Meditation As A Recovery Tool

Train WreckOctober 29, 20092

Breaking It Down

You’re a committed athlete, and you are willing to push it all the way. You throw all you’ve got into your workouts, and afterwards your body is so thrashed that you spend the next two days uncomfortable and unfocused in school, at work, or at play.

As the years roll by, you hone your skills in maximizing your workouts and can thoroughly break down your body. But as a result the recovery is also becoming harder to deal with. Maybe you’re pushing 16 hours, or 20 hours, or maybe even 30 hours. You aren’t sleeping as well after the harder days, and your part-time job is becoming a chore.

Fundamentally, everyone wants to be able to do bigger workouts with more intensity. Above all, it’s your job to hurt more than anyone else out there, no matter what the cost. But, accepting the fact that your body is going to be so broken down can be a major roadblock both during your workouts and after your workouts.

For a lot of us that cost unfortunately includes losing sleep, or having trouble resting well enough for the next workout. For example, when some of us are physically destroyed after a workout we might instinctually start to ‘speed up’ as a nervous defense mechanism. Your hands get shaky, you might clumsily drop things getting in and out of the car, or impulsively race through daily tasks and make lots of unnecessary mistakes.

Worst of all, you can turn into a grouch!

Steering a row boat along the waves will cause it to tip over, but steering into the waves plows the bow over them and keeps the boat above water. The more fatigue we experience while pushing the limits of performance, the more natural it is to run away and ignore what’s really happening inside us. Alternatively, calmly steering your mind directly into the tsunami of discomfort during recovery will give you insight on the work you’ve done, and what you can do next.

Meditation as a Necessary Recovery Tool

Mediation can serve as a recovery tool by helping to simply observe bodily discomforts and becoming more familiar with what is happening during these exhausted periods. In particular, trauma to the cardiovascular system has the most negative repercussions because it exists at the center of your body’s reactive systems and is most likely to cause problems with sleeping.

Every one of us knows that if you don’t get sleep you don’t have a chance to maintain a high-volume work load.

The fundamental concept of ‘traditional’ meditation is to become less of a reactor and more of an observer to your surroundings. In the case of recovering athletes, we want to turn off the pro-active part of our mind that defends us from discomfort, and tame our minds to fully experience the pangs of rebuilding in order to get them to go away faster.

As athletes, we want to feel the pain – you must learn to love it. And since I’m in Wyoming, I’ll translate it for all you cowboys: It’s called “Bucking up and facing the music.”

There’s no magic here, no mysticism, just sit down, relax, and listen. This is the routine I’ve landed on:

Pick a time in the evening when your day is done, and try it out. Do some things to clear your conscience a bit; clean your kitchen, call your mom, do whatever you gotta do. Sit comfortably in a chair with or without your legs crossed. Overlap both hands palm-up in your lap. Let your eyes and mouth rest in a naturally relaxed, half-open position and focus only on your breathing, and nothing else.

The trials of the day have no place here, only the in and out of breath and beating of your heart in the background. You aren’t turning anything off, not forcing anything away. Instead you’re turning everything on and letting it all in.

After about five minutes of calming down you might slowly (and magically!?) start to turn on to the sensations in your body. 450 minutes of intensity in four days has left a footprint on your body that you want to understand much better than you currently can.

Your tired body wants nothing more than rest, even if it seems like you could go on a little more without it. Try to connect as deeply as possible to the pain that is there. Dig around and actually look for the pain. Muscles are torn, the diaphragm is tired, the mind is resting.

Feel the tightness in your hams from the squats and tele-jumps. Imagine the discomfort in your heart and your lungs from the OD and intervals. Try to map out the relationship between the intervals and their repercussions during the 36 hours that follow. Visualize yourself doing it again, and again, and again.

When people are uncomfortable they have safe zones that they run to to protect themselves, like food, coffee, making excuses for coaches, doping, whatever. In meditation the idea is that there is no place to hide from these discomforts. Experiencing the effects of these workouts directly can give you an idea of how well they worked for you, and what the next step might be.

The idea is that our minds are innately untamed and nervous. But, over time you can can train your mind to remain calm and true to it’s surroundings through techniques like meditation.

If fatigue in the aftermath of your training is a point of contention for you, your recovery will also be a point of contention. So, just as we are (maniacally) teaching ourselves to enjoy breaking down our bodies during training, we should also teach ourselves to enjoy the feeling of actually being broken down afterwards.

The more you allow yourself to experience the pain, the faster it will disappear from your body.

More on Mediation in Athletics

Athlete Meditation Research:

“Any athlete that desires to be the best that they can possibly be needs to focus on meditation and visualization. One must train the body and the mind.”

Excellent article about the Japanese Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei:

“7th year: 100 consecutive days of 52.2 mile marathons and 100 consecutive days of 26.2 mile marathons. […] Interestingly, in order to qualify as a mountain marathon runner, a trainee monk has first to master seated meditation, with major emphasis placed on deep abdominal breathing.”

Running Buddhas: Ultra-endurance and the spiritual athlete:

I Tried Meditation Once

This is hillarious.

Ohhmmmmmmmmm. Busta!

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  • Patrick Stinson

    October 30, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    I’m really curious what other people do during those times when your body is just totally thrashed, especially if sleep becomes more difficult. Anything special? Active recovery techniques? Stretching? Yoga?

  • james

    November 1, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Nice article, Patrick.

    I do “lymph breathing” daily, wherein you inhale/hold/exhale at a 1/4/2 ratio. For a baseline, this might mean an 8-second inhale, a 32-second hold, and a 16-second exhale.

    Disclosure: I vaguely recall coming across a study showing that this was inconclusive at helping to cleanse your system. I feel better after this breathing, so I do it. There may be further research one way or the other; Google Scholar may turn up something.

    I am a mouse compared to a distance titan like you, but I always spend several minutes (at least) stretching after any sort of workout, so as not to lose limberness.

    Separately, and because flexibility comes in different types, I stretch differently on different days. I have the following stretch days:

    Dynamic (think: leg swings)

    Isometric (*after* workout, ease into stretch, tighten for ~6 seconds, loosen for 2 seconds as you go deeper, then repeat 1x or 2x more)

    “Natural Flexibility” (giving props to eponymous book, which actually isn’t much outside of the similar-to-isometric idea of squeezing for 40 seconds a few times per stretch

    Yoga (supposedly, passive stretching weakens muscles, at least temporarily, but yoga mixes many types of stretching and feels generally good for the mojo, so I do it)

    For sleep, I do a hot bath with several cups of Epsom salt; also, a magnesium supplement called Natural Calm can be nice. Men tend to be low in magnesium, it’s said, so both of these hit the spot for me.

    As a follower of your saga on your blog, I hope all is well and swell for you in Wyoming.



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