It’s common knowledge nowadays that being overstressed is not good for us. Ironically, a large number of adults consider themselves to be overstressed. If we know that too much stress isn’t good for us, but we continue to live under too much stress, then obviously some things could stand to change. When you’re young, you buffer stresses better and can bounce back from them faster. You’ve probably noticed that as you age, you can’t quite “hang with the young bucks” anymore, or at least not as much. Some of the reasons for this are outside of your control. You’re getting older and your tissues are naturally becoming less resilient. Your responsibilities are likely greater in number and importance now than when you you were in your 20’s. As such, you have more time constraints on your schedule… and just making to class three nights a week and once on the weekends seems like a huge success. It is, but you can do better. In fact you must do better if you want to maximize what you have left in the tank.
Realize That There Is No Tiger
Your body has a very efficient way of dealing with acute stress designed to keep you alive. Your sympathetic (aka SNS, the “fight or flight”) nervous system works in part to give you a jolt of energy to deal with acute stresses. Back in the day this meant stuff like running from a tiger that wanted to turn you into dinner, or fighting off some potential threat. The sequence would go something like this: Sense threat > Run From or Fight Threat > Relax (either because you successfully evaded said threat or are now dead). Nowadays your “fight or flight” response is constantly on the go, often because you are constantly on the go. I can hear it…“Wait a minute…Is this another guy telling me I need to relax?”. Yes, and I’m hoping that maybe this is time you’ll do it. There is no tiger coming at you, and you need to consciously let your body know that. Too much stress can make you dumb, and can affect everything from your digestion to sexual performance.
Now Chill Out
Now that you’ve accepted how stress can impact your health and performance and that you can be a better you by reducing it, what stuff should you try? You’ve already cut the number of soul-crushing 40+ minute metcons each week, had some coaching on improving your movement efficiency, and are taking Active Recovery workouts seriously, right? Good for you! Now let’s get Zen (or not, but let’s get you focused on relaxation.) Relaxation isn’t something that just happens so you’ll have to put in some intent and effort. Activities and mental exercises that increase relaxation include:
- Yoga. Obvious, right? Yoga can be a great balance to CrossFit for it’s capacity to help develop flexibility, stability, and balance, but also for the opportunity to tune in with your body and mind during the practice and downregulate that SNS of yours. Taking a 90 minute class a few times a week is great, if you have the time and money. Doing 10 minutes a day in your living room might be even better. I’ve noticed more and more CF gyms offering yoga classes on their schedule so if yours has one, take it. If not then consider taking an introduction course at a reputable yoga studio or hiring an instructor for a few sessions to learn the basics. Remember the goal is to reduce stress to don’t go crazy trying to “find” another few hours in your schedule for it, create a routine short enough that it fits your schedule.
- Meditation. Another obvious one, but are you doing it? There is more and more research that points to vagus nerve stimulation through mind-body techniques like yoga and meditation leading to an anti-inflammatory response in the body. Lots of people “fail” an attempt at a meditation practice because they have this idea that they need to be seated on the floor in an uncomfortable pose in a room full of incense reaching a state of bliss. Not so. Think of meditation as an opportunity, for as little as 5 minutes or so a day, to do NOTHING at all. It can be uncomfortable at first since we’re so used to needing to always be doing SOMETHING, but you might learn to love it. There are lots of classes and techniques available so get some guidance if you need it. I personally like the Headspace app and am an avid user. After many attempts at a routine, it was finally a nice little British man’s voice talking to me through my headphones that made it stick. You can listen anywhere, any time, though setting a regular time may be best. My wife even listened to a 10 minute meditation last week on a crowded NYC subway ride up to Yankee Stadium for a game. You can literally do this any place you can set aside a few minutes.
Sleep. Not just more, but better. I know this another obvious one, but getting insufficient or poor sleep is one of the most common complaints I hear from members and clients. Lack of it has been linked to ADHD-like symptoms. The time you spend snoozing and dreaming is where you do your best “rest and digest” work, so try to make yours a little bit better. 8 restful hours a night might be ideal, but if you’re regularly getting 5 then even 6 is a step in the right direction. Some things you can try to get those Zzzzzs:
- Set a bedtime. Yes, you’re an adult, but staying up late to watch another episode of whatever or flip through your phone again isn’t contributing anything meaningful to your life…is it?
- Limit caffeine. It stays active in your body for up to 10 hours after ingesting it, so reconsider that last cup of coffee or tea. If you’re taking a caffeine laced pre-workout supplement before your 7pm group class and trying to fall asleep by 11, stop. In fact, maybe reconsider taking pre-workouts all together, hmmmm?
- Turn off screens and dim the lights. 30 minutes before the bedtime you set, begin a sleep ritual- turn off the tv, close the laptop, and put your phone away.
- Go cold turkey. Set your bedroom to a cool temp. You should feel just slightly cold when you’re getting under the covers.
- Go dark. Make your bedroom as dark as possible, and keep your phone shut off or turned upside down and on silent.
- Perform a “Brain Dump”. You’ve got a lot on your plate tomorrow that you can’t do anything about tonight, so there’s no benefit stressing about it as you go to sleep. Take out a piece of paper (not an electronic device) and write down the list of things you will deal with tomorrow, or just stuff you’re worried about in general. Then put the thoughts aside with the paper and they can rest while you do the same.
Tried that stuff and need extra help? There are a few supplements that might be of benefit.
- Magnesium. It can help relax muscles and ease cramping and spasms. About 400 mg 30-60 minutes before bed is the general recommendation, or you could get some through an epsom salt bath.
- Valerian Root. This stinky root may help reduce the amount if time it takes you to fall asleep and improve the quality of your sleep. Use as directed on the label.
Be Your Best
You might be losing your edge a bit over the young ‘uns at the gym. You might not be THE best anymore, and there’s not really anything you can do about that. You can be YOUR best. Maximizing your current potential involves a lot of factors in your control, so focus on those. Smart training involves smart recovery and considers the person as a whole, not just their WOD score on any given day. You can’t get any younger, but you can get smarter.