Training the Student-Athlete: Sleep Hygiene & Nutrition
by Keats Snideman, CSCS, LMT
This blog post accompanies a talk I will be giving Thursday, January 22, 2015 at Mesquite High School in Gilbert, AZ. The audience is the club basketball players (& parents) from Team Arizona Basketball, coached by my friends Josh and Candace Gonzales. Josh is also from Santa Fe, NM and we played junior high hoops together many moons ago! Both Josh and Candace are accomplished coaches and former collegiate players. I am very honored to give their athletes some good tips on how to improve their sleep and nutritional habits. I hope this blogpost is also useful for all student-athletes who come across it as these two areas are often the missing link for those individuals who struggle to stay healthy and adequately fuel themselves for optimum athletic and mental performance. Sleep is when much of day’s work is processed by the brain so it very important to get enough Z’s at night!
**Sleep Hygiene For Teen Athletes**
The importance of quality sleep for all humans cannot be overemphasized. (The fancy term used these days for daily sleep habits is called “sleep hygiene.”) While most people these days are over-stressed, over-worked, and under-slept , student-athletes are at even greater risk of missing out on quality sleep. Research shows that teenagers require between 9 & 9 and a half hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, the average time an American teen sleeps is only between 7 & 7 and a half hours; a full two hours short of the optimal!
The following points demonstrate why sleep becomes a problem for so many teenagers.
Teenagers’ internal sleep clock changes about two hours once adolescence sets it. Instead of say, 9 PM for a usual sleep time, 11 will now be the preferred time to go to bed. Of course this pushes back wake time two hours in order to get the same amount of sleep.
High School often begins earlier (~ 7 AM) which cuts into precious sleep time.
After school activities (clubs, sports practice, games, and social life) often goes well into the night, pushing homework time back.
Excessive use of computerized screens disrupts the normal sleep-wake cycle because of the type of light emitted from such devices.
* Poor dietary choices and caffeine consumed in later half of day can alter sleep patterns.
**Tip & Recommendations to Improve Sleep**
**Establish a Regular Sleep Routine. **Getting to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day (even weekends) helps establish a good baseline sleep-wake cycle. This is difficult for teenagers who often sleep in super late on weekends to make up for lost sleep (“sleep debt”) during the week.
**Go to Sleep When Sleepy. **If you can, try to go to bed when you feel that tired, groggy feeling at night telling you sleep and rest would be good.
**Avoid Caffeine, Nicotine, and Large Meals right before Bed. ** Teenagers are notorious these days for indulging in caffeinated beverages (coffee, soda, tea, and those awful energy drinks). It is well known that caffeine and stimulants interfere with sleep so if you must take in caffeine, try to do it before noon to avoid sleep disruption. A warm cup of milk or herbal tea (non-caffeinated), or small bowl of ice cream (small bowl is the key!) can help induce sleepiness due to elevated tryptophan levels in certain foods, especially dairy. A warm bath 1-2 hours before bed can also help induce sleepiness as the body cool off from the elevated temperature.
**Use the Bed Primarily For Sleeping. **It is best not to use your bed for homework, eating, socializing, etc. as your brain learns to associate the bed for stimulating activities, instead of restful ones like sleep. Small naps (15-20 minutes) on your bed is fine, just try to avoid longer naps as this can lead to that groggy, headachy feeling (sleep inertia) after the nap. Try to find a couch or chair & desk to perform homework, internet surfing, and reading instead of the bed!
**Avoid TV & Backlit Screens 1-2 Hours Before Bed if Possible. **This is probably the hardest recommendation for all people these days to follow since we are all so “plugged in” to our electronic computerized devices! However, research has shown definite interruptions in the quality of sleep occur after that type of artificial light enters your eye at night. Reading can often be helpful to induce sleepiness before bed; but try reading a (gasp) real book instead of an electronic pad or e-reader device.
**Create the Right Sleep Environment. ** Make sure your room is quiet and dark enough to promote deep, restful sleep. If needed, get earplugs and an eyemask to block out sounds and light that might cause you to wake during the night or earlier than necessary in the morning.
* **Do some Self-Massage and Stretching Before Bed. **After a day of sitting in school and then partaking in vigorous sports practice and games, it is not uncommon for student-athletes to carry some stiff and sore muscles and joints to bed. A few minutes of foam rolling can go along way to relaxing sore muscles which can lead to more “ease” before bed. Try the following foam rolling routine and static stretches before going to bed on the nights when your body is stiff, tired, and sore from athletics. You will sleep better and wake up feeling less stiff if you do this at least a few teams per week. Plus, it will help combat the tightening of muscles that take place from vigorous sports play.
**Fueling and Nutrition Strategies for the Teen Student-Athlete**
Along with poor quality and quantity of sleep for teens these days, nutritional habits are often in need of some serious improvements. First off, it is not uncommon for many teenagers to skip breakfast and eat nothing but junk-food at school. The nutritional profile of the foods many teens crave is often high in calories, but low in vital nutrients. Since diet is such a controversial topic, I’m not going to begin to pretend that I have a solution for the “perfect” diet for student-athletes since there are so many individual factors that will determine what constitutes a quality eating plan for a given person. I will give some key “principles” based on science and evidence that can hopefully steer teens (& their parents/caregivers) into making better decisions for food and hydration choices.
**What Do We Need from Food??**
While there is much debate about what type of diet is best (i.e. High-carb, low-carb, Paleo, Vegan, raw food, plant based, high-protein, low-protein, blah, blah,…), there is no debate or controversy about the fact that we need the following essential nutrients from our food sources:
Protein (essential amino acids)- from animal or vegetable sources.
Minerals (~17 and a few other trace mineral that the body only needs in tiny amounts)
Essential Fatty Acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6)
water (H20)- can come from obvious water sources or from high-water content foods (fruits & veggies). There is no censuses that you must drink “8” glasses of water per day. Although athletes with high sweat rates might need the equivalent of much more than that during and around competitive play.
A Source of Energy/Calories- can come from any macronutrient: protein, carbohydrates, or fats. Although “carbs” are not necessarily essential for life, they are a clean burning source of fuel for athletes and your brain prefers carbohydrates to function.
Fiber- although not considered directly essential due to much of it not being digestible, fiber really helps with bowel health, regularity, and intestinal flora (bacterial) health.
UVR/Sunlight- involved in Vitamin-D production. While too much sunlight causes deleterious effect to the skin, lack of sun can lead to Vitamin-D deficiency if dietary sources are not increased.
Daily Movement & Activity- although not directly nutritionally related, Vitamin-M for “movement” is vitally important to keep our bodies vibrant and healthy through the lifespan.
* Love and Social Interaction- no man (or woman) is an island unto himself! This is perhaps the most important essential nutrient!
Ok, so we know we all basically need the same nutrients listed above, but what’s the best way to go about getting them? Again, there is much controversy here regarding what is best diet, when to eat (frequent meals, less meals, etc), what type of foods (animal or plant-based proteins, grains or no grains, saturated fats or unsaturated fat vs no fats), blah, blah. The debates are endless and I really try to stay away from the craziness since as long as you get what your body needs for fuel, I don’t really care what you eat and when you eat it. But for student-athletes, it is crucial that enough quality calories/energy is taken in to fuel not only athletic pursuits, but academic performance as well.
