Sympathetic overactivation – How to get out of it
I have seen so many programs that include all the methods and exercise variations you can possibly find in the history of mankind that yet still don’t produce the expected results. Volume is also another variable often overused in order to create more adaptation and provide results. Yet again, that still doesn’t produce results.
Then finally, people will think that since they can’t get results on high volume program, nor on a crazy multiple variations 3000–method program, they should go with a high-intensity program and lift very heavy, near maximum at every session, Yet still…that….doesn’t…produce…results.
In fact, with the latter, you usually get a fair improvement in the first 2 to 3 weeks, but often can’t finish the program. What you gain in strength, you eventually start to lose and feel like every damn training session is the road to hell. Every week, you end up feeling more beaten up than the previous one.
So, what’s the catch? Maybe you’re not made to gain muscle and strength? Maybe you’d be better at training for miniature golf? Really?! Nahh! Here’s the answer to most popular programs you can find all over the web (or even popular programs that have been used by superstars or even elite athletes):
A training program is only as good as your capacity to recover from it. It’s that plain and simple.
While elite athletes can potentially recover from this kind of beating, the thing is, you are not an elite athlete (well, most of us are not). And this is OK. Elite athletes are a mere percentage of the population and the majority of us are not geared to endure such a training methodology. Not only are we not built for it, we usually don’t have the kind of life that allows for the recovery these kinds of programs require.
So, what should we do? (Yeah, miniature golf can look fun, but we still have a taste for challenge, and we want to look good, be strong and feel like a superhero sometimes).
First things first, you need a program that allows sufficient recovery and also a frequency and volume that fits your training capacities. But since you want to improve, you will need to challenge yourself to become better. That’s when some knowledge of the nervous system comes into play.
When you can’t recover sufficiently from a workout program, you usually end up with overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system. What does that eat in Winter? To put it simply, the sympathetic nervous system is an available mode of your nervous system that will take the lead when things become stressful. What I mean by stressful is anything that pushes the body for quick reactions, strength, and speed. Pretty much like fighting or running away from something dangerous, like a bear for example. It’s one of the oldest mechanisms our body has to defend itself against a possible threat.
Now, there is another kind of stress we discovered later in our history: psychological stress. Things we deal with every day: work, finances, relationships, spouses, kids, etc. While these stresses may not be life-threatening, they are pretty much present 24h a day. And for your body, the perception of these stresses is the same as the perception of something dangerous.
Now enter the third kind of stress you guys are all living a few times a week: Training! It’s a good thing to train and get fit, but up to a certain degree, it’s also a beating on your body and you need to recover from it. It’s also a lot more stressful if you are dieting and get yourself into a caloric deficit.
In every situation we’ve just seen above, your body activates its sympathetic functions, which will get you ready to “fight”:
- Increased heartbeat and blood pressure to provide enough blood supply to muscles and increase oxygen transport
- Better muscle contraction and overall tightness to push, pull, jump, fight, etc.
- Reduced motility, because when fighting for your life, it’s really not the time for a no.2. Keep this for later.
- Digestion is on a halt – Pretty simply, you need food to survive, but your body is pretty good at evaluating what’s life-threatening at the moment, and starvation is rarely something that kills you in a hurry, so better fight or flight than eat. If you’ve just eaten a big pie just before a squat session, this is why you feel like you’re going to puke all over the place.
- Blood glucose increases to provide enough energy resources to supply muscles and brain.
- Sexual functions are off – Do I really need to explain this? When the bear is about to catch you, if you think about sex, you really have a problem! When your life is in danger, your body doesn’t think about reproduction.
And all of this chaos is driven by adrenaline which is released when cortisol rises. And cortisol will rise every time you train, and every time you feel bad or stress about something in your life too. Historically, it should surge here and there to save you and keep you alive, but nowadays it’s all over the place and in constant elevation. So, don’t be surprised if you can’t train the same way you see elite athletes train.
Now when this system is activated too often and/or for too long, your body can also have a harder time getting out of it. This is called sympathetic overactivation. You can’t get the nervous system back to its alter-ego function, the parasympathetic state, which serves as a relaxing mode to conserve energy for future battles.
