This is an excellent article, thank you for posting! I have been liking for some serious but applicable information regarding stress and the nervous system. Something that I’m still trying to understand and I’m wondering if you can help with is, is our goal in warming up to stress the nervous system to be alert? I.e ready for heavy lifts or metcons. If so what have you found to be an effective way to do that and if stress brings growth, when we train should we try to breathe like we’re in a calm state? I have been trying diligently to find more about this I hope to hear back from you!
Thank you – glad you enjoyed the article.
You’re spot on here, one of the purposes of warming up is to prepare the peripheral nervous system to be more alert and use sympathetic activation to prepare the rest of the body for “action”. The more intense the activity, generally the more sympathetic activation needed in warm-up. For example, if you were warming up for a 1RM deadlift, it would be beneficial to get as ramped up as possible before pulling your maximal deadlift. On the other hand if you were preparing for a metcon like Murph that is going to be much longer and demand more from our endurance systems, it is probably better to temper your arousal so that you don’t overshoot your abilities early and “blow up”.
I think a useful way to look at warming up is that it is a way to “ease” use into a stressor so that we are not going from 0 to 100 so to speak. For a typical training session or competition event we want to minimize the impact of the stressor on our homeostasis allowing us to have adaptive resources for future training sessions or events. To put this into context, think about performing the workout “Fran” in two different scenarios: in one situation you perform some basic D-ROM exercises to prep your joints and tissues then start the workout, in the second you perform 10min of cyclical warm-up followed by D-ROM, followed by intervals of thrusters and pull-ups to ease you into the shock of the workout. I think it is quite clear which situation would result in the biggest “disturbance” on our homeostasis and which would take us longer to recover from both in the short term and long-term.
It might make sense for an elite level (think: Games level) to implement one session every 10-14 days where they are going into a stressful cyclical session with very minimal warm-up. For example you might ask them to row a maximal effort 1k with only dynamic mobility work before hand and zero energy-system prep as this would help them better cope with extreme ranges in ANS activation. Now with that said, I DON’T think that would be healthy or wise for athletes who are not at that level as for most non-elite athletes, reducing the shock of stress inputs can have a beneficial effect on their recovery.
Finally our breathing during training should match the goal of the training session (or individual parts of the training session). For example – if the goal of a session is to develop maximal strength or power then “sympathetic breathing” (shorter / shallower breaths with the goal of creating stiffness and tension) would add to the stress of the session in a way that would be synergistic with the intention of developing maximal power. On the other hand if your session consists of easy cyclical work combined with mobility, skill, or movement training then “parasympathetic breathing” (deep diaphragmatic breaths w/ long exhales) would be more consistent with the target of the session.
Control of breathing during mixed metcons or energy-system training is a bit more complex, but I will do my best to lay out my thoughts here. Typically I recommend that most people do not try to “control” their breathing during metcons / energy-system work because they have a tendency to suppress their respiration rate and as a result cause other systems to compensate (see Evan’s recent blog on Breathing). Breathing during this type of work is determined by a handful of factors including (1) conscious control (2) unconscious drive to breathe (3) breathing mechanics (4) positional breathing meaning our ability to inhale and exhale in specific positions like the bottom of a squat with load. Our goal should be to develop good breathing mechanics — meaning the ability to utilize the diaphragm to balance inhalation and exhalation during exercise. For many people this means a combination of postural improvements and diaphragmatic strengthening which will typically be performed outside of the main portions of a training session (this is a part of what we call movement work). As well we should strive to develop our ability to breathe in a variety of positions (bottom of squat / bottom of deadlift / forward fold / quadruped / barbell overhead / hanging from bar / etc) as this will allow us to EXPRESS our breathing mechanics in sport specific positions. If these two things (improved mechanics and developing breathing in positions) are addressed then my thought is that the brain will coordinate optimal respiration rates to match the intensity of exercise.
As I said before, the topic of breathing during exercise is more complex than this…but this is a good starting point to understand what targets you should be addressing.
How do you recommend to use cold showers??? In the morning?? What about use cold showers in rest days to increase hrv?? Thx.
