This isn’t another article telling you to darken your room, sleep in cool temperatures, and stay off your electronic devices – although if you’re not doing this already this might be a good place to start. This article is going to give you methods of recovery that start right from the moment you drop the barbell until the time where you go to sleep to optimize your recovery and get the most out of your nervous system so it can be ready to kick ass and chew bubble gum the next time you throw it into high gear.
The Autonomic Nervous System for Dummies
We’re going to ignore the conscious nervous system for the moment and focus entirely on the nervous system that just does it’s job automatically and thanklessly. The autonomic nervous system has two main branches: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system, also known as the fight or flight system, is the system you need to kick ass in the gym, at your sport, or mud wrestle grizzly bears in the mountains. The sympathetic branch kicks in whenever the body or mind is under significant stress or feels threatened. The other branch is the parasympathetic system, aka the rest and digest system, and is responsible for bringing you back into balance after your sympathetic system has gone bat shit crazy mobilizing energy stores, firing up adrenal hormone output, and redlining your proverbial engine for however long you were stressed for. When it comes to recovery and sleep, the parasympathetic system is the unsung janitor of your body, but in highly stressed people (hard training, Type A personality, athletes) the parasympathetic system is often overpowered by the intense signalling of the sympathetic system, and this is where we need to intervene if we want to be ready for the next session/competition/game.
Inversion: Arguably the most powerful of the methods listed here, hanging upside down and taking pressure of the spine (which is a main component of the central nervous system) for about 10 minutes can shift the body out of a sympathetic state and kick start the recovery process. Anecdotally there seems to be an effect at around 5 mins, so even if you’re pressed for time, see if you can make time. Most people do not have access to inversion boots or tables, but most gyms have GHR’s or back raises that allow you to hang upside down from the hips down.
90-90 Breathing: placing your feet up on the wall by making a 90 degree angle at your knees, and a 90 degree angle at your hips (think sitting in an invisible chair but the back of the chair is the ground) and using a specific breathing pattern can also spark recovery and relaxation, and it’s very effective right before bed. you want to breathe into your stomach and avoid taking air high into the chest. Place one hand into the crease of your leg and abdomen, and the other on your chest/collarbone ares, and try to make the bottom hand rise and fall with your breath, while the top hand should remain stationary. Here is an example of 90-90 breathing, albeit without the hands in position to feel the breath.
Since inhaling is governed by sympathetic activity and exhaling is governed by parasympathetic activity, you want to make sure your exhale is at least twice as long as your inhale. If you have trouble breathing low, try taking your thumbs and placing some light pressure just below your sternum on your abdomen (there are some key pressure sensors here) and you should find the breath becomes easier. Again, the magic number here is about 10mins, I’d recommend putting on a couple relaxing songs and tuning out, and don’t be surprised if you get up yawning and a little light headed. If you do further reading on 90-90 breathing you’ll see applications and activations well beyond the scope of this article, just remember, for the purpose of recovery, you don’t need a fancier set up or pattern of activation beyond what is shown above.
Foam Rolling: But not in the traditional sense of digging into super tight tissues and hammering away, here you’re going to focus on the big muscle groups: the glutes, hamstrings, quads, lats, and pecs, and use long sweeping passes along the entire muscle belly. Try to avoid the temptation of digging into sore spots that you’re bound to find, not only will this help with lymphatic drainage if done post training, but if you stick with it for that magical 10 minutes, the moderate but constant pressure on the neural circuitry down regulates the sympathetic nervous system reflexes, and as a result, the parasympathetic system can kick in the recovery process and start recharging. Passive stretching can also accomplish some of the same effects, but ensure you use long exaggerated exhales while holding your stretches and stay away from aggressive tension.
Walking: or other low threshold aerobic work improves vagal nerve output which is like the master pathway to the parasympathetic system. You need to do this a little longer than the other methods, 20-30mins to really see an effect on the nervous system; however, like foam rolling, this one is also good for muscle recovery, but mainly for the lower limbs. This falls under the “seems too simple to work” category, but it’s powerful, and the increase in work capacity is always nice when your program requires you to bang out an extra set of squats beyond what you’re used to.
Ok Cool, But When Do I Do These?
Your two key times are directly post training and before bed. The faster you can get out of a sympathetic dominant state and recovering the faster you’ll be ready to do it all over again, and sooner you let the parasympathetic system take over at night the better you’ll sleep and the better you’ll recover, gain muscle, lose fat, and adapt to your training program. Since you’ll adapt to anything you repeatedly do, it’s best to rotate methods (arbitrarily around a month and I’ll use a different recovery protocol) or at the very least only consider stacking methods for periods of physical or emotional stress. Below are some examples of how to combine these methods for different periods of training stress.
Low Stress Load:
Post Training: Foam Roll for 10mins
Pre-Bed: 90-90 Breathing or Walking
Medium Stress Load (Start working from active to passive methods)
Post Training: Foam Roll for 10mins then GHR Hang for 5-10mins
Pre-Bed: Walk for 20-30mins, Foam Roll for 10mins with Deep Breaths and Long Exhales
High Stress Load:
Post Training: 20mins Low Threshold Aerobic Work, Foam Roll for 10mins, GHR Hang for 10mins
Pre-Bed: Foam Roll for 10mins, Passive Stretch for 10mins, 90-90 Breathing 10mins (do all this in as dark a room as possible). You can also make time to swing by the gym before bed if really needed to hang off the GHR or back raise, or you can attempt to rig something up at home.
As you may have noticed, all these methods are mechanical in nature, they’re very effective, require very minimal to no equipment, and assuming you already have a gym membership, they’re free. For those who have extreme nervous system imbalances and find they still need extra help recovering, the next time I visit this topic will involve the chemical/hormonal/supplemental side of the equation. Until then, train hard and recover!