As many elite athletes are preparing to peak at international competitions in the Northern Hemisphere it’s a valuable time to reflect on how much time is being dedicated to psychological recovery as you prepare to perform when it counts… It’s becoming an increasingly important aspect of elite athlete training and preparation as we ask more of your physiological and psychological systems. I’ve written about this before and will continue to do so to continue to influence awareness and ultimately integration of this information into the life of an elite athlete! Here are some simple pieces of information and tips for you to consider…
Making time for psychological recovery through relaxation, rest, and sleep
Athletes can benefit from understanding how to regularly incorporate psychological recovery strategies into their training and competitive schedules. Think of psychological recovery as giving one of your body’s most valuable organs – the brain, a chance to recover.
Recovery is the re-establishment of the initial state – it allows the restoration of physiological and psychological processes, so that you can compete or train again at a similar level. It can be passive or active and is an integral aspect of training that requires planning. It focuses on identifying strategies that athletes can use to minimise and manage fatigue from training and competition.
Recovery strategies can be categorised as physiological, neural, tissue damage, or psychological. Appropriate recovery strategies will:
- maximise gains from training and improve quality in every session,
- improve consistency of quality performance, and
- minimise and eliminate injuries, overtraining, illness, or burnout.
What is psychological recovery?
Psychological recovery involves feelings of relaxation and re-establishing a sense of well-being and positive mood. Consider your brain as an organ that also needs time to recover from the regular everyday type of stress, but particularly from the stress in the life of an elite athlete.
How do psychological recovery strategies help your performance?
Psychological recovery strategies aim to disengage you from the performance. Heart rate, breathing, and body temperature remain elevated post-exercise and may take time to drop, as do anxiety levels about the performance or future performances. Several psychological recovery strategies assist to bring these levels to normal levels.
Furthermore, following intense training and demanding performances, athletes may experience the following symptoms:
- low concentration,
- lack of motivation, and
- increased levels of anxiety.
Psychological strategies can play an important part in emotional recovery by assisting in recovery of these symptoms. Psychological strategies such as relaxation and sleep are as important as physiological strategies in completing total recovery following demanding physical activity.
Psychological recovery strategies
There are multiple psychological strategies that can be integrated into your practice and competitive schedules to enhance recovery. This article will focus on three – relaxation techniques, pre-sleep routines, and rest days.
1. Relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can reduce levels of tension and arousal and also energise. Athletes relax in many different ways; some options include reading a book, listening to music, watching movies/television, or engaging in specialised relaxation techniques.
Specialised relaxation techniques are also widely used, including meditation, progressive muscular relaxation, imagery, or diaphragmatic breathing. These techniques can be categorised as muscle-to-mind or mind-to-muscle techniques (Williams, 2010).
Muscle-to-mind techniques such as breathing and progressive muscular relaxation exercises, aim to train you to become sensitive to levels of tension in the body and then control their ability to release such levels of tension. The brain then assesses and confirms the body as relaxed. For example, breathing exercises can help you relax, because they make your body feel like it does when you are already relaxed. Deep breathing (i.e., diaphragmatic breathing) is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax (Murray & Pizzorno, 2006). It’s worth revisiting the Breathing Matters article written earlier in the year to consolidate your understanding of the importance of efficient breathing.
Mind-to-muscle techniques such as meditation and imagery work in the opposite direction and aim to promote a calm and controlled message starting from the brain, which then affects the sensations in the rest of the body. For example, meditation helps you relax by consciously focus your thoughts on one thing (e.g., object, sound, image, listening to guided scripts) for a sustained period. This occupies your mind, diverting it from the problems that are causing you stress. It gives your body time to relax and recuperate, and to clear away stress hormones that may have built up.
Practice your preferred relaxation techniques on a regular basis for these to become effective tools to use to aid recovery. The choice of relaxation methods is quite individual and involves experimentation to establish which technique works best.
2. Pre-sleep routines
Sleep is considered the most vital recovery mechanism. In fact, sleep is the best form of recovery an athlete can use for physiological and psychological repair and restoration. Adequate sleep (7-9 hours) provides regeneration and restoration of the body’s systems to allow adaptation to training – it helps you adjust to the physical, neurological, immunological, and emotional stressors that high performance athletes experience during the day.
