“What does not kill me makes me stronger….if it does not kill you.”
If you are one of those athletes guided by this moto, you could be sacrificing your performance and affecting your health, without knowing that. By constantly beating your body over and over again, you put tremendous stress on your hormonal, muscular, and central nervous system.
Let’s make it clear. I am not suggesting that excellent results can be accomplished with mediocre work. It can’t. You have to drop lot’s of sweat, feel pain and muscle burn, and occasionally come in a situation to puke whatever you’ve had for breakfast or lunch.
There is nothing wrong in pushing your limits and try hard. At the end:
“Nothing grows in the comfort zone”
You need to make some changes in the body, stress it, tear it apart. Damage your muscles, work harder, while your muscles get tired and unable to move. Then rest and repeat. Again and again and again. However, between each workout, there should be enough time and available resources (sleep, food, supplements) for your body to recover. Otherwise, you will experience a decline in your performance, start feeling exhausted, and eventually injure yourself.
Muscle and neural fatigue
Before I share strategies for better recovery, it is important to distinguish between muscular and neural fatigue. The first is the one we usually focus on and relate to when not being able to lift our arm after a weight lifting session or can’t get in a low Kiba Dachi after a strenuous karate practice. On the other side, we put stress on our central nervous system (CNS), which on a long term can affect the work on the internal organs, level of inflammation in the body and hormonal status. This is something usually neglected by many athletes, and this is what are we going to focus on in this post.
More precisely, we’ll talk about the autonomous nervous system, and the two parts it is made of — the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic system
The autonomous nervous system keeps an eye on the work of your heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys, stomach, lungs, brain, and much more. This is done by keeping the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in balance. And I am sure you’ve stumbled upon these two, where there were presented as the fight-or-flight (sympathetic) and rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system.
These two oppose each other, and the problem happens when one suppresses the other. Usually, the sympathetic one is the one who dominates and can cause some health problems and negatively affect your performance.
You might ask yourself: What the hell does this have to do with karate?
Bear with me, and you’ll find out.
Every physical activity initiates some changes in our body. This can be in terms of hormones released during and after exercise, the level of oxygen consumption, muscle tension, and neural stimulation. Depending on the nature of the physical activity, the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” system will be affected differently.
Activities like Yoga (stretching and breathing), Tai Chi, or easy run or bike ride, walk in nature and massage will increase the tone (strengthen) of the parasympathetic system. So as an after effect, you might will relaxed and calm. I guess this is one of the reasons yogis are so chilled.
More dynamic activities such as weight lifting, competitive sport, cross-fit, triathlon, etc. will decrease the strength of the parasympathetic system and increase the tone (activity) of the sympathetic. Karate is one of those activities, at least the SPORTS KARATE.
What are the key factors that make Karate sympathetic dominant sport?
As mentioned, strength and explosive movements followed by fast exhalation and forceful muscular contraction affect the sympathetic nervous system. And, whether you are competing in kata or kumite, the goal is to perform quicker and stronger promptly. On top of it, in kumite, you have a real opponent (the fight component) that consciously or subconsciously puts additional pressure on your psyche and nervous system, together with the Kiai (short shout).
When is the last time you felt relaxed after you shouted to someone? I assume, never.
So, karate, especially the one related to completion, together with traveling, pressure, increased volume and training intensity, tends to put you into a constant fight or flight mode. Therefore, increasing the chances to experience fatigue (physical and mental) and a decrease in the level of performance.
Meet the Vegabond
When talking about the suppression of the parasympathetic nervous system, usually people refer to decreased tone of the Vagus Nerve. This is not the only nerve, part of the “rest-and-digest” nervous system. However, it is the most important one since it affects the work on many organs and systems in the body.
This nerve is a “wanderer” stretching from your brain, all the way down to your toes, affecting your brain, gut, kidneys, liver, lungs, reproductive system, neck, tongue.
For this reason, you must conceder implementing techniques for increasing the vagus nerve tone as part of your training process. Here are some of the methods that are cheap and easy to implement.
Five strategies to make part of your Karate practice
Use deep and slow breathing
During karate practice, we tent to breathe and exhale fast so we could produce as much tension as possible in the shortest amount of time. Depending on the intensity, our breathing rate increases. All this is combined with fast and explosive movements. This result in increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system. To create balance, try some of the following strategies:
- While resting, breathe slow and deep from your belly, while your shoulders stay still while feeling how your belly expands with every inhale and goes back while exhaling. Make sure you spend an equal amount of time breathing in and out. Try to make the breathing phase longer.
- At the end of your training, practice deep and slow breathing while cooling down and stretching. This will increase the vagus nerve activity, drop blood pressure, and calm you down.
- Use box (square)-breathing technique whenever you can. This is a breathing technique where you take a breath in, hold, exhale, hold, repeat. See pic.
A cold shower or cold water immersion is becoming more and more popular among people. Those benefits are related to improved immunity and circulation, increased alertness (especially in the morning), improved fat loss and, increased metabolism and of course, enhanced activity of the vagus nerve.
Cold exposure puts the body under stress. Which means the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. However, this is only temporarily. Ones your body adjusts to cold the “fight and flight” system declines, and the “rest and digest” increases.
Cold bath might be unpractical for you. I know there are for me, so I stick to the cold showers. You will feel a bit uncomfortable at the begging. You start breathing faster, your heart rate goes up, running out of breath, and eventually, you start shivering. But this is only temporary.
Start gradually by exposing only your arms and leg. Later go full body for only 5 seconds. Gradually increase the time, until you can stay for a few minutes while controlling your breathing.
Everything is much more comfortable after one week of a regular cold shower.
So, every acute exposure to cold increases the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. Besides that, it strengthens the immune systems and decreases inflammation in the body.
Practicing yoga is a great way to clam down your body, work on your tight muscles, and increase joint mobility while being mindful on your breath and be in the present moment. All this has a positive effect on the vagus nerve and parasympathetic system by increasing the GABA (calming ) neurotransmitter in your brain.
Pressure massage and foot massage boost the vagus nerve as well. Foot massage stimulates the work of every single internal organ in your body and improves the tone of the vagus nerve. Stepping on a softball and putting pressure on a different part of your foot does the job as well.
Keep your gut healthy
Our gut is connected with our brain. They say the gut is our “second brain.” Many diseases, brain fog, depression, and anxiety come from the gut and manifests through your brain activity and behavioral changes. Therefore, you need to keep your gut healthy. Taking probiotics has been shown to improve parasympathetic work.
How to know if this works?
A great way to measure the status of both sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is by measuring the Heart Rate Variability (HRV). If you are a serious athlete, this is a MUST. HRV measures the fluctuation in intervals of every hearth beat. It provides a more detailed picture of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system and which one is dominant. You want to create a balance between this two.
There are many tools on the market that measure HRV, but the one I have been using for years is the NatureBeat. You can find more detailed how it works and how to use it here.
Train hard, eat well, rest, and repeat. When thinking about recovery, make sure you take into consideration not only the muscular but the nervous system as well. The goal should be to keep the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems in balance.
Now, take a deep breath and chill out.
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