**What Proteins to Eat (Quality is key)?**
Athletes should strive to choose mostly quality protein sources such as lean chicken, turkey, steak, buffalo, pork, fish (wild salmon is high in Omega-3 fat but great to eat), and shellfish. Eggs, dairy and even nuts/seeds, tofu and certain grains/legumes are also good sources of protein. Limit processed meats such as lunch meats, pepperoni, salami, etc. However certain lunch meats (Boars Head) have less preservatives (nitrates and nitrates) than others and are better choices. Ideally, every meal or snack should include some quality protein.
If food is not available, a quality protein powder can be used to add protein to the diet. Make sure you don’t have more than a serving or two a day. Food is still the ideal choice and supplements are just that, a “supplement” to an otherwise healthy diet. Personally, I really like the taste of Syntha-6 (Vanilla) protein powder, by BSN Nutrition. I’ve tried countless brands over the years and I just love the flavor of this one; plus its got a high-quality blend of proteins in it.
As a rough estimate, shoot for 20-40 grams of protein per main meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and 10-15 grams per snack or pre or post workout/practice feeding. Most hard training athletes can use slightly more protein than the average person. Up to 1 gram per pound of bodyweight spread throughout 3-5 meals/snacks per day is supported in the scientific literature. Using the size of your palm can be a good estimate for the amount of a protein (i.e. chicken breast or lean piece of steak) you should consume at a main meal.
* Protein stimulates the metabolism by as much as 20-25% and helps with satiety, making it a useful food for those athletes monitoring their body-mass and body composition.
**What Carbohydrates to Eat?**
Choose mostly whole food choices when possible. A “whole food” is any food that comes from nature as is, with little to no processing. For example, Potatoes, yams, sweet-pototatoes (*all tubers), whole grains (oats, quinoa, Kamut, Spelt, Amaranth, buckwheat, etc.), brown rice, fruits, and cruciferous vegetables are all good examples of whole food carbohydrate sources. Many of these sources also have decent amount of protein in them! Legumes (beans, lentils, etc.) are also a great source of carbohydrates in addition to being high in protein. My favorite bread which comes from “sprouted” grains is called Ezekiel bread, and is not from flour. It is delicious but MUST BE TOASTED in order for the full goodness to be realized. This is my exclusive bread choice for toast, sandwiches, and I even use it home in place of refined “buns” for burgers.
Limit or moderate the amounts of refined carbohydrates you eat. Refined breads, pastas, rice (white), etc. are good sources of quick energy and carbohydrates. However, they lack fiber and are deficient in many essential nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are found in the whole foods listed above. Also, while a small amount of juice daily if fine, its better to focus on eating the entire fruit with tall the fiber, etc., than just drinking the juice. A great way to eat fruits is to put frozen mixed berries in the blender with protein powder, water, milk, or 3-4 ounces of juice.
Limit simple sugars. About Sugars- all carbohydrates, regardless of the source, are eventually broken down in the body to glucose, or blood sugar. When you eat whole foods, it just take a little longer for this process to happen and thus the whole food choices listed above work better for longer term energy and blood sugar regulation. Simple sugars (sucrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, lactose, etc.) are already broken down for the most part so are easier to convert right into glucose. This is why high-sugar drinks, desserts, candy, and other treats can make people tired quickly as the sugar spike can also lead to a sugar drop (hypoglycemia). Most people’s body will regulate glucose levels in the blood very closely so even if high amounts of sugar are ingested, the body will quickly find a way to lower the levels back down to the normal range. Sometimes the body will convert these extra glucose molecules into fat (triglycerides) and store them (in the liver, muscles, or fat cells) for later use.
* Ensure some carbohydrates are in the system prior to sports practices and games. After hard physical exertions is also a great times to ingest an easily absorbable protein and carbohydrate source. Chocolate milk has been shown to be a great post-training drink as the protein helps repair damaged muscle and connective tissues while the carbohydrate helps to restore blood sugar.
**What Fats to Eat?**
Ensure adequate essential fats are consumed (omega-3 and Omega-6). Most people get enough (or too much) omega-6, since many vegetable oils are used for food processing. However, Omega-3 is often missing in people’s diets. Wild Salmon, tuna, herring and mackerel are good sources of omega-3 (sardines too). Trout is a good fresh water option. Eating these types of fish 1-2 times per week is recommended. Vegetarian sources of Omega-3 include flax seeds (freshly ground or cold pressed, keep in fridge!), chia seeds, walnuts, pumping seeds, and some deep leafy greens. I personally don’t eat a lot of fish so take some fish-oil supplements daily as well as the nuts/seeds listed. These fats are very important for brain and nerve health, digestion, immune function, energy and so much more so make sure you get these important fats in!
Non-essnetial fats such as mono-unsaturated fats are also very good for the body. Olive oil, macadamia nuts and other nuts, and avocados are great source of these healthy fats. They also help to regulate cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
* Saturated fats in small amounts are great for energy. A little butter, sour cream, dairy fat (cream), etc. is far better than margarine and shortenings. Stay away from foods with partially-hydrogenated oils in them. These have been shown to have negative health effects on the body.
**Hydration- How much and what to drink?**
plain old water is the best beverage of choice most of the time. A diet soda or flavored non-calorie drink per day won’t kill you though. All forms of liquid will go towards meeting your hydration requirements. High water-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, tubers, salads, and whole grains cooked in water will also provide water for your body. You don’t necessarily need to drink 8 full glasses of water per day. Try to just drink regularly so you don’t get dehydrated and thirst is still a good indicator of water needs.
Try to limit sports drinks to games and hard practices only! Many athletes walk around drinking Gatorade and other sports drinks like water during the day; this is not good for your teeth and is teaching your body to excessively rely on carbohydrate instead of stored bodyfat for fuel during non-exercising periods of the day. During the game, see if you can dilute full strength sports drinks with water (50/50) and don’t forget to still alternate between sips of sports drink and plain water. You don’t want to upset your stomach during a sports match with too much glucose or calories at once.
* Remember, too much water can kill you (hyponatremia-low blood sodium) so more isn’t always better! Many athletes needs to drink more water however so spreading it our through the day is best.
**Putting it all Together- Daily Examples**!
Here are a couple of examples of daily meal plans for a student-athlete that try to be as realistic as possible with the dynamics and chaos of life. These are just example so feel free to substitute for food items that don’t agree with your specific health needs or likes.
Breakfast- Protein Smoothie- 1-1.5 scoops protein powder, 4-8 ounces of water, milk, 2-3 ounces juice (optional), 1/2 cup frozen mixed berries, 1/2 small banana, 1/2 tbsp Barleans Flax-oil. Blend and eat with small nutrigrain bar, cliff bar, or Z-bar, etc. if more carbohydrates are needed.
Mid-morning snack (if hungry) – 1-2 pieces of string cheese and apple, small orange or other piece of fruit, water
Lunch (at school)- chicken sandwich (not fried preferably), piece of fruit, cookie, water or mineral water, diet soda if you must.
Pre-practice snack- handful of nuts/seeds with small Greek Yogurt, water
Post practice-choclate milk-8-12 ounces. (Rocking Refuels are great!)
Dinner- 3-6 ounces of steak, pork, or fish (size of palm), baked potato or yam with small amount of sour cream or butter, as much broccoli or other cruciferous vegetable as you want. Water or milk.
* before bed- cup of warm milk or 2-3 scoop of vanilla ice cream. Don’t go crazy!
*On days when no Omega-3 nuts/seeds are taken during day, you can add in a spoonful of yummy Omega-3 fish oil supplement after dinner.
Breakfast- Protein Oatmeal- 1 serving Oats with 1 scoop of protein stirred in with a little milk. Add some berries and 1/2-1 bag of Trader Joes Omega-Trek mix.
