Don’t just “Calm Your Nerves,” Train Them

Anyone feeling more stressed, on edge, or anxious lately? Coach Greg Waggoner here. Stress, both training induced and the day-to-day kind, can have a profound impact on performance. Therefore, whether you are a coach or an athlete, it’s important to not only understand how these different forms of stress affect our bodies but also how they can be better trained.

Understanding the Nervous System

As humans, nerves innervate our muscles in coordinated efforts to create intended movements.  As athletes, we use these movements to exercise and train while simultaneously searching for positive adaptation. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for these movements as well as many other functions of the body. Within the ANS, we have the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems working together to help us train hard and then recover. These two act like the brake and gas pedal of a car, respectively.

The parasympathetic nervous system (the brake pedal) is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” activities that occur when the body is at rest. For example, when the stress is removed or the intervals are over, the parasympathetic system slows us down for recovery.

On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system (the gas pedal) provides rapid involuntary responses to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. For example, during high intensity intervals or in stressful situations, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and provides the body with the tools it needs to overcome what is being demanded from it in that moment.

Source: Mark Van Deusen, “Everything you need to know about Heart Rate Variability”;

Effects of Chronic Stress

Too much exercise, too much stress, not enough sleep or recovery, can result in the sympathetic system getting stuck in the “on” position. This kind of chronic stress can have unwanted side effects such as higher blood pressure and resting heart rate, elevated cortisol, fat gain, and increased inflammation. Additionally, the feeling of decreased fitness can trick us into training even harder, making it all worse. Sound familiar? I’ve been tricked before too. 

How to Train Your Nerves

The good news is that the efficiency of these systems can be trained and we can get better at switching between the gas and brake pedal by training smarter. Scheduling adequate exercise volume and intensity trains the sympathetic system to kick in as needed. Taking proper recovery periods between intervals, proper rest days, recovery weeks, and even recovery months train the parasympathetic system to slow us down and adapt.

Also, many athletes are monitoring how well their bodies are recovering using Heart Rate Variability (or HRV) devices like Whoop. Heart rate variability is the difference in
milliseconds between heartbeats and is helping athletes and coaches more closely monitor how the body is responding to training stress in order to make better decisions. For example, a higher variability means the athlete is more rested and ready to perform vs a lower variability which may suggest taking some unscheduled days off.

Lastly, breathing techniques and meditation have been around for a long time and can help promote a calm restorative response. At any point in the day, take a few deep breaths, inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 4 seconds and you will likely feel a sense of relaxation and/or nervous system transition almost immediately. Try the deep slow breathing for 10 minutes a day to boost your recovery and adaptation. Keep this technique handy for any stressful stimulus so you can “calm down.”

I hope you found this information helpful and that you view recovery through a slightly different lens. Until next time, Greg.


Amateur vs. Professional Cycling with Christian Vande Velde

Hey guys, Matt here. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with retired professional cyclist, two-time Olympian, fellow Peloton instructor, NBC sports commentator and my good friend, Christian Vande Velde. Christian and I met at Peloton a few years ago and we have enjoyed working together ever since. As many of you know, Christian had a tremendous career as a professional cyclist. Nowadays, Christian shares his cycling wisdom from the Peloton Studio and as a cycling analyst at NBC sports.

So who better to ask then Christian …”What does it mean to be a professional cyclist?” In this exclusive, guest-blog appearance, Christian gives us his real, honest account of what it REALLY TAKES to wear the title “professional” day in and day out.

Hey guys, Christian here. What’s the difference between professional and amateur? Being able to consistently execute…over and over and over throughout the calendar year. For example, “the pro” and the amateur ride together on a Sunday for 6 hours in the mountains. The pro takes one planned rest day on Monday and then back to the planned training program for the rest of the week. The amateur spends the entire week licking their wounds or worse,  injured because of lack of prep. The pro has slowly built their engine over time to temper a massive workload and the amateur was way over their head as soon as the ride started. They both did similar work throughout the ride and the amateur actually pushed the pro a few times but the inability to absorb the workload was apparent. Coining the phrase “Weekend Warrior”.  For the record, there is no problem what-so-ever about being a WW (I currently am one) but for the purpose of this article, bare with me. 

Why is this? 

There is talent, of course. The time needed for recovery. The fact that you have a real job! Other demands in your life? Those damn kids! 

