Recovery and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

As athletes, we focus on many different avenues of recovery: weekly massages, foam rolling, yoga, acupuncture, etc. What about looking at recovery outside of the norm? What if we focused not only on what we can do to help assist in muscle recovery, but what we can do to assist in helping our nervous system unwind from training. Coaches have begun to look into different routes to help their athletes recover through looking at biometrics such as resting heart rate and heart rate variability. Understanding how the body’s nervous system works, can help achieve better recovery rates. Grasping how the nervous system responds to exercise, can help alleviate unwanted hormone levels in the body, increase rest, and increase overall recovery times. Let’s take a further look into the nervous systems and how they can help increase our recovery.

Autonomic Nervous System:

Your body is made up of two nervous systems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. You have also probably heard this referred to as your ,”fight or flight” as well as your “rest and digest” response. Both systems are part of your autonomic nervous system and are responsible for your body’s involuntary and reflexive actions of the body. We will go into further detail to discuss each.

Sympathetic Nervous System:

Our body’s fight or flight system is known as the sympathetic nervous system. This division of our body’s nervous system works fast to activate the adrenal gland. This gland releases hormones into our bloodstream that begin to activate certain processes. These processes include: muscles and glands that help to speed our body up to become ready for action, or activate muscles to become more alert. Due to the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, your body reacts in a few ways such as: elevated heart rate, muscle contractions, slowing of digestion, and conversion of glycogen to glucose. The sympathetic nervous system can prioritize what actions to delay and what actions to start. For example, when you are in a situation where you must react quickly, your body will immediately send a response to send a signal to your working muscles and decrease signal to digestion.

Parasympathetic Nervous System:

This specific system is a division of the nervous system that controls automatic responses such as digestion, respiration, and most importantly rest! The parasympathetic nervous system sometimes works against or in conjunction with your body’s sympathetic nervous system. While the body is in flight or fight mode due to the sympathetic response, the parasympathetic division works to bring your body back to homeostasis.

If our parasympathetic nervous system did not exist, it would be impossible for our body to monitor and regulate itself each day. This system, plays a pivotal role in helping to maintain our own mental and physical health. This is triggered through rising hormone levels that are produced during events of stress, one such hormone is: cortisol. With high hormone levels due to stress, our body reacts through raising our blood pressure, this is what the parasympathetic nervous system works against.

After reviewing divisions of the nervous system, we can see that in order to increase our recovery, we should increase our activation of the parasympathetic nervous system post exercise. In order to get the most benefit, you should analyze the amount of stress an athlete has endured from training. Though exercise helps the body with mental stresses, such as combating depression, exercise also puts the body under stresses as well. As intensity increases, so does the amount of stress placed upon it. The faster an athlete is able to return back to baseline levels, or homeostasis, the better they are able to handle the repeated stresses of training.

Ways to Increase Parasympathetic Response:

Understanding the amount of strain and stress your body has endured during training. This is where measuring your body’s biometrics come in handy. Having a record of your baseline levels can show you when your heart rate is elevated and when you may have experienced too much stress. The day after exercise can unveil whether or not your body has properly recovered. If you find yourself during exercise in a state where you can’t reach a normal training heart rate zone, you may be experiencing overtraining and fatigue.

Being able to put both mind and body at rest, will be able to put yourself in deep relaxation. Ways to help achieve this are through massage as well as meditation. When introducing additional techniques, it is always best to slowly introduce them one by one. Increasing the amount of stimulus can sometimes increase stresses. Both massage and meditation can lower your stress response, both mentally and muscular. Additionally, removing mental strain from day to day life can help you recover better. For example, not looking at a phone screen or computer screen prior to sleeping can help your mind unwind, as provide you with a better night’s sleep.

Being able to understand your body’s recovery in crucial for athletes and coaches alike. As athletes we are only as good as our ability to recover from our previous days of training. Learning more about our nervous system and it’s ability to affect training stress can help us to recover not only faster, but better.

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