Mid-Morning Snack (if hungry) – balance bar, water
Healthy Turkey (Boars Head) Sandwich on whole grain bread. Piece of fruit, bag of kettle baked chips
* pre-practice snack- Granola Bar and water
Post-practice snack- vanilla milk (also made by Rockin Refuel)
Dinner- Whole-grain pasta with ground turkey sauce, green leaf salad with vinaigrette (olive oil-based), water or milk, spoon of Lemon Zest Fish oil
* before bed- cottage cheese and berries
So as you can see, there is really no limit to the options available for meals and snacks. The key is to follow the principles. If mostly nutritious choices are made, a few “cheat” meals through the week are not a problem. Even a little daily treat of ice cream, chocolate, etc. is not a big deal as long as 80% of the choices are good. There really are no “bad” foods per se, just more wholesome and nutritious choices and others that are lacking nutrients but full of empty calories. The goal is not to eat perfect, but to make progress towards eating and fueling yourself for optimum performance. Its your body after all, your race car! How do you want to fuel it!
There are pro’s and con’s to both training at a big-box commercial gym (and personal training facility, etc.) or training at home. Some of the reasons to train at a gym include:
*lots of variety with equipment- can be either good or bad as people can get lost in a myriad of exercises with little or no practical benefit for their goals.
*increased social arousal from environment- again, this can be either productive or distracting leading to the inclusion of ridiculous exercises to impress others or way too much load in exercises such as bench press, leg press, etc, especially for guys!
*access to fitness classes, personal trainers, amenities, etc.- this can also be good or bad depending on what the classes and amenities entail. Personal trainers vary tremendously in their education level and coaching abilities so one has to be very careful with just choosing any “trainer” in a gym.
With these potential benefits to using a gym or fitness facility comes some definite drawbacks which include:
*that sweaty guy who bathes the equipment in pools of nasty sweat.
Everyone Loves that “Sweaty Guy!”
Nobody Loves a Sweaty Bench!
*that guy who hogs the squat rack for lots of curls or half-squats. Not that the barbell curl is a bad movement, but sometimes it would be nice if the curl monster would vacate the squat rack and use some fixed barbells or something else to blast his bi’s.
*the nice bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that can live on the equipment and in the locker rooms of these facilities. Of course these can live in your home gym too but regular cleaning and sanitizing will help.
Staphylococcus Aureus is No Laughing Matter!
*the gym dues/fees that add up over months to years that can eventually add up to full home gm set-up.
As you can tell, I am biased towards a home gym set-up. But I am also realistic enough to realize that not everyone has the room and the financial capabilities to investing in a home gym/training facility. Plus, there are so many smaller private training facilities now (like the one I used to own) with much more skilled coaches/trainers than can be found in big box gyms.
But, if someone is financially capable and does have the room in his/her house, a home gym set-up can be a marvelous idea. Since space can be an issue, I am mainly going to discuss free weight options for training equipment since they have greater potential in their use than single purpose machines or the all-in-one multipurpose devices that still serve as nice coat hangers in many a people’s houses!
A Glorified Coat Hanger!
First off, its important to decide what space is there to work with in one’s living quarters. This will determine what type of and how much fitness equipment can be obtained for the home training venue. Knowing one’s goal’s is paramount.
If general fitness and fat loss is the goal, I think most people could get by with a set of Kettlebells, a nice mat, and possibly a pull-up/chin-up device and/or a TRX or Jungle Gym XT Suspension device. This would definitely run under $1000 unless you spent the big bucks on double KB’s up to 106′s (The beast). This might represent the best possible home gym scenario for the majority of people, including athletes, who don’t necessarily need a barbell, bumper plates, etc.
If someone is a little more serious about higher level strength and fitness, or is a sterngth-power type of athlete, a barbell, a type of rack to hold it in, and some plates would be the next best option. The addition of a Trap Bar could also be valuable as it is easier to learn than the barbell deadlift off the floor in my opinion.
The Trap Bar (Hex Bar) is a Great Option!
There are many sources these days for obtaining equipment, some good and some not so good. For kettlebells, I am now recommending Kettlebells USA bells and they can be purchased of the website . This company is also about to come up with their line of barbells, bumpers, racks, etc. so keep an eye on them in the near future for great yet affordable training equipment. Rogue Fitness is where I got my squat rack for my home gym and they have a nice line of racks, bars, bumpers, etc. which would make for a great home gym set-up. Dragon Door still sells some quality bells, of which I have several, but they are amongst the highest price. Ader Kettlebells also make some decent bells though they are a step down in quality in my opinion from Kettlebells USA or Dragon Door bells. There are so many other brands out there that I have not tried so you’ll have to do your homework and be careful if you buy some off-brand bells for a bargain price!
Be Careful what you Buy For KB’s!
Other nice things to have, but not essentials, would be a pulley cable system for various chop and lift movement, isolation trunk and extremity exercises. Various pull-up bar handles are often found on these devices as well but expect to pay well over $1000 for a good one. Then of course there are assistance devices such as back extension and glute-ham developers, gymnastic rings, parallels, training ropes, various grip devices, ab wheels, the lost goes on and on. These are nice to have but the basics must be present first!
To finish, here is a video showing my home gym setup and that of two clients of mine that I helped design. The clients include my near 65-year old client Patricia, who is mother of 3 and a Master’s sprinter. The second client is a mid-50′s Master’s cyclist who recently got a total knee replacement. You will see many similarities in the various gyms and some key differences depending on the need of the client. The key variable though, is that a dedicated area or room was designated for the gym area, not some dingy garage, basement or attic. These can work to but you have to create a relatively climate-controlled and motivating area that people will actually want to train in!
Thanks for reading and please don’t hesitate to email with questions about setting up a home gym! firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s been a crazy busy and difficult 2013 for me as I closed down my Tempe shop at the end of February with the decision to finally go back to school and get my Doctorate in Physical Therapy. Taking pre-requisite classes this spring and summer, (Chemistry & Physics), has been a serious challenge to say the least! Unfortunately, I have been unable to regularly keep up with blogging as I used to but will hopefully put out 1-2 shorter blogs/month as I am able to.
I did write some blogs on my other website Primal Speed, about sprint-related topics which can be found here and here. The blog topics were on pool tempo for active recovery and the importance of preventing over-striding in sprinting.
And finally, here is a blog I’ve recently written in response to a questions from a colleague of mine that I thought others might find interesting.
The main issues (and potential hazards) of whether or not personal trainers should stretch (or even touch) their clients revolves around safety and legality. Regardless of the country, state, county, and city in which a personal trainer resides, it is crucially important to discover the laws and regulations regarding “touch” or the placement of hands onto a client, if they even exist. As far as I know, most states here in America don’t have any specific boards or associations for regulating personal trainers and strength & conditioning professionals; there just isn’t funding for this yet. As a personal trainer, strength & conditioning coach, and a licensed massage therapist, I have a unique perspective on this topic and will give my opinion in the paragraphs below.
First off, I don’t think there is a “black or white” or “yes or no” type of answer to this question since like many things in life, “it depends” on several factors and there is a true grey area here. If a fitness professional is well versed in anatomical and neurophysiological sciences, and has hands on training from reputable resources (such as the courses and writings of Robert McAtee and the courses taught by Ann and Chris Frederick), I do feel that a personal trainer or strength coach is qualified to apply rational and appropriate assistance to clients for improving range of motion, reducing excessive neuromuscular tone, and promoting a general ease and reduction of body tension. However, this is a big “if” since many trainers and coaches are not well versed in these sciences nor are they trained adequately in how to properly administer and apply these techniques. There is an “art” to the gentle handling of the human body with manual methods and it takes time to develop these skills. When the body is forced to move into ranges beyond its current adaptability, bad things can happen.
