Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Psychology of Pushing Your Boundaries & Performance Breakthroughs

 This is a story about a good friend of mine, who I've had the pleasure of watching go from didn't-own-a-bike to dedicated commuter to officially finishing her first century ride. In the years over which this awesomeness happened, I claim full responsibility for: convincing her to purchase a bike, convincing her to switch to clipless pedals, and convincing her that she could, in fact, ride 100 miles. Which she successfully did this September up in scenic New England:

After an appropriate amount of recovery time, we had a little "what-now" pow-wow, and she went back to the gym to start some off-season lifting and indoor cycling.

Which resulted in an interesting discovery:
"So, I've been getting back to the gym for reals now in my post-century daze. And it's feeling mostly good. I seem to have really leveled up, at least in terms of what I can do/push myself to do on the bike. I feel like I'm pushing myself to work at a higher level than I had previously thought I could. The only way I can figure is that by asking myself to do something really really hard, like the century, I have expanded my spectrum in terms of what I know I can push my body through, so what I used to think was really pushing, now I know I can go just a bit harder."
Read: our minds play into our performance WAY more than most of us ever realize. This goes back to the role of perspective-shifting in sports psychology - what you think you are capable of plays a big part in what you actually go out and do. This can be a positive as well as a negative - most people know it's best to go into a race situation with confidence in yourself and your training; if you expect to perform poorly, you probably will. What we're thinking about here, however, is different from the effects of harnessing positive thinking on race day. It's what occurs when you have - consciously or subconsciously (this is an area of debate in exercise science) - certain self-imposed expectations about what your body can do.

There are limits here, of course. If I wake up tomorrow and decide that I should go out and run a 1:05 half marathon when my PR is 1:25 and I haven't done any breakthrough workouts lately, I'm probably going to crash and burn. Thinking your way to performance breakthroughs isn't the same as having a magic "faster" or "longer" button. But it's worth sitting down and really thinking about your perceptions of what your limits are - and how you can push them. Your mind needs to learn that your body is capable of doing things that your brain wasn't sure you could do - as my friend learned after her century - and this is what leads to the subsequent bump in physical ability.

So do you have to go out and do some crazy long/hard workout or event to teach your mind that you can do more? Not necessarily.

Work a little bit of uncertainty into your training. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for most of us - endurance athletes in particular tend towards the type-A, control-loving end of the spectrum, at least when it comes to their training. And it's a surefire way to force you out of any expectations you have set for yourself. The simplest example would be to run (bike. swim, etc.) a hard interval session without your trusty garmin every now and then to prevent yourself from making decisions under fatigue based on the clock  (i.e. that moment when I check my watch at the 800m mark of a mile repeat, see 2:50, and my brain says "hells no this is too fast for you, slow down!). If you're a coach, even better - have a session every now and then where you don't tell your athletes how many intervals they're going to be doing in total.

Give it a try. We could all use a mental "reset" every now and then, and sometimes it takes a leap into new, slightly frightening territory to get there. You might find that you're capable of more than you thought.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Indoor Cycling: Late-Season Intensity Cranking Ride...

As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, my cyclists are retreating inside to finish out their race season training. We dropped the hammer with this 1 hour cycling class this Tuesday. Enjoy!

15 minute warmup, building power, quick cadence drills

10 x 90 second intervals (recovery 90 seconds easy spin between each), broken down as:

   #1-4: Seated sprint, cadence 95-110
   #5-6: Hill climb, standing
   #7-8: Seated sprint, cadence 95-100
   #9: First 45 seconds - seated sprint, into a standing climb (attack) for second 45 seconds, hold effort level out of the saddle
   #10: First 45 seconds - standing climb (attack), straight into seated sprint to the finish for the last 45 seconds

Cooldown: 15 minutes easy-medium spin with some rolling hills

Friday, October 3, 2014

Latest Wellness N'At Blog Post: The Neurobiology of Keeping Your Cool, Explained

Originally published here.

