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The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered:
â€œBecause he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.â€
Effectively managing recovery has implications that far exceed getting optimal results from your training. The balance between stress and recovery - the parasympathetic 'rest and digest', and the sympathetic 'fight or flight', determines our health at every level. Everything we see, think, feel, hear or even imagine, falls somewhere on this spectrum, and just how far to one side or the other determines our response - exactly proportional to the perceived stressor.
At least in theory.
When things are clear cut - there is no problem. If you have to escape a sinking car that is quickly filling with water, your sympathetic nervous system is going to come to the party in a big way. A cascade of physiological responses will have you ready to go instantly. Then cut to you sprawled on a beach - reading a book with nothing to do and nowhere to be. While not nearly as dramatic, your body is still responding, this time in a healing, regenerative 'house-keeping' manner.
Daily life is rarely so black and white, and problems arise when we end up not quite in the middle, but just a little to one side - the wrong side. Always. This underlying subtle â€˜onâ€™ is like constantly idling a car. Ready to go, but never going. Achieving nothing, but still wasting energy and causing engine wear.
Never really stressed, but never fully recovered.
You might think that not being really stressed is a good thing. Unfortunately not. Here the degree of stress while inhibiting recovery is also too little to encourage an adaptive response.
Although abnormal, this has become an everyman no man's land and is the slow, steady drip that wears away rock. A constant low-level stress that, sooner or later, invites a response out of all proportion to a minor trigger - losing it. What further confuses the issue, is that we are then usually unable to act as our physiology demands.
So you miss a promotion at work - okay, fight or flight then, what's it gonna be? Neither. Straight back to your inbox with just a change in blood pressure to show for it.
Clearly it's not appropriate to either run screaming from the building or to hang one on your boss, but this is where things get really twisted.
Missed training session
2 bottles of wine / 6 pints
A tub of ice cream / kebab
Rather than addressing the stress, we instead attempt to dull our response to it, and, without fail, amplify its effect across the board. Sugar, refined carbs, alcohol and television, are the panaceas of modern life, and our inability to deal with it.
Soon enough, after repeated practice at ignoring our bodily cues, we lose all subjective measure of our true state of being. Any reference point to help us gauge what stress is, and isn't, has become skewed - as has our response to it. We all know exactly where this leads with the leading causes of death in the western world all stress related.
Some of us just let it all out, but what if that's not really an option?
We need to embrace both our ability to seesaw between stress and recovery, but also learn to put ourselves firmly in one camp or the other. Elite athletes learn to do this instantly - a high jumper at the Olympics, in front of a massive crowd and global TV audience can do this, in between jumps.
On - going for a world record.
Off - conserving energy for the next attempt.
We may not be attempting world records, but our health and quality of life depend on us learning to do the same. Knowing when to excite and when to inhibit is crucial to performance and health, but knowing is not enough. The autonomic nervous system that controls our response is exactly that - autonomous. Involuntary. You canâ€™t â€˜wishâ€™ yourself relaxed.
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