If a personal trainer applies excessive force and/or duration of a stretch to an area of a client’s body, the results can include mild to moderate injury (i.e. strain) to a soft or connective tissue (muscle, fascia, tendon, ligament, joint capsule, nerve, blood vessel, etc.). At best, the clients will not be injured but will probably tighten up reflexively as a defense mechanism to the inappropriately applied stretching stressor. In general, I just don’t feel the average personal trainer or strength coach has the training to safely administer these stretches just by learning from YouTube or from a book. However, by reading quality resources, watching on-line videos AND attending hands-on training workshops/seminars, the risks can be greatly reduced.
With regards to PNF/Contract-relax type of stretching, the safest type of stretches a trainer can apply to a client is one in which the client actively stretches their own muscle group after the trainer helped provide the isometric resistance for the client. The trainer should NOT push to deepen or increase the stretch. This way, the client is really in control and the risk of injury is reduced. Robert McAtee’s “Facilitated Stretching” book (published by Human Kinetics, now in its 4th Edition) is a go to resource for precisely this style of PNF/Contract-Relax stretching.
The legality of the matter is still an issue however since touching a client is generally not something recommended or taught in most personal training certifications or coursework. This is one of the reasons I acquired a massage license over 13 years ago; so I would be legal and more specifically trained in the use of “touch” with my clients. I do realize however, that getting a massage license for purposes of making stretching more appropriate is not practical or feasible for most personal trainers or strength coaches.
Whatever thing guy’s doing…don’t!
In closing, I feel that personal trainers and strength & conditioning professionals should be quite aware of the various techniques to improve a client or athlete’s range of motion. And with adequate professional training, they should be able to help and assist in the development of improved flexibility and range of motion (if needed). However, each trainer must assess their specific locale’s rules and regulations regarding this controversial topic and if any doubt exists, err on the side of caution by not partaking in active hands-on stretching for their clients. There are several methods that can be taught to clients using assistive devices such as stretching straps, bands, etc., that can achieve similar results without having to touch the client.
Self-Myofascial Release: Choosing the Right Tool for the Job By Keats
It’s fair to say that performing self-massage/self-myofascial release (SMFR) has become a staple in the personal training, strength & conditioning, and rehabilitative industries respectively. However, when something such as this becomes so popular, many of the fine points and details of HOW and WHY to perform the activity diminishes as the information gets watered down.
To help discuss the issues involved with teaching athletes and people self-massage, in the fall of 2011, I wrote an article for Training & Conditioning Magazine explaining the theoretical and practical use of the myriad of self-massage tools available today. In the article I also discussed some of limited scientific and mostly anecdotal benefits that users of self-myofascial release experience as well as various indications and contraindications of using a given SMFR device or tool.
General vs Specific Release
One of the the first things to determine when deciding to partake in a given SMFR technique is what is the goal? Are you after pain relief, better posture, relaxation, trigger point reduction, or better mobility and performance? And what are the best tools to achieve each of these goals? Since most people are familiar with foam rollers and massage sticks, it is important to understand which techniques and approach to use depending on the goal. When looking at most of the common uses of SMFR techniques, it appears that the affects are fairly general.
In the world of massage, general techniques would be basic strokes such compressions, effleurage and petrissage, while specific techniques would include deeper muscle stripping, trigger point pressure release (aka ischemic compression), dry needling, and even spray and stretch using a vapo-coolant. (*To read more about Spray and Stretch check out the bible of trigger point release by Travell and Simons and my article on the subject here).
Skin work (superficial fascia release) can also be more general as in a crossed arm myofascial release hold, or more specific skin rolling, cupping, or skin stretching techniques to work on superficial nerve health.
However, since most self-massage techinques can’t quite so specific, we have will mostly general effects and slightly more specific effects depending on the application of the pressure from the chosen tool and the specific intent.
It’s All About Pressure!
The Scientific formula for pressure is as follows:
Pressure (P)= Force (in Newtons, N)/Area (cm^2)
To simplify for SMFR implements, the larger the surface area of the of the object, the less the pressure will be to any specific area. A Foam roller will not have as significant of a local effect as the a tennis or lacrosse ball or even a thera-cane. This should be pretty straight forward. A massage stick can also be used more generally by using larger sweeps across a given area, or taking much smaller strokes over a given area of tenderness to affect a trigger point or what other rehab professionals that are more neurologically-oriented call an Abnormal Impulse Generating Site (AIGS). Whether or not trigger points really exist (this is a hot debate), there is some kind of local phenomenon in which a small area of myofascial tissue becomes neurologically or locally facilitated and shortened (i.e. “taut band”). Call them what you want. but we all get these localized areas of pain and dysfunction and making them less noxious is a good goal to ensure quality movement can take place at the affected joint(s).
General and Specific Treatment Parameters
The key when applying treatment (whether self-massage or regular massage from another person) is to ensure tolerable pressure is applied to the body that should not be interpreted as serious pain. In the school of Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT), which is my primary massage training, we ask for pressure on a scale of 1 to 10 in the 4, 5, or 6 range. Occasional 7′s may be OK, but getting to an 8 or above is to be avoided to avoid over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. The goal is NOT to destroy or kill these sensitive spots as many massage folk and trainers/coaches espouse. Work with your body not against it! Hopefully over time, these tender spots will improve as long as some quality stretching/mobility work is used after the release followed by some new input into the nervous system to move in a prefred or less stressful way!
Foam Roll or Stick: longer slow to medium paced sweeps over target area for 10-30 seconds depending on goal of the treatment and time available. Constant movement is the goal. If painful or sensitive spots are encountered, static pressure or smaller, more focused strokes/sweeps can be used to elicit a more local affect.
Using tennis or lacrosse balls, a backnobber or theracane, or the new Tola System (read more below), ischemic compression via direct pressure from the device (i.e. theracane) or using gravity and bodyweight to “melt” into the object. 8-12 second holds (up to 20 second holds in some cases) is what we teach in the Neuromuscular Therapy. Excessive local compression can cause ischemia and subsequent hypoxia (lack of O2) so its better to re-visit a site several times rather than “crushing it” for several seconds or even minutes! Certain myofascial release methods with hands however can be held for up to several minutes with great effect but are not the scope of this article anyway.
I recently wrote a blog about foam rolling the sensitive kyphotic spine which shows how to go from a more “general” release of the spinal tissues and structures to a more specific one as the person’s nervous system warms up to the idea! You can read the blog and associated video here.
Also, be cautious when apply any SMFR Techniques and make sure to avoid these vulnerable are
Back of the upper neck under occiput
Anywhere Directly on the Spine (i.e. Spinous Processes)
Anterior Throat or Face
Brim of the Pelvis (Iliac Crest)
Abodomen or Breast Tissue
Inguinal or Upper Groin Region (Femoral Traingle)
Front of Elbows (Elbow pits)
Back of Knees (Popliteal Fossa)
Another tool that can be used as semi-general and specific and at the same time is what is called “small-ball” release. Of any of the self-massage tools, these can have the safest application near the vulnerable areas listed above. Specifically, the anterior abdomen area (for Psoas release), the Quadratus Lumborum/oblique area between the 12th rib and iliac crest, the upper back/scapular region (including the levator scapulae attachement on the scapula), and even the base of the skull (sub-occipital area) can be effectively and safely treated using the small massage balls. I did a blogpost (with video) on releasing your own hip-flexors using a small ball which can be read here.