Getting Along With Your Vagus Nerve: The Neurobiology of Keeping Your Cool, Explained

brain heartKeeping your cool. Grace under pressure. These familiar idioms describe states that most of us hope to achieve when faced with a stressful situation. So why do some people seem to possess the ability to stay calm and in control, no matter what is happening around them?
Part of the answer may lie in yourvagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves (number 10), and the largest. It exits your brain via the medulla oblongata, runs down your neck, and into your chest and abdomen. Along the way, branches of the vagus nerve innervate your heart, lungs, digestive tract, and other abdominal organs.
                Among its many jobs, the vagus nerve helps control your heart rate, breathing, and digestion. When you're resting, it maintains a state of homeostasis. When you're stressed, it helps turn off your body's alarm system, signaling to your brain that it's ok to return to a normal heart rate and breathing pattern. How well your vagus nerve modulates these important functions is often referred to as your level of "vagal tone".
It may seem obvious, then, that we should care about how well our vagus nerves are functioning, given their role in keeping our hearts and lungs running smoothly. However, thanks to a growing body of research on stress and cardiovascular function, we now know that the importance of vagal tone to your overall health and well-being extends even further. People with higher resting vagal tone have been shown to have increased resilience to a variety of stressors and score higher on measures of positive emotions and psychosocial well-being – essentially, a healthy vagus nerve may "buffer" you against social and psychological stressors (1,2,3).
On the other hand, low vagal tone is associated with a prolonged stress response at the basic physiological level – when your body goes into "fight or flight" mode, it takes longer for your vagus nerve to counteract that stress-induced stimulus that shot your heart rate up in the first place – leaving you predisposed to cardiovascular problems both immediately (arrhythmias) and in the future (low vagal tone predicts mortality after heart attacks as well as heart failure) (4,5,6). On the psychological side, chronic stress, anxiety, and low mood are among the factors that have been associated with lower vagal tone (7,8,9).
The good and bad news? Vagal tone is not static – it fluctuates with your physical and mental stress levels. When we push ourselves too hard – an overload of 80 hour work weeks, the overtrained athlete, an onslaught of emotional stressors – vagal tone drops. On the flip side, there's well-researched evidence that you can do things to increase your vagal tone:
Breathe Deeply
Yes, it may be that simple. Deep, slow breathing from your abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, putting you back into a state of "rest, relax and digest" rather than "fight or flight". An emphasis on deep breathing may be the reason why practices such as meditation and yoga are associated with better vagal tone. This is a technique that can be used in times of acute stress – you've just had a bad meeting at work, so you stop and take a few slow, deep breaths to calm down that stress response—and has carryovers to long-term nervous system health as well.
Physical activity (with programs ranging from moderate aerobic exercise (10) to high intensity interval training (11)) has been shown to improve cardiac vagal tone. A good way of indexing this is with heart rate variability– a practical measure of autonomic nervous system function, as greater heart rate variability (HRV - a good thing!) is related to better vagal tone. Regular physical exercise improves HRV in healthy adults as well as individuals with cardiovascular disease. While we haven't figured out precisely how exercise increases HRV and enhances vagal tone, by creating this shift, the amount of work your heart has to do decreases – your resting heart rate and the amount of oxygen consumed by your heart muscle drop. As with the other health benefits of exercise, this is a "use it or lose it" phenomenon – vagal tone can decrease with exercise detraining.
The bottom line? Take a few deep breaths and take it out at the gym the next time your mental and physical alarm bells go off. Your body, your brain, and your heart will thank you for it!
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$2.        Kok B. E., Fredrickson B. L. (2010).Upward spirals of the heart: autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness.Biol. Psychol.85, 432–436
$3.        Souza G. G., Magalhaes L. N., Cruz T. A., Mendonca-De-Souza A. C., Duarte A. F., Fischer N. L., et al. (2013).Resting vagal control and resilience as predictors of cardiovascular allostasis in peacekeepers.Stress16, 377–383
$4.        Sabbah H. N., Ilsar I., Zaretsky A., Rastogi S., Wang M., Gupta R. C. (2011).Vagus nerve stimulation in experimental heart failure.Heart Fail. Rev.16, 171–178
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$6.        Volders P. G. (2010).Novel insights into the role of the sympathetic nervous system in cardiac arrhythmogenesis.Heart Rhythm7, 1900–1906
$7.        Rozanski A., Blumenthal J. A., Kaplan J. (1999).Impact of psychological factors on the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease and implications for therapy.Circulation99, 2192–2217
$8.        Lucini D., Di Fede G., Parati G., Pagani M. (2005).Impact of chronic psychosocial stress on autonomic cardiovascular regulation in otherwise healthy subjects.Hypertension46, 1201–1206
$9.        Gorman J. M., Sloan R. P. (2000).Heart rate variability in depressive and anxiety disorders.Am. Heart J.140, 77–83
$10.     Sugawara, J. et al. (2001) Change in post-exercise vagal reactivation with exercise training and detraining in young men. European Journal of Applied Physiology  85 (3-4): 259-263.
$11.     Guirdaud T. et al. (2013) High-intensity interval exercise imrpoves vagal tone and decreases arrhythmias in chronic heart failure. Med Sci Sports Exercise 45(10): 1861-1867