Does your training (and life) make you nervous?

Posted by Ian Craig

Within the realms of functional medicine (click here for background reading), we have a word that includes the consideration of our nervous and endocrine systems, and that is ‘communication’. Communication networks in our body emanate from our central nervous system and influence our physiological structures in many different ways, often stimulatory or inhibitory.

I’ve written expansively before on overtraining (e.g. Overtraining - how do we harness our energy?) and within that topic, the endocrine system tends to get a lot of air time, in particular the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. But, in actual fact, within the functional medicine consideration of ‘communication’, we cannot separate the endocrine system from the nervous system, and it is the later that I am choosing to focus on today.

Referring back to the title of this blog (does your training (and life) make you nervous?), we might associate a weak and frightened non-athlete with this statement - a ‘real’ (strong and masculine) athlete will not be nervous about training and certainly not his or her life. But, such head strong thinking is cognitive in nature - I’m actually a lot more interested in what is going on at the unconscious level - exactly where the really interesting physiology occurs. Completely unknown to us consciously, our nervous system fluently interacts with our endocrine system at the level of the hypothalamus, which is considered the conduit of our communication systems. In other words, if we become mentally stressed, we are unable to secrete stress hormones without creating a co-activation of our sympathetic (fight or flight) autonomic nervous system. Similarly, exercise that involves a reasonable load (combination of intensity and duration), will provoke a response in both ‘stress’ systems without you, as the (strong) athlete, necessarily feeling stressed. However, you are unwittingly creating a strong nervous response in your physiology - i.e. making your body nervous!

A nervous body is absolutely required to push you into the realms of physiological sporting adaptation, but in a carefully planned intermittent nature: in other words, within a carefully planned periodised training plan, that is flexible to daily physiological fluctuations, and which builds in the training principle of reasonable progressive adaptation. It is when the repetition of nervous stimulation becomes too frequent or too intense, that our impressive physiological buffering and adaptation capabilities become compromised, and this will generally happen over a long period of time.

If you are physiologically minded, you will be comfortable with the concept that our sympathetic (stimulatory) nervous system has to be balanced by our parasympathetic (recuperative) system for optimum health. It’s a neat concept that every student of physiology will be aware of. But, when we (as athletes) have moved passed that particular chapter of our physiology text book, we tend to move into the training language of ‘intensity’, ‘load’, ‘duration’, and ‘frequency’. These are all ‘sympathetic words', which when not balanced by the one training word associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, ‘recovery’, will ultimately result in physiological destruction.

The sympathetic nervous system (unbalanced by it’s parasympathetic counterpart) is associated with an increase in heart rate and blood pressure (resting and exercising), eventually a weakened immunity, sluggish digestion (required for nutrient uptake), a catabolic drive, and ultimately impaired recovery between training bouts.

I meet athletes in this state every single week. By ticking all the boxes on their training programme, getting up too early to train (compromising on sleep), pushing hard in their career, and not ending up with time to eat wholesomely, they live sympathetically - i.e. they put in the training effort, don’t recover fully, and ultimately end up not improving their athletic performance, or even experience a performance recession over time despite more effort.

One such case was a lady who came to see me this week. She was quite a high-level triathlete who competed in Ironman competitions and was very close to achieving a Kona slot. She had two children and three jobs, plus trained twice a day with no off days, meaning that she ‘ate into’ her sleep and recuperation time to get the training in. Now, in her mid-thirties, she had full-on osteoporosis and sarcopenia, and her left femoral head had broken off from the rest of the femur a year previously - she was obviously all plated up, metaphorically held together by sticky tape. This is a rare example, but I share it with you to emphasise the physiologically eroding effect of living and training in a constant sympathetic state - you not only end up with adrenal fatigue, thyroid difficulties and sex hormone imbalances, but your actual flesh and bones can suffer too.

This topic is fresh in my mind because I’m currently reading an excellent book called Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, which eloquently outlines the physiological nature of emotional suffering versus happiness. Not surprisingly, the author included a lot of strategies to increase parasympathetic tone in the pursuit of happiness. These include mindful breathing exercises, mediations, progressive muscular relaxation, and gentle exercise in nature.

As athletes, we have to have to strike this balance of giving and receiving, pushing and pulling, stimulating and relaxing. In ancient Chinese terms, this balance is called yin yang and it’s a concept that I’ve used before when writing about balance in exercise. To establish balance, we can tune in to our body in a mindful way and to use deeply reflect training/life journals, and/or we can choose to use modern technology such as heart rate variability. Whatever methods are best for you and your athletes, establishing balanced nervous rhythms are vital to health, performance, recovery and to longevity (of life and sport).  

To read a more technical article on the nervous system and its role in sporting health, click here.

To listen to an integrative sports nutrition DNAlysis hosted webinar based on the communication systems, click here.