The following video discusses some of the topics I just mentioned above:
As you saw in the video, I am extremely fond of a new self-massage device called the Tola System. These little adjustable domes really allow for a graded progression into specificity of pressure; better than almost any other devices I’ve used. You can get the Tola system here. OPTP has it cheaper than Amazon and is where I got it. The Pressure Positive Company also makes many wonderful devices for slightly more specific work.
I also created a 2-disc DVD set a few years ago that goes over many way to use SMFR implement. It can be purchased off my products page.
I hope you enjoyed the article and please feel free to share it with anyone you know or email me with any questions or comments about any of this: email@example.com
(* Note: The following case study should not be seen as medical advice as I am NOT a doctor or medical professional. I am however a strength and fitness professional and a massage therapist with some experience with training and fitness matters as they pertain to pregnant women. Please consult your physician if your are pregnant before trying ANY of the exercises discussed or shown on this blog.)
Pregnancy can be a very exciting yet stressful period for a woman as her body undergoes a significant metamorphosis to grow and nuture a fetus all the way to a baby upon delivery. One of the controversial topics with regard to women and pregancy is exercise. In well meaning attemtps to promote safety and health for both mother and child, many women are consulted and told to mnimize their exertion levels during pregnancy. While certain pregnancy complications warrant a reduction or even a cessation of exercise, there is no convincing evidence to demonstrate the healthy women should take to a life of sitting and knitting during these amaziny (yet challenging) 9 months!
In fact, according to the American Pregnancy Association: ” If you have been following a regular exercise program prior to your pregnancy, you should be able to maintain that program to some degree throughout your pregnancy. Exercise does not increase the risk for miscarriage in a normal low risk pregnancy.”
Such is the case for my client. Dr. B, who is a local ER doctor who is having her first child in her mid-late 30′s. Dr. B was training quite intensely with me prior to becoming pregnant. We had some gaps in our training as she and her husband were using IVF which has some contraindicaitons for aggresive movement or exercise during the procdure. However, once she became pregnant, she was cleared to begin exercising again and has been performing regular strength training (KB’s, free weights, med balls, etc..) and aerobic work (spin bike, walking, swimming, etc.) throughout her pregnancy. Now, at 7 months pregnant, she is on the final leg of her pregnancy journey and is still hitting the training process pretty intensely. She has actually become a little stronger in her pressing lately (with KB’s) which has been cool to see.
Below is a brief video of some of things I have her doing during this pregnancy!
Thanks for reading and watching and please check with your doctor about the appropriateness of exercise if you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant in the near future.
This blog will go over some of the training ideas and methods I use with one of my long term clients, Dr. C., who is a local Podiatrist here in the Phoenix metro area. Dr. C. was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 2000′s (close to when we started working together) and has actually done very well considering how quickly others really lose function and mobility with this disease. For those who are unfamiliar with exactly what Parkinson’s disease is, it is a neurodegnerative disorder in which the brain begins to lose dopamine, the key neurotransmitter repsponsible for initiating and performing movement. The results of this can lead to the following symptoms which vary from indvidual to individual:
* slowness of movement
* resting tremor (aka “pill-rolling tremor”)
* postural instability (and the tendency toward stooping and increased kyphosis)
* rigidity and even “freezing” of body parts as they intitiate movement
* Changes in Gait (smaller steps, shuffling, lack of arm swing, Parkinsonian gait)
* Changes of facial expession and eye blink rate (reduce expression and lessened # of blinks per minute)
* ANS changes
There is no definitively known cause of Parkinson’s disease but many theories exist including genetic, a virus theory, exposure to evironmental toxins, and others. Treatment includes drugs to help replace lost dopamine as well as lifestyle modifications (safer home and work environment to reduce fall, etc.). Perhaps the best intervention (with the least negative side effects) however is exercise. Keeping the body moving and stretching is one of the best things a Parkinson’s patient can do; care just needs to be taken to ensure safety first as falls are very common as posutral stability lessens as the disease advances.
Dr. C. has mostly immobility and stifness symptoms with his Parkinson’s along with general postural decay as you will see in the video below. He also has some balance issues which have led to a few falls over the last few years. Maintaining strength, power and fucntional flexibility is our main goal working together. His Functional Movement Screen is a 7 (1′s on everything) so our main focus mobility wise, is T-spine mobility and the active straigh leg raise. He is stiff everywhere however, so we spend the first half of our sessions doing manual therapy, foam roll work, and PNF-type stretching. After this we almost always include some form of crawling and rolling. It is interesting how he can achieve a reversal of his extreme kyphosis in a quadruped position but totally loses that as he gets progressively higher off the ground (tall kneeling and then standing). The threat of falling is high and is the main reason I see why he can’t keep a neutral spine when upright. It’s hard to fight the brain!
Below is a video showing some of the work we do together:
Many more people will be diagnosed with Parkison’s Disease in the coming years as our population continues to age. I hope this has been helpful to demonstrate how mobility, power, balance, strength and work capacity can still be safely challenged in those with this disease.
Seminar Reviews, New Kettlebell Group Training and Upcoming Events!
By Keats Snideman
It’s been a busy summer thus far and I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended two great seminars amidst the busyness! The first was “Training=Rehab, Rehab= Training , a 2-day course taught by Physical Therapist and Strength & Conditioning Coach Charlie Weingroff given here in Phoenix, AZ at the Arizona Grand Resort. The second course was a 1-day workshop given by Gus Petersen, RKC, and creator of the K.A.T. (Kettlebell Athletic Juggling) system taught near Mission Beach in beautiful San Diego, CA. I will review them each below. After that, I will discuss the exciting changes occurring at my facility starting in October as well as some upcoming events of interest!
Similar to Charlie’s DVD set of the same name (Training=Rehab, Rehab=Training, which I reviewed in a previous blog here), he opened the course by giving his background and who he has been most influenced by in the evolution of his career. He talked about being influenced by the likes of Shirley Sarhman (PT), Gray Cook, Vladimir Janda, Pavel Kolar (creator of DNS), Knott & Voss (PNF creators), and Gray Cook (co-creator of Functional Movement Screen) from a neurological and rehabilitative standpoint. His influences in the world of Strength & Conditioning include Mike Boyle, Westside Barbell/Louis Simmons (Charlie is a competitive power lifter), and more recently Pavel Tsatsouline and the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge). Charlie is a very passionate guy and is not afraid to voice his opinion; some of which might rub some people the wrong way but Charlie is always going to tell you like he sees it!
The following lectures were given over the two day course:
Trying to Define the Core
How To Make A Monster
Corrective Exercise for The Fitness Professional
Along with these very informative power point presentations and discussions were some really great hands-on practical session. In these, Charlie demonstrated many of the correctives he likes the most from both the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and his training in the Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) methodology that he has been studying for a few years now. Although Charlie may come across a little intensely to some, his passion is palpable and this guy really knows a ton about the human body. If you are fitness, strength, or rehabilitation professional, you really owe it to yourself to make sure you see him speak one day! Here is a sample video from Charlie’s Training=Rehab, Rehab=Training DVD set:
Ketllebell Athletic Training (K.A.T.) 101, Workshop with Gus and Karen Petersen
“Challenging brain candy” is a phrase that comes to mind when I think of what Gus Petersen (owner of Pro-Edge Kettlebells) is teaching people in his kettlebell athletic training workshops. First off, this course (and Gus’ excellent 5 DVD set that he sells) are not for rank beginners to kettlebells. It would be helpful to already have a basic understanding of proper posture and breathe in the fundamental KB movements such as the swing and get-up (aka Turkish Get Up). The 1-day K.A.T. introductory workshp took place near the beach (at a playground in the sand) and began with just getting use to release the bell in the air while performing various taps and touches wiith either hand on the bell’s handle. I can’t really do justice with words of explaining how cool this stuff is. The weights we were using were mostly 12 kg KB’s for the guys (I switched to 18 lb. KB’s several times!) and 18 lb. KB’s for the ladies! What was amazing was how incredibly sore I was for days after the seminar. The sorness was in unusual areas due to all the different angles of the various KB juggling moves! Please check out the video below to get an idea of how challenging and engaging (for the brain) this is. It’s such nice cross-training which really enhances hand-eye coordination while sneaking in tons of mid-line crossing and cardiovascular challenging moves.
