Rest and Recovery, part three

Overtraining? It depends.

Thus far, everything we’ve discussed has been pretty close to the surface: most of it has been directly related to your physical training in an obvious way. This week’s topic is no different, except that the connection to your physical performance is not always as obvious.

Or maybe it is? If it is, that’s great. Either way…

Let’s talk big picture.

On the surface of it, we’re engaged in what could broadly be termed strength and conditioning for circus arts. The plan here is to help you to build your physical body so that you can do more and more cool circus stuff, all the while mitigating your injury risk.

But, to a certain extent, by focusing our ongoing discourse almost exclusively on things physical, we have compartmentalized your physical self.

Except we all know it doesn’t work that way.

We’ve branched out a bit by discussing the mind-muscle connection, nutrition and recovery, but there is, after all, so much more to you than just your physical self.

Your mental and emotional health inevitably influence your physical health—in good ways and not-so-good ways. The stuff that goes on in your life outside of the gym and/or circus studio can’t help but have an impact on what you do inside the gym and/or studio. It is because of this truth that we are now going to talk a bit about stress management.

Stress is generally neither good nor bad.

Instead, what makes stress good or bad is largely a function of your response to it.

Ideally, the stress response (all of the physiological happenings that occur in response to a stressor) is a good thing: it helps you to stay focused, energetic and alert.

In emergency situations, it gives you the strength you need to lift that car off of your friend. In performance situations, it gives you what we call “Show Strength” and, while the audience is there, makes all of your skills feel a whole lot easier to do.

Beyond a certain point, however, stress stops being helpful and begins to overwhelm you. This is potentially harmful to your health.

The trick, of course, is figuring out your optimal level of stress.

Allostatic Load

The sum total of all of the stressors (which, remember, are not necessarily inherently good or bad) in your life is referred to as your allostatic load. You can think of it as the total amount of stress you are currently dealing with: physical stress, emotional stress, mental stress.

All of these combined life stressors could be thought of as a pile of straw. In this metaphor, you are a camel.

The total amount of straw that you can carry depends on how strong your back is—metaphorically speaking.

And whether pieces of straw stay on your back or whether they are taken off. You see, some straw you only have to carry for a short time.

Let’s step out of the metaphor to explain:

Good stress is generally short-lived, relatively infrequent, inspires you and ultimately serves to build you up.

Bad stress tends to be more prolonged, chronic or ongoing, demotivates you and ultimately serves to break you down.

Again, distinguishing between good and bad stress hinges on your ability to recover from it.

And your perception of it and how you respond to it.

Exercise, for example, can be a good stressor that has the potential to improve how you are able to recover from future stressors.

Unless you’re exercising too often or too hard and you’re not giving your body a chance to recover from it in the first place. Then it becomes a bad stress.

Perspectives:

You could think of yourself as an athlete and all that we’re about to discuss could fall under the umbrella of things that you do to make sure you can perform at your best.

You could also just view yourself as a person who is looking to take the best possible care of themselves—so that you can have circus fun for the long run, but also so that you can perform at your best (whatever ‘performing at your best’ means for you) in the rest of your life outside of circus.

The ongoing quest for the ideal allostatic load.

Yeah, that’s what we all call it: our allostatic load.

What works for one person is going to vary from what works for another. (How’s that for dropping some rather obvious knowledge? I’m awesome.)

We need good stress to feel healthy, productive and fulfilled and as a stimulus for growth. The trick of it is that we also need to make sure that we don’t overdo it on ‘good stress’ lest it turn into bad stress.

However, we also have to maintain a sense of perspective about all of the stress in our lives because if we view (any) stress as insurmountable or overwhelming, then it doesn’t really matter how big your allostatic load actually is because you’ll still feel overwhelmed. And if we circle back to the straw metaphor, you back may just break (not literally, of course).

Managing your pile of straw

Here’s where we get practical.

As you have no doubt noticed, we talk about your nervous system a fair bit. Elsewhere, we’ve mentioned the two branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems.

Stress stimulates your sympathetic nervous system.

The key to recovery and stress management lies in stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system. Doing so increases the levels of ‘happy chemicals’ that your body produces and aids in building resilience to stress.