If this is the case, symptoms will appear that need to be addressed as soon as possible:
- Inability to relax or chill
- Disturbed sleep
- Tightness in muscles even if you didn’t train those muscles
- Decreased workout performance
- Increased heart rate even at rest
- Digestive difficulties
A lot of people feel like this every day of their life and they just don’t know why. They call it anxiety, but simply, it’s an overactivation of your nervous system. And having the wrong workout can only make things worse.
So how do we improve recovery to get out of this state
There are different approaches you can use to get out of sympathetic overactivation. I usually recommend combining different approaches to have more tools to help you.
External recovery tools
This group of recovery tools are geared towards activities you can do to help put your body under ideal conditions to switch from sympathetic to a parasympathetic state.
- Massage therapy
- Epsom salt hot bath (but not too hot, or it can activate your system)
- Power nap – try one or two naps during the day, it’s really helpful. Try to keep it around 20 minutes so you aren’t groggy when you wake up.
- Cardiac coherence – this is a breathing technique that consists of 6 cycles of complete inspiration/expiration in one minute for a total of 5 minutes. It sounds weird, but if applied correctly, it really works.
Internal Recovery Tools
This group of tools are what can help you internally, like supplements and nutrition. Ideally, you want to take them sporadically when training to help recovery, but when in sympathetic overactivation, you will probably need to take them for a longer period of time, sometimes up to a month to get back to normal function.
Vitamin B6 – It’s used as a cofactor for many neurotransmitters and has other enzymatic functions. When in situations of prolonged stress and anxiety, or when training a lot, you can quickly deplete this vitamin in your body and then you will be lacking the amount necessary to build the neurotransmitters that can balance your nervous system.
Magnesium – Probably the mineral with the most functions in your body. One of its main roles here is to pull out the nervous influx sent into the cells to release the contraction of a muscle. If you are depleted in magnesium, you can feel like your muscles are tight muscle and irregular contractions. Magnesium is a really good muscle relaxant. It is pretty good at regulating heart rate too, which can often get out of balance when in the sympathetic mode for too long.
L-tryptophan – This amino acid is what builds up serotonin, the neurotransmitter that will counteract overactivation and help you feel good, calm and in control. This neurotransmitter synchronizes your brain functions. If you get too activated, you deplete this neurotransmitter and will need some raw materials to build it. L-tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin and is very helpful in stressful situations, or when you feel recovery is incomplete.
Adaptogens – Ashwagandha, Rhodiola Rosea, Ginseng, Bacopa, etc. These plants have some amazing benefits to help your body fight stress. The good thing is they will not put you “down” or have any sedative effects. They make you feel balanced and calm, or even improve your performances in the gym. They are usually very well tolerated by most people and act pretty fast.
Stressful times are where you need to lower proteins a bit and increase your carbs. Carbs not only mitigate cortisol but have a lower digestion cost than proteins which are more complex to digest.
Try increasing your carbs consumption particularly around training and in the evening. Having some carbs before and intra–training can prevent too much cortisol production.
Make sure you eat plenty of fruits and veggies so you get more vitamins and minerals for enzymes and cofactors to support hormonal and neurotransmitter production.
Now would be the best time for a ‘’DELOAD’’ week. Lower the weight and the volume to decrease the demands on your CNS. Otherwise, each training will get you back into too much activation.
You can also start to program your rest periods based on your heart rate. For example, take your BPM when you are at rest a couple of times and calculate an average. Each time you lift, you can only do another set if you can get back at this average BPM. This method will help your body to activate the parasympathetic state between sets and helps a lot with recovery.
You can also try to switch for more low-intensity sessions and cardio. If you’ve been doing a lot of high-intensity intervals and sprints, switch to more steady-state and LISS cardio with a lower heart rate for more time. Brisk walking is an amazing way of calming the mind and helps you rest and recover while still moving and burning some calories along the way.
Working out is great! But it’s also stressful if you don’t allow for proper recovery. In an era of addictions and constant stress, working out can be of the greatest benefit, but it can also be destructive if you abuse it.
The program intelligently, rests properly, eat well and don’t remain constantly in a deficit. Improvement can only come if you can recover from what you are doing in the gym. If you feel like it’s getting hard to recover, try to apply some of the methods discussed. Don’t wait until it’s too late, apply them sporadically during calculated periods of deload. You can only become better and stronger after a proper recovery period.