Hardstyle Kettlebell Certification (HKC) and Primal Speed Seminar : Still Time to Sign up!
I will be hosting the 4th HKC out of my facility on September 29, 2012. The course will be taught again, by my twin brother, Senior Russian Kettlebell Certified (RKC) instructor, Franz Snideman. I will be assisting of course and may even teach most of the class acting as Franz..kidding of course but who would really know! You can read more about the HKC and sign up here.
The very next day, Franz and I will be teaching our very first Primal Speed workshop where we will be teaching anyone interested the myriad of health and performance benefits to properly performed sprinting! Learn more about here (from our Primalspeed.net website or sign up here).
If The Most Interesting Man in the World Sprints, So Should You!
New Small Group Classes Opening In October!
Starting in the first week of October (2012), I will be opening up semi-private group kettlebell conditioning classes! The focus will be on hardstyle kettlebell training mixed with other tools and methods to help improve overall mobility, stability, strength, and power. I am still working on pricing but will be charging between $25-$35/session which will be paid by the month for best overall savings! If you are interestes please email my ASAP so I can get you in on the list: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The initial group times will be as follows:
Monday- 6 PM
Tuesday- 10 AM
Wednesday- 6 PM
Thursday- 10 AM
Friday- 5 PM (maybe 4 PM, depends on the interest. Fridays are not always great days it seems as people are ready to check out for the weekend!)
Saturday- nothing planned yet but will start if there is enough interest!
Tactical Strength Challenge: Saturday, October 6, 2012
I will also be hosting the Tactical Strength Challenge (TSC) at my facility on Saturday, October 6, 2012. Weigh-in’s will start at 10 AM and lifting at 10:30. Please read more on the TSC website for more information about the TSC!
Review of Joel Jamieson’s The Ultimate Guide to HRV Training
by Keats Snideman
I recently finished reading Joel Jamieson’s long-awaited book, “The Utlimate Guide to HRV Training,” which comes along with the purchase of Joel’s BioForce HRV Precision Performance package as sold on his website, 8 Weeks Out. For those unfamiliar with Joel, he owns EndZone Athletics in Kirkland, WA and has become one of the most sought-after strength & conditioning coaches in the popular and growing sport of MMA. In an a nutshell, Joel has become a leader in the field managing the entire training process (whether for specific performance or general fitness) and the ability to measure stress to guide one’s training process is what his new BioForce Precision Performance is all about. I actually mentioned Joel and his BioForce product in a recent blog I wrote about stress management so if you are unfamiliar with what the heck HRV (heart rate variability) is, I suggest reading the blog or going to Joel’s dedicated BioForce site here.
The Book’s Layout
Joel’s new book is 138 pages long and is broken down into 3 sections:
Section 1- is a quick-start users guide which gets you up and running with the BioForce device (which includes properly using a heart rate chest strap/monitor) and how to install and use the dedicated BioForce App (available on both Apple and Android App stores respectively) onto your smart phone. He also explains how to launch the app, the best time of day to take the measurement (morning is best), and what position works best (supine is best but seated for some will work better).
Explanations on HRV Score are given with higher scores generally being better (but not always!) and lower scored indicating increased stress or sympathetic responses occurring in the body. Next, specific advice is given on how to read and understand the daily reading which is also combined with a color (Green/Blue, Amber, or Red) helping to signify the current status of the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) and what is called “readiness” to train. As might be expected, a Green or Blue color signifies that adequate volume and intensity can most likely be performed that day. Amber color indicates caution should be used with possibly a reduction in both volume and intensity that day. And of course a red indicator means a very reduce training intensity and/or volume should be followed if not a complete day off.
Understanding how to use the chart screen explains how daily, weekly, and monthly changes in HRV can be tracked graphically. This helps to identify trends in HRV that occur during specific types of training regimes or other stressors in life. One can also export the readings via email in a .csv file that can be opened up on your computer for further analysis.
Information is then given helping to explain how to manage the training each day based on “trends” over time and not just getting too hooked on one specific day’s readings since so many other variable and stressors in one’s life can improve or decrease HRV. Sometimes during more intense loading blocks it is perfectly normal to see some amber readings or even an occasional red. These readings should quickly bounce back however when the training volume and intensity are reduced. This first section ends with a helpful Troubleshooting and FAQ section. After reading this first section you should be ready to rock and roll with using and understanding the basics of the Bioforce device and App. The real nuts and bolts of “why” HRV tracking is so useful however, are found in the remainder of the book.
Section 2: The Stress of Training- This is the really the “why” and the theoretical part behind training and how we humans, deal and adapt to all types of stress, not just training or the stress of sport. There are 5 chapters in this section which I will briefly review below.
1: Redefining Stress- A great introduction into the basics of stress, homeostasis & the stress response (e.g. “fight or flight”), how mental stress acts similarly to other stressors, and how a chronically activated stress response is bad for your health. If you are familiar with the writings of Hans Selye (aka, the Father of Stress), Robert Sapolsky (famous Stress researcher and author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Uclers), and Bruce McEwan (co-author of The End of Stress as We Know it), this chapter (and much of this section of the book) should be a nice review. If you aren’t familiar with those texts, this chapter and the following ones will be enlightening.
2: Allostasis & Adaptation- In this chapter Joel builds on the concepts of the previous chapter by explaining “allostais,” which is the varying adaptive responses taken by the body in order to maintain homeostasis, or the “steady state” of the body if you can remember back to high school biology class! The more we can understand how allostasis works, the better we can get at writing and managing training programs that produce the best results in the safest manner. Included in this chapter is a great section written by my friend and colleague Patrick Ward of Optimum Sports Performance on how allostatic mechanisms can go wrong over time in the presence of pain after an injury. Compensations which initially are useful (e.g. limping from an acute ankle sprain) can eventually lead to alterations in movement, posture, and motor control which of course can lead to injury in some distant area from the original injury. The amazing human body is designed for survival at all costs and we must keep in mind how compensatory adaptations can become problematic over time. The body doesn’t consider long-term consequences; it only strives to maintain homeostasis by minimizing stress in any way possible at any given moment. By monitoring HRV daily we can see how the body is dealing with all stressors since to the body, stress is stress, regardless of its source.
3: The Training Process- Joel begins this chapter by explaining the key components to any training process: the training session and the recovery and adaptation that follows it. Building upon the concepts of the previous chapter, the primary goal of allostatis during any given training session is to “maintain homestasis by meeting the increased demand for energy as efficiently as possible.” Good explanations of training “specificity” in terms of stressors are also given with both general and specific types. After all, exercise and all types of bodily movements are just an interaction of mechanical, metabolic, and neural types of stress. A decent geek-out session on metabolic “signaling” is included along with discussions of the training load, training response, the training effect and the process of recovery and adaptation.