Here are some easy ways to “stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system” (or, in non-geek speak: relax):

  • Go for a relaxing walk. (Speed walking through city crowds doesn’t usually count, unless you find that it soothes and centers you).
  • Be out in nature.
  • Get some sun.
  • Or go for a relaxing walk out in nature on a sunny day.
  • Laugh.
  • Get a massage.
  • Snuggle.
  • Listen to soothing music. Or wind chimes. Or a babbling brook.
  • Restorative Yoga.
  • Deep breathing (now where have we seen this one before?)
  • Play.
  • Meditate.
  • Drink Green Tea.

This list is by no means exhaustive but it’s important to note that the following examples DO NOT stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system:

  • Watching TV or a movie.
  • Playing a video game.
  • Looking at your computer screen.
  • Looking at your phone.

A brief, closer look: Meditation

I don’t know if you know this, but meditation is an incredibly effective stress-reliever. And by “incredibly effective”, I mean as supported by a large and growing body of research evidence.

Meditation, as a practice, can have a measurable impact on various physical markers—lowering blood pressure, stress hormones, heart rate, inflammation—and can improve your mental focus and clarity, mood and attention and the quality of your sleep.

If you haven’t meditated before, I would suggest trying out a guided meditation. There are some pretty great apps out there to help with that: Calm and Headspace come to mind.

Or, you can try the following:

  • Find somewhere comfortable, quiet and private.
  • Sit down or lie down, whichever feels better. It doesn’t really matter.
  • Set a timer. Start with just 5 minutes.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Do a quick full-body scan, from head to toe: just notice how your body is holding itself right now. As you breathe, use your exhale as an opportunity to begin releasing any extra muscle tension you may be carrying.
  • Breathe. This will be just like the breath you do at the start of your workout, except your exhale—while still full-ish—will be a more relaxed, less assertive exhale.
  • Count 10 breaths.
  • Along the way, simply notice the thoughts that come into your mind. Let them come and go, like images on a screen…but try not to engage those thoughts. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later.
  • If you find that you’ve engaged a thought and spent some time thinking about stuff, just bring your focus back to your breath. Start counting at whatever number you last counted…or start over. It doesn’t matter: the key here is not to judge yourself for having let your mind wander. Just notice that it did… and steer your focus back to your breath.
  • After 10 breaths, start over at 1.
  • At the end of your time, open your eyes and smile.

A note on Exercise

Exercise is great for stress-relief. Except for when exercise becomes the stressor.

As alluded to above, exercise can be a stimulus for growth and, especially when it comes to the post-exercise relaxation effect, a great stress-reliever. However, if exercise is only a high-intensity, high-volume affair that “kicks your ass” and leaves you in a sweaty heap on the floor…then all that’s doing is stimulating your sympathetic nervous system.

A brief, geeky detour:

In the body, gross extension (think arching your back and all of the ways that makes your body move) is associated with increased sympathetic activity. Conversely, gross flexion (think the fetal position) is associated with increased parasympathetic activity.

Interestingly, there is a lot about circus training (and strength training programs based largely on powerlifting exercises) that encourages the muscles of extension to become stronger than the muscles that encourage flexion.

For example, the lats (those big muscles on your back)—used for all of the pulling—can have a big influence on your overall posture: the more work they get, the stiffer they get and the more they contribute to arching your back.

It is for this reason that we have included exercises that encourage you to adopt a more flexed posture, often by reaching away from you. These exercises serve to add stiffness to the other side of the extension coin, so to speak, so that your body can have an easier time finding ‘neutral’—a position that is neither extended nor flexed.

Having this balance within the program should leave you feeling a bit more refreshed and invigorated, rather than depleted and exhausted.

This is not to say that getting your butt kicked in a workout is wrong—it’s more to say that there is a time and a place for it. Be sure to also include some restorative exercise in the mix—yoga or just some relaxing stretching.

Wrapping up

The whole point here has been to say that all of it counts: all of the stress in your life—the good, the bad and everything in between—fits into one bucket (your allostatic load). And it would be silly for us not to address that.

Managing your pile of straw (or your bucket…I’m sorry, I’m mixing metaphors now) is as much a function of what you do to manage it as it is how you perceive it.