been a more important time to ensure our bodies are getting not only attention to muscle repair, but techniques that include chemical and hormonal balance, nervous system repair, mental state and more.
Awareness of various recovery protocols should be something every athlete and athletic professional implements to create balance in the body/mind. The emergence of recovery science is new and evolving. Our focus is going to be on the powerful effects of utilizing mindful breathing within recovery strategies.
This article will attempt to bring awareness to three patterns of recovery along with the “how” and “why” of recovering from stress-induced exercise periods, regardless of metabolic breakdown of anaerobic and aerobic exercise.
- Active Recovery - reducing stress loads in activity.
- Sleep Recovery - moving into deeper delta brain waves patterns to remove inflammation and calm the brain from excessive activity.
- Rest Recovery - activities during the rest period. How are you using your time off?
We can’t discuss recovery protocols without touching on Heart Rate Variability (HRV) science. Exercise is predominantly a sympathetic (stress) response that we place on various systems of the body, which influence cardiovascular health and performance. The space in between our heartbeats is the study of HRV. HRV science is a wonderful tool to see how well we are recovering from exercise. Balancing the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic vs. parasympathetic) is a key element to improving HRV, which we’ll expand upon in our Active Recovery section (Kawachi, 1997).
1. Active Recovery
Life is basically an endurance sport with intervals of speed. With American stress levels at an all-time high, being skillful in how we deliver exercise is an essential element to improving health and well-being. The cooling down period could be just as important, or even more important, than the heating up periods for long-term success. Most of our clients are stressed out and exhausted before they see us; so, how can we provide a meaningful workout without adding more stress to the body/mind?
Mindful breathing with nasal dominance during exercise is a great way to keep heart rates down and balance autonomic nervous system (ANS) all the while creating a detoxifying experience from the organs of the GI track and minimizing muscle and joint damage. Mindful breathing is the practice of nasal breath regulation playing close attention to the length, depth and pace of the inhale and exhale. Incorporating this into fitness and athletic training is the platform for “active” recovery.
In respiratory physiology, we understand that the inhale activates a sympathetic response (heat, cortisol, physical energy) and the exhale creates a parasympathetic (cooling, serotonin, mental awareness) response. Diaphragmatically, slowing the pace of our inhale, not only stimulates energy production from our gastrointestinal organs, but also provides an opportunity for balancing a sympathetic and parasympathetic hormone release of our “flow” neurochemicals. Breathing diaphragmatically and lengthening our nasal exhale activates a recovery period on the exhale. The longer the exhale, the greater the opportunity for recovery because the exhale is all parasympathetic (Elliott, 2010).
Diaphragmatically breathing through our nose, not only engages the diaphragm muscle but also activates the 10th cranial nerve: the vagus nerve, which is only activated by nasal breathing. Vagus means wandering; the vagus nerve “wanders” down through the diaphragm with 10 strands that interact and communicate with all of our gastrointestinal organs except the adrenal glands. Stimulation of the vagus nerve plays a large role in HRV and parasympathetic activity (Kawachi, 1997).
Not only do we see a positive response physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. It takes a lot of energy to change our habits, when energy levels are low and life stress is high, the breath control is huge to getting a great workout without higher levels of stress hormones. Due to the role of the vagus nerve and parasympathetic activity, when we nasal breathe and improve HRV, we calm our thinking and feeling processes (Park & Thayer, 2014). Slowing the pace and improving the length and depth lowers heart rates, increases Vagal tone, allows us to burn fat stores rather than sugar reserves and so much more. All of this helps the body recover faster. When there is less waste in the bloodstream from exercise, there is less for the immune system to clean up. As the body has to clean up from the stress of exercise, the greater the gains in our rest and recovery periods.
As you begin to pay attention to your breathing patterns and the breathing patterns of your clients, notice that we barely exhale (even through our mouth) and we’re typically gasping and rushing the next inhale. Having this in mind, as we rush for the next mouth inhale and barely release on the exhale, our exercise and athletic training routines are dominantly a sympathetic response. However, if we nasal inhale and exhale, controlling the length, depth and pace, we’re encouraging more parasympathetic activity providing the platform for “recovery in activity” improving heart rates, HRV, digestive/immune/endocrine/brain function and minimizing an inflammatory response (Pal et. al, 2014).
