While the sympathetic system is great when we need to respond to a stressor, it's not ideal to be bathing in it's hormonal milieu all day.
I simply call this "being on". I think we can all relate to that feeling. Feeling rushed to work, forgot to bring your textbook to class, pressing hard in the gym, getting stuck in traffic, then we get home and have to figure out what's for dinner. Our inability to turn off can quickly add up and lead to a feeling of burnout. Stress on stress on stress.
I've been playing around with meditation post-workout in an effort to help me turn off. The results are worthy of suggesting the practice to others.
It's not long. Normally 5-10 minutes and can easily be incorporated into a normal cool-down routine of stretching and self myofascial release.
Why? Exercise is high-stressor, especially if you're a competitor, pushing your limits mentally and physically everyday. Post-workout meditation is a tool that can allow you to quickly turn off after training. Switch from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. Heart rate slows down, catecholamines (norepinephrine and epinephrine) decrease, digestions is stimulated.
The faster you can switch states the more you'll recover. The more you can recover, the better you can train. It's a circle of success.
Becoming a better athlete isn't only about crushing yourself in the gym. It's about recovering enough so you can train hard the next session. Under recovering leads to underperforming. A circle of crap.
There's also supporting research showing that mindful meditation can decrease sensitivity to psychological stressors. (1,2,3)
This works in two ways.
First, mindful meditation can alter what you actually perceive is stressful. Maybe after a few weeks, waiting in line at the grocery store no longer makes you anxious.
Second, the same stressor you're presented with causes a lower arousal. Maybe sitting in traffic still sucks, but sucks less after meditation.
Meditation could also help improve empathy and coping skills. (4)
In trend with my message, we can't look at our life stressors in a vacuum. They accumulate. Learning to cope better with everyday stressors will ultimately improve your sport performance.
This tip can be used by everyone, but especially critical for those who knowingly have a hard time turning-off. You know who you are. It's those who want to write down every word the teacher says, checks their email 50x per day, always has to be doing something or they feel unproductive.
If you train early in the day, a simple 5-10 minutes can change the trajectory of everything that day. Finishing a workout, rushing a shower, eating while driving to work and screaming at the slow people in the left lane is not ideal for switching to a parasympatetic state.
If you train later in the day this method can calm you prior to bed. When I get home I have 3-5 hours of my day left.
I found that post-workout meditation after my nightly training sessions clears me. I can think easily about what's for dinner, what I need to get done that night and what is an appropriate time to get to bed. Post-workout meditation allows me not only to recover, but have more productive hours after training.
How? My post-workout meditation is simple.
Limiting external stimulus as much as possible. If you're gym is loud you may need to plug in some headphones to indulge in some relaxing tunes.
For position, I prefer to lay with my feet on the wall in the 90-90 position (90 degree angle at the hip and knee), but there is no correct position. Sit, lay, whatever is comfortable for you to breathe.
For breathing, focusing on big breaths into the belly. Inhaling through the nose, hold the breath for a slight second and then calmly exhale everything through your mouth. I find it helpful to place my hands or phone on my stomach to help feel my stomach expand and collapse.
No doubt the most difficult part of any meditation is controlling the mind. If you're a newbie this will feel like torture. Your thoughts will scatter and that's okay. Recognize that thought in your mind and then return to focusing on your breath.
What helped me get over the scattered thoughts was actually visualizing my breath - like it was tangible. I'd close my eyes and envision, then exhaling the air out into the open.
If this is too difficult you can focus your attention more directly toward your goals. Use this time to acknowledge how your technique felt, what you did good, what you can improve on, how fortunate you are to be doing what you love.
It's all about recovery. In the end - we can only train as hard as we can recover. We can only work as hard as we can relax. Use post-workout meditation to enhance recovery, your training, and your life.