If you have not tuned in to my 3 Part Blog series on the connection between Mental health and Recovery please do so! Why Failing to Prioritize Recovery is Impacting Your Mental Health is a detailed look at how recovery and the mental health of an athlete are intimately linked. This will also help you understand the type of nervous system shift we are looking for and explain what the Parasympathetic (Ventral Vagal) Nervous System State is (Referred to as PNS in this Blog).
If you have not downloaded my Free EBOOK: The Athletes Holistic Guide to Recovery, this can be a great place to start!
I am a full advocate of explaining the “why” behind things before giving an athlete or coach solutions or answers. I find that the “WHY” is often what empowers an athlete to step into taking care of themselves more efficiently.
The recovery process will be unique and individual for every single athlete. When working with an athlete or a team I find it best and most beneficial to give options for the recovery process.
Why Options and Choice
Why do we need to give an athlete options and choice around recovery? I may sound like a broken record but the recovery process (and mental health journey) is completely individual and unique! No 2 humans are the same. Therefore we cannot assume that any practice or tool will work the same way for everyone!
Athletes spend the majority of their time being told where to be, when to be there, what to do and how to do it. They live in a world that is highly structured and detail oriented, coupled with high demand and expectations.
Athletes NEED areas in their lives where THEY can make decisions around what will best support them.
When we give options and choices around recovery we allow an athlete to step into and OWN their journey. This is empowerment. I do not know my athletes better than they know themselves. This is one area within performance and sport that an athlete should be in full control.
The other reason for this is that we are intimately working with the mind-body system and nervous system. Three things will ALWAYS be at play with regards to how someone is impacted by and receives recovery practices:
All of these will inherently impact how an athlete receives and responds to a meditation practice, a restorative posture, a breath work practice or moving their bodies.
For this SOLE reason, we need to give athletes OPTIONS and CHOICE with regards to how they are accomplishing the goal of giving their mind-body system (and nervous system) what it needs in order to restore.
Below you will find a rough outline of the various practices I help athletes explore with regards to recovery as well as WHY these practices can be beneficial. At a foundational level all of these practices have a Mindfulness component to them. Mindfulness is a way of being and a skill that allows us as humans to gain more awareness about ourselves.
Awareness is the starting point for recovery. We can’t adequately take care of ourselves if we don't know where we are both mind and body. When we provide athletes with practices that allow them to explore this awareness and get to know themselves, they then have more agency to CHOOSE what is going to best support them in recovery.
**It is ALWAYS great practice to consult a medical professional when adding or implementing new practices to your performance routine, or if you run into any trouble with these practices. Professionals you can consider consulting: Medical Doctor, Primary Care Physician (PCP), Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS), Licensed Mental Health professional , Physical Therapist (DPT), Athletic Trainer (ATC)
Slow Movement or Yoga
Yoga simply means the union of the mind and body. Yoga is mindful movement. There are SO MANY ways that Yoga or Mindful Movement is beneficial for athletes in terms of mobility, flexibility and overall performance. Although this is important, I’m choosing to highlight the nervous system benefit..
Slow, mindful movement has been shown to help individuals shift into the PNS state. Although I will not get detailed in the neuroscience behind this, many of my athletes find slow yoga soothing, relaxing and that it simply “feels good” physically. All of these things are important when it comes to helping the mind body system shift into that more PNS state.
When I am working with an athlete or team I like to sequence movement based practices that are low to the ground, require little “physical energy” and fluctuate between slow movement and stillness. Stillness is what allows our mind-body system to notice the impact or effect of what we just did! This is mindfulness in motion. We are seeing how we are responding internally which allows us to gain an understanding of “is this practice helping me work towards that recovery goal?”
*Important note: Stillness can absolutely be challenging and uncomfortable for many. Within mainstream yoga and Savasana (pose at the end of yoga that is often portrayed as laying on your back with your eyes closed) in particular, it can be a common cue to “not move.” For many (especially if you have experienced trauma or are navigating heightened levels of anxiety or stress) this can be extremely unnerving and activating. IT IS OK TO MOVE. The choice is always yours whether stillness supports you or does not. Part of making yoga and ALL these recovery practices work for you is accessibility. It is OK to move your body or find a posture that is more supportive to you and your nervous system within your slow movement practice.
Restorative postures in yoga are used to facilitate ease and relaxation for the mind-body system. Restorative postures mean that we are completely supporting the physical body by using props (pillows, blankets, bolsters, blocks) or the ground to facilitate total relaxation. There is no strain, “work” or stretching happening in restorative postures, which is what can help us release tension and tightness throughout the physical body. Restorative postures are generally held longer in order for the relaxation response (that PNS shift) to take place! Some restorative postures can be held up to 20 minutes!
Two fold, for many, restorative postures are very relaxing for the mind and can help us facilitate the PNS shift just like slow, mindful movement.
Things to ask yourself or considering when you get in to a restorative posture:
*Important note: Again, stillness can be challenging for many! It is OK if restorative postures don't work for you.