Take away raw talent, and recovery is the number one reason. Dedicating time to training is always first and foremost but recovery is sometimes more important than the work itself (if you’re already doing the work). Do you have time to get therapy after your workout? Plan or cook a meal with balanced nutrition values? Take a nap? Download your power files, then go over the workout with your coach and plan ahead? Make another nutritious meal and then plop yourself on the couch afterwards…..then in bed for 9-10 hours. Annnnnnd repeat. Walking around the mall or downtown by the shops? No way! Tabu to the professional cyclist. As the saying goes, “Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lay down. Never lay down when you can sleep.”

I know what your thinking, this sounds amazing! And honestly I can’t argue with you, this lifestyle does sound like a dream and it is, albeit in short spurts. However the sacrifices and lack of balance is not for everyone. Not eating out with friends or hanging at the bar on the weekends….or more importantly, being constantly self-absorbed with your day-to-day starts eating away at you. (ok, bars and dining out were bad examples given our current circumstances….but you know what I’m talking about)

I often get asked, ”What if I started doing this when I was a teenager, like yourself, could I have been a pro?” Sometimes yes, most times no…’s complicated. Physical attributes/genetics are one thing, and the point where everyone starts, whether your 12, 25 or 55. Can you or can’t you do this task, are you adaptable? After that, it’s all mental and how much you truly want to make it happen. Of course I’ve seen crazy talented athletes, who are also smart to boot. These athletes inevitably end up asking themselves “why am I doing this, this is no way to make a living, I should be a (fill in the blank)”…that’s usually where the story ends. And to be honest, I asked myself this same question many times as well. 

Often, I’ll flip the dialogue on them and ask the same question. “Could I do your job?” Most times the answer is no. I would be a horrible quantum physics professor, and I couldn’t work 70 hours in a office without losing my mind. Or, maybe I could be a defense attorney, but it would be a struggle, let alone become one the best. I’d soon be looking for something else to pursue.


What can you do to better yourself? Take a few things that a pro does in their life that you can realistically do in yours. Write down how much time you can realistically give yourself, in any given week, and work backwards from there. Take all the things that matter to you and the people in your life, into consideration. 

If I was to look at three traits that a pro does exceptionally well and pluck them out, they would be the following. Again, part of the recipe for success is modifying it for you, not your friends or training partner, you. WHAT CAN YOU REALISTICALLY DO. Not burn out. Enjoy the process AND have a balanced lifestyle…….that is if you’re really good at time management. 

1) Consistency  
Find the routine and balance that you can stick with and more importantly, have patience through the process. Patience is key in any process. Do not go from zero to hero in the first week. Just like any fad diet, it’s unsustainable. Do enough to commit to the process, without going “all in” immediately and throwing your life off kilter. 

2) Rest
Sleep is so underrated! Lack of sleep and injury go hand in hand…..the negatives are endless. Find a way to make sure you give yourself every opportunity to succeed. Change those patterns in your lifestyle that take away from that opportunity. Go to sleep 30 min earlier at first for example….stop binging Tiger King or Ozarks etc!

3) Nutrition
Just like putting bad gas in a car, same goes with putting McDonald’s grade nutrition in your body. (full disclosure, I have McDonald’s in France every year during the Tour de France, but I’m on TV and not on the bike). For many, even professionals, this is difficult. Again, find that balance and slowly change those negative patterns in your diet. From ordering pizzas regularly to semi…from fried foods to grilling…you get my point.  

What training looked like for me during the season:

  • +/- 30 hours on the bike a week
  • Massage and or chiropractor every other day if you’re lucky, everyday if you’re extremely lucky.
  • 200 days a year on the road. (Training camps/races/appearances)
  • 70-85 days of competition per year.
  • +/- 20,000 miles a year on the bike. You’ll probably crash…or more likely,  somebody is going to crash you. Recovering from this ASAP and getting back into competition where you can show your worth, especially during a contract year, is extremely important.

These are all suggestions. So many times throughout my career I thought I was doing everything correctly, only to run into someone who had one piece of the puzzle dialed in way more than myself. Being adaptive and constantly looking for new ways to do things greatly impacted my career. I hope you’re able to extract some wisdom from me that will help you fulfill or even exceed your goals.

God speed,

I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look from Christian. Hopefully we’ll get Christian back with us again soon. Please leave us a message at Team Wilpers Instagram or Facebook with your thoughts, comments, questions … or concerns 🙂