Watch the below video to see a demonstration of how to control breath in order to improve active recovery:
2. Sleep Recovery
Finding a rhythmic sleep cycle that works for you is so critical to short and long-term gains of skills and overall life awareness. The body works with a 24-hour cycle of patterns. Living in concert with these rhythms will improve our sleep cycle.
Sleep isn’t just for the body. We have about 60,000 independent cognitive thoughts every 24 hours. The brain and body repairs itself while we sleep. Optimal health and well-being is experienced when adults achieve 7-10 hours of sleep daily depending on your lifestyle and workout routines. Most of us are having problems sleeping because of the over activity during the day and misuse of our autonomic nervous system.
To improve sleep cycles, take a breathing break during the day. In yoga, we call this a yoga nidra (yogic Sleep), which is the equivalent of 2.5 hours of sleep. A yoga nidra is a 25-minute guided breathing exercise. It’s our equivalent of a cat nap. And if you really want to live in concert with our 24-hour cycle, take a 5-minute “brain break” every 90 minutes to stay in balance with our ultradian rhythms. A brain break means you step away from whatever you’re doing and find a quiet place to close your eyes and breathe (Srinivasan, 1991).
Watch the below video for a demonstration of the 4-step breathing technique:
Watch the below video for a demonstration of the alternate nostril berating technique:
Watch the below video for a demonstration of how to take a brain break:
3. Rest Recovery
Taking time off to rest is essential to our physical, mental and emotional health. Can we rest and unwind what we just wound up? The body loves it but the mind, well, that’s another story. Our mind is the toughest obstacle for resting recovery periods. Learning how to move through our day skillfully riding the waves of emotions and thoughts without manipulation of exercise will really help when you begin to workout again.
The body and the 12 energy systems do require a detoxification period from time to time. Just like nature changes seasons, the body changes also. There can be a part of the mind that resists taking time off; you know, that obsessive-compulsive gene. We all need to evolve and it’s hard to evolve our personal awareness when we always have the gas peddle of life on the floor. Learning how to tap the brakes every now and then is important. When we don’t tap the brakes in life, we end up having the pull the emergency brake and that’s no fun.
Maintaining balance is the secret of life: yin and yang, dark and light, low tide and high tide, winter/spring/summer/fall. Even nature takes a break when the moon comes up and the sun goes down. Our bodies are part of this same cycle of nature.
Everything is changing at all times and we need to adapt to that change with periods of “DO’ing” and “BE’ing”.
Tips for Rest Recovery:
- Make time for play (non-competitive movement).Engage in active activities that involve play and different patterns of movement other than your current sport or fitness routine to improve brain function.
- If you’re an endurance athlete, learn to sit in meditation for the same amount of time as your last race time i.e, raced three hours - sit for 3 1-hr periods or 6 30-minute periods.
- If you’re a sprinter, do everything in life in slow motion for a period of time.
- If you enjoy heavy lifting routines, incorporate release and relax body scans that bring more awareness to muscles incorporated in lifts. Use your energy and awareness in a more balanced way.
- Everyone can benefit from breathing breaks. Repeat the phrase, “breathe, feel, relax, watch and allow,” silently for 8-10 minutes.
Each time we exercise, we have the ability to apply cardio, strength, flexibility, mindfulness and meditation-in-motion workouts. The idea in exercise is to improve our health with the least amount of wear and tear and risk of injury so we can enjoy ourselves well into our golden years.
Elliott, S. (2010, January 08). Diaphragm Mediates Action of Autonomic and Enteric Nervous Systems. BMED Report. Retrieved May 22, 2016, from http://www.bmedreport.com/archives/8309
Kawachi, I. (1997). Heart Rate Variability. MacArthur Research Network on SES & Health. Retrieved May 22, 2016, from http://www.macses.ucsf.edu/research/allostatic/heartrate.php
Pal, G., Agarwal, A., Karthik, S., Pal, P., & Nanda, N. (2014). Slow yogic breathing through right and left nostril influences sympathovagal balance, heart rate variability, and cardiovascular risks in young adults. North American Journal of Medical Sciences North Am J Med Sci, 6(3), 145. doi:10.4103/1947-2714.128477
Park, G., & Thayer, J. F. (2014). From the heart to the mind: Cardiac vagal tone modulates top-down and bottom-up visual perception and attention to emotional stimuli. Frontiers in Psychology Front. Psychol., 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00278
Srinivasan, T. M. (1991, July & October). Pranayama and Brain Correlates. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved may 22, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/