4: Heart Rate Variability- This is where Joel finally gets into the nitty gritty of HRV, its history (Soviet Space program during the 1960′s), the autonomic nervous system (ANS- sympathetic vs. parasympathetic divisions), and the basics of what HRV is really measuring. Included are some nice pictures/graphs of what a normal heart rate pattern should look like followed by an overly sympathetic, and parasympathetic one respectively. So in general, a higher HRV score (scale=50-100) on your BioForce daily reading should mean an increased parasympathetic tone whereas a lower number can indicate an overly sympathetic response in the body. Of course there are exceptions to this which Joel goes over throughout the book.
5: The Training Continuum- In the final chapter of this section, Joel ties together the previous four chapters and explains the value of using HRV to look how the body responds to the stress of traning (and all other life stressors). We should not be just concerned over a single training session, a week of training(microcycle), or even a month (mesocycle). But rather, we need to look at the bigger picture of how the body responds repeatedly to similar (but increasingly challenging) stimuli over time. Continuous disruption of homeostasis, but not too much, is the key to continued fitness development and improvement. Finding this ”Stress-Adaptation Balance” between enough stimulus and too little stimulus is where BioForce HRV comes in; it removes the guess work and gives you measurable daily scores to steer your training in the right direction based on your goals, recovery ability, etc. A review of Han’s Selye’s “General Adaptation Syndrome” is then given, which are three phases the body goes through in response to any stressor (Alarm Phase, Adaptation Phase, and Exhaustion/Overtraining Phase). A nice explanation of the different types of overtraining is discussed (sympathetic vs. parasympathetic) including what happens immunologically and hormonally to the body in these compromised states. However, by monitoring HRV we can mitigate the negative effects of excessive physical (and mental, chemical, etc.) stress and also know when we are safe to push the accelerator!
Gas Pedal or Brake?? BioForce Helps To Determine That
Section 3: Managing the Training Process- In this final section Joel really gets into the practical application of using BioForce HRV. I’m going to be more brief in my reviews of this finaly section since there is a TON of information in there I can’t really do it justice in this review, and its starting to get too long! There’s an additional five chapters with the following titles:
6: Training Program Management- the main message I got out of this chapter was how important “training readiness” is, which is basically how much stress you are ready to adapt to at a given time. The key to improving your readiness is to have a firm handle on the key variable of program management which are: intensity, volume, frequency, methods, and exercises. All this leads to improvements in general fitness and basic adaptability first, followed by specific fitness improvements. Over time, this hopefully lead to improvements in functional performance of an given sport or other activity. Monitoring HRV helps to ensure your training process and lifestyle factors are supporting your goals, and not taking you farther away from them.
7: Managing The Training Day- as the name implies, this chapter gets into how to use BioForce HRV scores to monitor training readiness and help determine if higher levels of loading and volume can be performed on a given day or whether a lighter day, or even a complete rest day, needs to be taken .Great examples are given on how to manage the training load on any given day by assigning a RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) to the training session, using power output measuring devices such as the Tendo or Myotest units, and even measuring heart rates during more cardiovascular/endurance type of training sessions. So basically, the real jist of this chapter is to use HRV to help determine whether you have high, moderate, or low level of training readiness on any given day and then to alter the training plan for that day accordingly. Without HRV readings, you are really just guessing. You may guess right, you may guess wrong. Being more objective about the status of your ANS and general adaptability makes it much easier.
8: Managing The Training Week- in this chapter we get a nice synopsis of the many different ways to organize a training week or “microcycle based on managing the intensity and volume of the training primarily. Examples of various types of loading organization are given including the high/low style of training as popularized by the late Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis, an approach I”ve used for well over a decade with myself and several clients. How to come up with a weekly HRV load is shown which helps to ensure safe application of the desired goal or “theme” of the week can take place. Joel also explain more how to read the chart section of the BioForce App and understand what all the different colored lines means, etc.
This Chapter explains what all this stuff really means
9: Managing The Training Block- This is where Joel starts getting into “block” training which is really dependent on the short, medium, and long term goals. Some of the various types of blocks include: aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, body composition, and sports specific skills respectively. Various training block loading models are given such as: linear loading, undulating loading, concentrated loading, volume loading, and uniform loading. Of course all this information is dependent on what is happening with one’s HRV over the course of the training blocks. Some examples of how to progress the blocks are also given which is nice. This is a very solid chapter that I will read several times to fully absorb.
10: Recovery & Regeneration- In this final chapter, Joel discusses various recovery & regeneration methods which include: active recovery training, massage/manual therapy, sauna use, cold therapy, and hydrotherapy. The various effects each method has on the ANS is shown which is really thought provoking since some methods activate the sympathetic nervous more while others the parasympathetic. The goal is to choose the right methods at the right time instead of just aimlessly applying the same recovery method for each situation. Recovery needs to me individualized based on the person, the sports/activity, and the current status of their HRV reading. As a body-worker/massage therapist, this was my favorite chapter in the book!
I really appreciate what Joel has done with this BioForce product and book. In essence, he has successfully distilled the science of HRV, stress and allostasis management, and intelligent, science-based programming into the most important pieces and given them to anyone who is willing to learn about this cutting-edge training management tool. The cost of the BioForce package is under $200, a far-cry from the $30,000+ Omega Wave system that Joel is basing a lot of his recommendations from. If you are serious about learning to manage your stress and training process long-term, that I eagerly encourage the interested reader into getting this product and start monitoring the status of your ANS through the lens of HRV. Eliminate the guess-work and know for certain that your are heading in the right direction with your training!
“Most of us (in the Western World) will have the luxury of dying of a stress-related disease.” (Professor Robert Zapolsky, Stress Researcher)
As a quick recap for the goal of this blog series, the “other 23 hours” refers to the time of the day when we are not exercising or training (whether for health/fitness, recreation or sport). It is often thought that the workout or training session is the most important element to achieve succcess and progress in fitness. While part of this thought process is certainly true (if there is no stimulus there is no need for adaptation), the reality is that fitness isn’t gained during the training session, but rather, in the hours and days following the stressor or stimulus. Poor lifestyle decisions or “habits” can literally rob us of our gains and progress and even set us up for injury and/or illness. Hence the need to be reminded of the importance of non-training time!
In the previous installments of “the other 23 Hours” I covered the importance of microbreaks, sleeping positions, pre-bed stretching & self-massage, and constructive versus destructive rest positions respectively. In this 5th installment, I will be discussing the impact of the stress response, how to measure it, and the importance of controlling stress and anxiety by learning how to breath more slowly, deeply, and efficiently. I will also discuss various methods, including some nifty technology using your smart phone to help both measure and manage how we all deal with stress.
Sometimes, we All Get a Little Stressed Out!
It’s All About the Stress Response!
At the heart of the issue here is what is called the “stress reponse.” The stress response is an ancient evolutionary survival reflex of sorts. It’s basically the activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to help control the internal environment of the body. The ANS is basically the part of your nervous system that control all the functions of your bodily organs and parts that you don’t have to think about. Think “automatic” nervous system to help you remember. If you can think back to middle school biology, the control of our bodily processes is refered to as “homeostasis,” or the steady-state of the body. The ANS is broken down into two distinct systems called the “sympathetic” nervous system, which activates the well known “flight or flight” mechanism, and the “parasympathetic” nervous system, which is more concerned with activating vegetative fucntions and is sometimes called the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system.