A frequently reported problem for athletes is the inability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep the night before competitions. Often this is due to internal factors such as pre-competitive anxiety, excitement, and thoughts about the competition.
A pre-sleep routine can assist with falling asleep. One of the simplest examples to use is to look at how parents get their young babies off to sleep. It is through a gradual calming process, which aims to make them feel secure and comfortable. The overall aim of your pre-sleep routine in adulthood is to slow down and reduce exposure to external stimulation (e.g., iPhone). Furthermore, consistent bed and wake-up times promote good sleep hygiene and adherence to a routine.
To promote falling asleep, it is helpful to be able to relax yourself first. A three-step process to assist athletes that find it difficult to fall asleep includes:
- Relax – get your body in a relaxing position and aim to use relaxation techniques such as breathing or mediation to facilitate body and mind relaxation.
- Rest – once you are physically and mentally relaxed – in a state of calm – the body and brain is essentially resting.
- Sleep – once you are comfortable in a restful state and you keep your mind in the present, the ability to sleep will come to you more easily (as opposed to forcing sleep).
3. Rest days
Rest days are also essential and typical recommendations are that at least one day per week should be a non-training day. This allows time for physical and psychological recovery as well as time for other interests and activities.
Resting can include doing something that is passive physically but engages you mentally to take your mind off your sport. The ability to focus your mind on something else is a helpful tool to then be fresh when you next start training or competing.
Rest days provide a good opportunity to have a day where you aim to stay focused on the present and be mindful of excessive amounts of thinking. Allow your brain to get immersed in interests and activities outside of your sport such as hobbies, study, volunteering, work, and/or spending time with family and friends.
What can you do in the daily training environment to help integrate psychological recovery?
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Ideally, you make time in your training schedule for breathing such that it becomes a ‘training session’, literally. This is so that you become a master at using your breathing as a means to relax and focus. Basically, the breathing becomes your focal point – you aim to direct your mind to the simple act of breathing. When you find yourself thinking about other things, gently remind yourself to refocus on your breathing. It is a passive process – no need to judge or get frustrated when the mind wanders – it will tend to wander until you teach it to simplify things and stay in the present moment (via focusing on your breath). Apps such as Headspace are useful tools to assist in this process.
- Assess the order of your pre-sleep activities so that you are gradually winding down your body (e.g., eat, watch movie/surf internet, stretch, shower, bed) rather than winding up. Think of getting your mind and body ready to rest, they need to be free of stimulation.
- Practice your pre-sleep routine at home so that you become proficient at your routine in your own home, ready for when you travel.
The order that you set up your pre-sleep routine to promote sleep is such that you aim to relax, then rest, then sleep (‘trying’ to sleep is not helpful).
- Find activities and interests that give your mind a break from your sport and integrate them in your weekly schedule where appropriate.
- Experiment with being focused on the present through consciously directing your mind to a present task/environment/person such that you are trying to keep your thoughts very simple and in the ‘here and now’.
Signs and symptoms
There are some psychological signs and symptoms that may indicate that you are not adapting to your training and competitive schedule include (adapted from Calder, 1996):
- Emotional and mood imbalances/swings
- Low motivation and apathy
- Low concentration
- Increased instances of anxiety
- Low or no self-confidence
It is worth reviewing your psychological recovery if you are experiencing any of these. Review your psychological recovery just as you do any part of your training and preparation to become the best athlete you can be!
Make time for psychological recovery
- Aim to value the importance of disengaging mentally from your training or competitive performance.
- Choose psychological recovery strategies that create feelings of relaxation and re-establish a sense of well-being and positive mood.
- Include time regularly in your schedule for psychological recovery.
- Plan it in your weekly training and competitive schedule. Planning means proactively including it in your weekly schedule so that you consider it as another ‘training session’.
Dr Andrea Furst | Sport & Exercise Psychologist CPsychol HCPC Registered
firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrea is based in London and provides both face-to-face and virtual sport psychology services to athletes worldwide.