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.