Almost anything in life that we are exposed to, even our own thoughts, emotions, and ideas can be considered a stressor which can activate the stress repsonse. It’s important to know that not all stress is bad, and that without stressors, we would die. Good stress is referred to as “eustress” while bad stress is referred to as “distress.” For example, we need the stress of gravity to help keep our muscles, fascia, tendons, and bones strong as well as our organs functioning properly. Without gravity, things do not go well for us humans because we evolved with gravitational forces as a constant stressor acting upon our bodies. However, when our bodies become very unbalanced through injury, disuse and misuse, gravity can become a lethal force that literally breaks our bodies down! Whether a stressor is positive or negative for a given individual is dependent on the context of said stressor: One man’s eustress is another man’s distress!
Measuring Stress: Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Most people don’t need any device or person to tell them when they’re really stressed out; it’s pretty obvious! But day after day, the little hassels and stressors of the day add up and can make us feel tired, fatigued, and even down right sick. The problem is that modern life has created so many stressors, we could call them little annoyances, that we humans just aren’t evolved to handle on a daily basis. This leads to chronic acitvation of the stress response that eventually ruins our health and interferes with the normal homeostatic mechanisms of the body. This over-activation of the stress response over time can lead to chronic inflammation, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, cancer, and many other common modern diseases.
Unlike the Zebra in Africa who rightly turns on the stress response when being chased by a lion, humans can turn on the stress response at any time just thinking about events or stressfull situations, whether in the past or in the future. We can create a lion in our minds at any time which activates this primitive survival system. One of the ways physiologists and cardiologists learned to measure the effect of stress on the human body is through the heart rate. Specifically, by measruing the variability between each beat, a gateway into the autonomic nervous system is created. Measuring these time intervals, known as heart rate variability (HRV for short), gives and indication of how well the body (and brain) is dealing with stress (also known as allostatic load). In general, a higher HRV is good, as it indicates that the heart (via the ANS), is able to adapt to both higher and lower demands of activity and stress. In contrast, a low HRV could indicate the the body is fatigued or overly stressed and thus, is not as able to vary the heart rate adequately to keep up with the demands of the day momemt by moment.
If You’re Going to be Chased by a Lion, Make Sure it’s This One!
Typcially, the only way to measure HRV is with a very expensive medical device used by cardiologists or via a high-tech device such as the Omega Wave, which is used by some elite athletic teams, trainers, and coaches around the world. This device and others, can cost as much as $30,000 per unit, so the technology hasn’t been that available to the majority of athletes (both recreational and elite). Recently, over the last couple of years however, there are some much more affordable options for measruing HRV on the market including a device called the Ithlete, which can be used with a Smart Phone (iPhone or Android), iPod touch, and the iPad. Joel Jamsion, a very succesful MMA fitness coach out of Seattle, WA, has also created his own version of the Ithlete, which he calls Bioforce. I could go on and on about all this stuff but it would just be easier if you watched the video I made below!
Improving HRV, Anxiety Control and Breathing
Now that you’ve got an idea of what HRV is and why measuring it is important, let talk about some practical ways in which we can all improve our ability to keep our bodies calm and controlled under the stress and pressure of life. One such method to help prevent our overactive lizard brains from turning us into piles of stress hormones, is through deep diaphragmatic breathing, such as has been taught in various types of meditation and prayer for thousands of years. From the ancient wisdom of Eastern traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Yoga, we have learned of the many benefits of meditation. Although many of the goals of meditation involve religious-oriented prayer towards some universal God or Gods, for non-religious people like myself, meditation can still offer some real benefits to helping us control our autonomic nervous system, and thus our stress-response and the anxiety that ensues when it gets out of hand! The ultimate goal for stress reduction when meditating is to blunt the stress response and activate what is known as the relaxation response.
Meditating is Great..but Can You Stick With It??
However, what do you do if you are ADD like me? I have tried so many times over the last two decades to meditate and time and time again, my racing brain makes it very difficult for me to stick with it. Fortunately, there are some devices and technology out there now that make deep breathing (and thus meditative benefits) more possible in our increasingly ADD world. A couple of devices that come to mind include a device called the emWave, and the Stress Eraser. What these biofeedback devices do is basically take your resting and heart rate whille measuring your HRV simultaneouly. From this measurement, a breathing wave is created which helps you to entrain your breath with a wave on the screen. By following this wave, you balance out your heart rate, and lower the ravaging affects of the stress response. These responses are very similar to what happens when we meditate. If you can meditate well and consistently however, there is no need to get this type of device as they can run between $140-$230 depending on which type of device you get.
Below is a great video about the Stress Eraser, how it works, and how to use it.
For those who can’t afford a device such as this, I’ve found a few options in the world of smart phone Apps that might be of help to people as well. In the video below, I explain what I’ve found.
Breathing Techniques for Anxiety and Stress Control
If one wants to try to improve their ANS via no devices, which is probably best long term, there is still good old fashioned diaphragmatic breathing techiques that probably stem from Yoga and other Eastern tradtions. One such technique is called “pranayama” in Yoga and can work very well to help balance the ANS. There are many permutations of this technique or practice, and one that I’ve used with good results is called the four-fold breath which is listed below:
1) First, make sure you know how to belly breath without too much chest expansion. Then practice what is called a “Complete Breath” where you first fill up the belly and lower lobes of the lung followed by the chest and the upper lobes of the lungs. This complete breath is what should be used for this specialized breathing technique.
2) Next, set a rythm or tempo to your breaths where you inhale to the count of 4, hold for a 2 count, exhale for a count of 4, and then pause for another 2 seconds; repeat for several cycles. This would be a 4-2-4-2 rythm ot tempo and can be modified to suit one’s personal comfort level when breathing. Someone might like as long as 8-4-8-4 or maybe 6-3-6-3; play around with what feels best for you and try this for at least a couple of minutes. This might be best done sitting in a relaxed and supported position. Lying down could work but many people might just fall asleep; which might be what the person needs if they are super sleep deprived anyway..like so many of my clients!
Another technique for controlling arousal and anxiety is one that I learned from the writings of the great Osteopathic bodyworker from the UK, Leon Chaitow:
1) Sitting comfortable, place one hand on the abdomen and the other on the chest. This will help to monitor the sequence of breathing which should be belly first, then chest as described in the four-fold breath above. Inhale slowly through the nose and then exhale even more slowly through pursed lips, as if trying to bend a candle flame without blowing it out. The key with Chaitow’s technique is to make the exhale approximately twice as long as the inhale. Do this for around 30 cycles for a therapeutic and calming effect. However, even just a few cycles during stressful moments might be enough to remind the body of the relaxation response!
Hopefully this blogpost and the videos within it, have been helpful to understanding the imporatnce of monitoring and controlling the stress response in our lives. Also, if you were not familiar with heart rate varability (HRV), and the importance of measuring it, you now will be motivated to start including the measurement in your daily training process. New techonology has made this measurement more accesible than ever. Also, I hope that many of you will attmept the breathing and stress control techniques, inlcuding use of stress eraser, which is working very well for the many people out there who will use it regularly.
Now go control your stress and reap the rewards of a healthier body and mind!
Here is a brief video demonstrating how multiple foam rollers can be used when dealing with a sensitive and kyphotic spine. The kyphosis I am refering to is an exaggeration of the normally kyphotic thoracic spine. The lumbar and cervical curves are supposed to be lordotic or “arched” in a healthy spine with normal curvature. Of course these techniques can be used for a flat or extended thoracic spine as well but I would omit the segmental extension shown at the end of the video clip since more extension is NOT what a flat T-spine (often refered to as a “dorsal dish” in the somatic and Rolfing bodywork world).
Enjoy and please share with anyone who you feel may benefit from this information!