The end of the year is a great time on many levels, especially because summer sports are getting into full swing. It’s time to enjoy the warmer weather and the great outdoors, throw yourself into water sports and generally get more active. But with all the activity, plus the end of year wrap-up, December can also feel like you are nearing the end of a marathon: “Not much further now. You’re almost there. Just… keep… going…”
At times like this it’s crucial to remember to Relax, Restore and Recover (the three Rs).
Why recovery matters
Any disciplined athlete knows the value of recovery time. It’s the ‘rest and repair’ part of the training cycle. Your body must have sufficient opportunity to regularly rest to recover from the stress of the training load. Training is a cycle of adaptation. You place your body under stress (through muscular intensity, cardiovascular effort and endurance), the body fatigues, and then it uses recovery time to rest and adapt, to come back fitter and stronger next time.
This cyclical process is known as supercompensation, and leads to improved performance (when done properly, with training and recovery balanced).
Not honouring your body with sufficient recovery time can lead to over-training, which is counterproductive in the long term.
Whether you are an athlete in training, or sometimes if feels like life itself is an endurance event, take some time to focus on the three Rs. Below are three ways you can use yoga to help with your ‘RnRnR’.
Go to the breath
Most of us spend a disproportionate amount of time in our busy ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system, which is dominant when we feel pressure to keep up with demands, keep moving, training and pumping up our energy levels. A sympathetic state is linked to our stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin.
These hormones are elevated by all manner of forces, both internal and external to the body (e.g. intense sport, work-load, perceived stress or caffeine intake). There are different types of stress, and some stress is certainly ‘good stress’ and helpful to us. But it is important to balance stress with recovery time, to keep our nervous system in a healthy overall state by also taking it into the parasympathetic state, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ or relaxation state.
Fortunately, one of the most simple and effective ways to switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state is also one of the most accessible and easy. It’s simply using your breath.
Full, slow, diaphragmatic breathing (think of ‘belly breathing’) can start to calm your nervous system in just 30 seconds. This can help lower blood pressure and other stress responses in your body and mind.
The simplest breathing exercise to start with is just full, deep breathing, which you really can do anywhere, lying down, sitting or standing up. All yoga classes work with an awareness of breath, and often include specific breathing exercises. For other ways to work with your breath, look back at my past Fitness Journal columns online (fitnessjournal.co.nz May and June issues) for more details and specific techniques.
Restorative yoga is a form of yoga designed to bring greater relaxation to both the body and mind. It uses gentle poses supported by props to ensure maximum comfort, and therefore relaxation. Props commonly include bolsters, blankets and blocks; yoga straps, sand bags and eye bags can also be helpful. Restorative yoga focuses on relaxation, rather than stretching or working your body. Poses are held for five minutes or longer – up to 10 or 15 minutes. Legs up the wall is a very popular restorative yoga pose, and great for post-training or post-race recovery for the legs. Other excellent poses to aid recovery and relaxation are supported child’s pose, supported back bends and forward bends and supported twists. You can do just one pose for five minutes, or do a complete sequence with longer holds and spend an hour or more, depending on your needs.
Yoga nidra means ‘Yoga sleep’. It is a guided relaxation designed to take you into a deeply relaxed state, yet remaining fully conscious (and not asleep). Yoga nidra is usually done lying done, with your body supported by props such as yoga bolsters or blankets so you can be very comfortable. It’s a guided process that includes elements such as observing your breath, scanning through your body, and being aware of your mind, thoughts and feelings. By directing you through this process yoga nidra helps you come to a fully relaxed state that is commonly said to be more restful and refreshing than sleeping for an equal amount of time. You can do as little as 10-15 minutes, or follow a practice that is an hour or longer.
If you are interested in experiencing yoga nidra, look up local yoga studios that offer it, or Google it and you will find a wide offering of yoga nidra practices that you can easily follow in the comfort of your own home.
If you are an athlete in training, I highly recommend the book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery, by Sage Rountree. A comprehensive resource about effective recovery for any athlete.