Here are some ways we can make restorative postures more accessible:
Myofascial Release (MFR) is a technique that works with the fascia or connective tissue in our body. If you are interested in reading more about Fascia and MFR I suggest this article HERE.
With MFR we use pressure to help target the connective tissue which can help release tension and improve range of motion. Research has indicated that MFR can be incredibly helpful for overall tissue health and eliminating soreness and fatigue. This can be a critical piece of an athletes recovery process and taking care of their mind-body system!
Research has also been able to show that MFR practices can help with the PNS shift because the connective tissue in our body is intimately connected to our nervous system! MFR can be a win - win in helping an athlete recover!
We can practice MFR with a variety of tools that include:
MFR can be incorporated both before AND after performance. Many athletes (Including myself) use MFR prior to working out or training as a part of their warm up or preparation to perform. When it comes to the recovery process, I am speaking about using MFR after training or performance or even outside of a performance setting like prior to bed or on “off” days.
One of the reasons many of my athletes like MFR as a recovery practice is they find or experience a meditative quality to MFR. I find that my concentration and focus can easily center and ground into the pressure or contact I am applying with the MFR ball or foam roller. This in itself can contribute to helping an athlete shift more into the PNS state that is needed in order to adequately recover.
Download my EBOOK to try an MFR practice that I give to almost all my athletes!
I love breath work for athletes because the breath is very intimately linked to our nervous system and overall health and well being. Breath work can be one of the quickest and most efficient ways to help an athlete shift into a more PNS state.
Breath work at a foundational level is about being more intentional about our breathing. We breathe automatically but it is also an automatic process we can control or manipulate. I highly suggest before manipulating or controlling the breath in any way that an athlete starts by getting to know their natural breath. Try the practice in my recovery Ebook HERE
Research has shown that by just focusing or paying attention to our breath we can help stimulate the PNS. Both the inhale and exhale of our breath are linked to “states” of our nervous system. If we want to play around with manipulation, slowing down our exhale relative to our inhale can also have a calming and down regulating (shifting into the PNS State) effect.
**Please note: Breath Work is very unique and individual. Many people and athletes I work with do not find breath work calming or downregulating. If you experience this, I want you to know that that is OK. Many who are navigating heightened levels of anxiety, panic or traumatic stress or symptoms can find breath work very activating and more anxiety provoking. Manipulating the breath is only 1 way that can help us downregulate. I always encourage people to find what helps you do this.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation and Mindfulness can be beneficial practices for recovery due to the fact that both of these practices are centered around awareness and insight. The recovery process starts with knowing yourself and accurately assessing your mind-body system.
As mentioned earlier, it’s going to be hard to take care of ourselves if we don’t know where we are!
We do not have to meditate in order to be mindful and gain awareness and it's important to highlight that meditation and mindfulness are not the same thing. Mindfulness is an embodied skill or way of being that can be beneficial for connecting and integrating the mind and body. Recovery is mind and body.
Research has shown that both Mindfulness and meditation have the potential to help individuals shift into a more PNS state. Again, this is individual for everyone so if this is NOT your experience, that is OK.
Meditation in particular can be somewhat of an advanced mindfulness practice. Meditation has become more mainstream over the last decade. Although it can be a beautiful and beneficial practice, we are often too quick to prescribe or suggest this practice without understanding the full scope of it and the impact it may have on individuals health and well being. With the prevalence of both mental health challenges and trauma in our society its important that we don't generalize meditation (or quite frankly any of these practices) as a practice that is “good” for everyone. For many who are experiencing mental health challenges like heightened levels of anxiety, meditation can actually exacerbate symptoms.
Main goals with a meditation and mindfulness practice that athletes should use to asses:
1. Does this practice feel safe to me?
I.e: Does this practice activate or stir up any somatic (physical) or cognitive (mind) symptoms for me? Meditation can challenge us without activating or triggering our mind body system. Challenging is OK, activating and triggering is different and there are MANY ways to make your meditation more accessible to support you. If you are unsure, speaking with a licensed professional is a great place to start! This is why working with someone in these modalities can be extremely beneficial!
2. Does this practice serve and support me both mind and body in recovering? Does it help me accomplish the greater goal of recovering?
Sleep and Sleep Hygiene
Sleep is what allows our mind body system to restore. Many of us are aware of the harmful and detrimental effects of sleep deprivation that include (1) :
Sleep is one of the most essential needs for athlete recovery. Yet I find that too many athletes either struggle with sleep or never get enough sleep. This is where sleep hygiene can be a game changer.
My definition of Sleep Hygiene includes the habits or behaviors one engages in to put themselves in an optimal place to sleep well. Sleep hygiene can be critical for those of us that struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep or get restful sleep. For many of us, we need to prepare our mind-body system for rest. We live in a society that is productivity and “go go go” driven. To slow down and rest can be challenging so we need to be very intentional and purposeful about how we set ourselves up to do this.
Key things to think about when it comes to sleep hygiene: