As athletes, we are constantly stressing our sympathetic nervous system – the autonomous system which works in response to stress, exercise and activity. This nervous system is unconsciously monitored by the brain and will often have been familiar to people as the ‘fight or flight’ system. Indeed, once exercise is commenced, changes in the concentrations of adrenaline are responsible for increases in cardiac output, heart rate and respiratory rate, improving the delivery of and removal of oxygen and carbon dioxide respectively from our tissues. You may have experienced even a change in thinking or psychological processing after or during a hard interval on the bike, with your senses heightened. Pushing towards your maximum heart rate, you might even sense smells, changes in colour and sound differently as adrenaline and other catecholamines are coursing through your veins and arteries to demand the most out of your system.
Often, the work we do as coaches and physiologists is centred around improving the factors involved in exercise – or more specifically, factors related to the sympathetic drive of the autonomic nervous system during exercise. For some athletes, as soon as the helmet or shoes have come off, there is a distinct transcendence from athlete to regular human, as thoughts of the session may be a distance memory. But the other system used to ‘rest and digest’, the parasympathetic nervous system, has now been found to have a large impact on our ability to recover, relax and process the physiological disturbances which occur during train. Indeed, it is only during ‘feet up’ time that we respond to the physiological impedance that occurs during our sessions – glycogen depletion, muscle fibre damage, cellular depletion and enzyme upregulation. Science has led to incredible optimisation of interval training, recovery durations and periodized training, meaning the pinnacle of exercise physiology is certainly today. But could the key to better performance be everything you do OFF the bike?
In elite athletes and physically active individuals, it is normal to have a lower resting heart rate, known as bradycardia. This is due to greater parasympathetic or vagal tone during rest which is induced through adaptation to higher intensities of exercise training and a greater efficiency of cardiac output at rest, meaning the same or greater volume of blood is distributed around the body for less ‘effort’. To feel your parasympathetic nervous system taking hold – find your pulse (neck or wrist). On taking a deep inhale, you will feel your pulse increasing quite fast. When exhaling, there may even be a slow delay or cessation of pulse, followed by a return to normal rhythm. The volume of air that induced into the lungs displaces the vagal nerve (connecting to the sino-atrial node, a pacemaker of electrical activity for your heart) and the hearts natural rhythm (of around 100bpm) comes back into play. When you exhale, the vagal nerve is reintroduced into normal physiological location, followed by a ‘seize’ of the heartbeat by the parasympathetic nervous system. Similarly, once can experience the sympathetic nervous system by quickly standing up, whereby your brain quickly increases the cardiac output through an increase in heart rate to compensate for the displacement of blood to your lower limbs.
So could engaging the autonomic nervous system be key to improving your performance? And should we spend as much time per week training our parasympathetic nervous system? There’s no easy answer to this, but often an individualised approach will be something we offer here at Spokes. Our lifestyle and wellbeing coaches are well versed in the use of meditation and yoga to encourage relaxation, mindfulness and a sense of being present, something which can translate quite well to optimal performance. Indeed, there is the age old adage amongst pro cyclists, ‘never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down’, such is the impetus and importance of taking every moment to recover as best as possible. As part-time athletes, we often can’t get driven around, have our food prepared and all our chores done like during a stage race like the Giro. But, could a couple of minutes of practice a day make a massive difference?
Practicing mindfulness and meditation on a daily, or regular basis, is a perfect way to actively engage and embrace your parasympathetic nervous system. We often think of ‘recovery’ as lying down, watching television and snacking on our favourite food. But actively recovering (aside from easy spins on the bike…) can take the form of guided focus of attention exercises or yoga. By focusing on the breath, sound or pose we are in, the embodied feelings of our limbs and the area around us come much more into the consciousness, and we begin to learn the feeling of being present and receptive to the subtle messages our body gives us. When we focus on breathing and intaking breath in a calm, purposeful way, we are engaging our parasympathetic nervous system actively, and encouraging the upregulation of acetylcholine (as opposed to adrenaline). Often, these calming activities give a sense of perspective and often lead to a ‘fresher’ feeling, giving a definite transition between exercise and normal, everday life. Purposeful, mindful relaxation in the present moment is a powerful way to de-stress from the day of work or training session and may even be a better technique to aid in transition to sleep for those who perform evening sessions.
Take away points
- The sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is responsible for the autonomous control of exercise and raising metabolic rate through adrenaline
- The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) is responsible for the autonomous control of relaxation and normal bodily functions away from exercise and physical activity through acetylcholine
- Mindful practices such as nature walks, musical performance, guided meditation, reading and yoga are perfect ways to actively stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system
- Actively engaging with relaxation techniques may improve recovery from performance, and clear previous emotions/energy from previous exercise sessions.
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