Here is what I have found to be most effective for me:
– I like to use a cold shower first thing in the morning, every day, this way I’m benefiting from potential vagus nerve “conditioning” thus improving my ability to respond quickly to stresses by activating the parasympathetic branch.
– I also like to use contrast showers post training (2min hot / 1min cold) for 3-4 cycles. There is some pretty good research on contrast therapy and recovery from training so I’ve found this to be pretty effective for me.
– Getting started w/ cold showers kind of sucks. The first 5-7 days are pretty much unbearable and you have to really convince yourself to do it. I’ve found when trying to start someone on a daily AM cold shower that starting warm and progressing to cold for the first 3-4 days tends to ease the mental anguish that they experience, after that point I recommend that they start warm and after about a minute just turn it straight to cold.
– Its particularly important to ensure that you spend some time with the cold water running on your face / forehead as many of the receptors that are responsible for activating the vagus nerve (parasympathetic nerve) are located here. I usually start w/ my head & face for 30-40sec then work my way around and finish with another 30-40sec on my head & face
Regarding cold showers and HRV – I’ve actually had a number of my athletes who I’m monitoring HRV with test out cold showers on rest days to see what the impact was and there was always a positive trend in HRV score after the cold shower. Whether or not this has potential implications on rate of recovery I’m not 100% convinced at this point, but it is clear that cold showers do indeed increase parasympathetic activation as any increase in HRV (at least rMSSD) indicates an increase in parasympathetic activity.
But you have to use recovery methofs depending of the system you have depressee. So if your sympathetic is too high it means that your parasympathetic is depressed, and you have to stimulate it …. and viceversa, right???
-Sympathetic stimulant recovery: deep tissue massage, criotherapy, cold baths-showers, contrast shower..
-parasymphatetic recovery: meditation, relaxation, hot tubs, massage, sleep…
So what i want to say is that recovery method is dependent on which system you have dominant and depressed….
Your concept is correct here, but the application of it may be off, let me explain below.
The concept is that if you observe a chronic change in HRV indicating sympathetic overtraining then you would use methods to stimulate the parasympathetic system thus “stimulating recovery” from the misapplication of sympathetic training stresses. On the other hand if you observe a chronic change in HRV indicating parasympathetic overtraining then you would use methods to stimulate the sympathetic system. I have seen the guys from Omegawave talk about this quite a bit, and I think it is pretty much spot on in theory.
From an application standpoint the key is to look for trends over time, and use these methods to shift someone back toward a state of balance. For example, if we see an athlete trending toward sympathetic over-activation over the course of weeks, we would first try to alter that trend by altering training. If alterations in training are not able to correct the trend then using “recovery modalities” with the intention of creating a shift in ANS state would make sense.
However the important thing here is that we not use these types of “recovery modalities” to try to correct for the natural fluctuations of our ANS in response to training. This is similar to the way that taking high-doses of antioxidants after endurance training blunt adaptations, or taking NSAIDS chronically after strength training can reduce strength gains.
To address your second question – cold exposure is paradoxical. Cold water facial immersion stimulates the vagal nerve forcing parasympathetic innervation. Ice baths on the other hand can present as a “stress” to our nervous system and result in sympathetic innervation. From my experience working with a number of athletes tracking HRV a cold shower where you have the athlete progress from warm -> cold over the course of 2min with a focus on facial cold exposure will result in a pretty dramatic increase in rMSSD and therefore parasympathetic innervation.
So in a nutshell:
Most CF athletes are under TOO much stress at any given time. I have yet to see an athlete trending to far toward parasympathetic activation, however I have seen athletes consistently trending to the sympathetic side. So prescribing recovery methods that help them relax and activate the parasympathetic division can be potentially beneficial, allowing them to tolerate more training stress.
As a coach, if you see consistent trends in an athlete’s HRV scores to one side or the other, the first thing to try is adjusting their training program. If you don’t see significant improvements from those changes then implementing the recovery modalities you mentioned above would be a good next step.
Using those recovery modalities daily can potentially blunt the adaptations you’re trying to achieve from your training program, so use only when needed.
If i have the sympathetic too dominant it means that my parasympathetic is depressed…. and if i use cold baths (sympathetic recovery) maybe I’m doing the opposite of what I need, and I can make it worse…. whats your opinion??
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