Getting in the Zone V: Relaxation

Posted on 11 Dec 2009 21:30

Part IV of Getting in the Zone described arousal regulation and the effects of anxiety and anger on performance. At the end of that post I left you with this:

"There are those who will need to focus on energizing techniques. Rather than controlling excessive arousal, they will need to develop strategies to increase arousal. But in my experience, most lifters have more of a need to control anxiety, apprehension, and anger, and thus regulate excessive arousal. Therefore the next post will focus on regulating over-arousal."

I mentioned in the last post that not all anxiety was bad. That it depends on how you react to it and what you do with it. Different people will experience anxiety in different ways, after all. Since all these states are part of your physiological response to intense training or competitive situations, and since a heightened state of arousal is necessary for optimal performance, many people tend to focus on "controlling" anxiety and arousal as if they are molding a piece of clay. Frankly, this type of over-complicated thing will just lead to "stoppage" more often than not. Dwelling on psychological and emotional states, no matter how useful one may deem them to be, is never conducive to top performance, in my opinion.

Many actual experts may differ, claiming that athletes can tune the anxiety experience like audiophiles tweak the sliders on an equalizer. I think that that is unrealistic "wishful" thinking and frankly, I don't believe that someone who has never been in a highly charged performance oriented situation where they have 'been in the zone' can know what I am talking about here, but I want to be clear on what I mean by that.

I am not saying that this is some elusive thing that only a few "believers" can grasp! The point I am making is that I simply cannot adequately describe a state of flow and to my knowledge, neither can anyone else. It is only a concept and "flow" or "zone" is just a word used to point to it. It is a wholly experiential process and in order to grasp it you must experience it. Therefore practical measures must be taken.

Although I did my best to set forth some "definitions" of flow in the first article it is a highly individual experience and is not really something you "know" until you experience it. In other words, like everything, you know it by it's relativity. So, for me to try to explain to you what it is is like me trying to explain to you what RED is without using the word red. But even worse. Because at least red is defined by convention. I can point to something that is red to show you because we all agree on what red things look like! Flow is not such a concept.

So while these articles focus on nervousness and anxiety out of necessity, the purpose here is to learn to achieve a state of flow, or, to get in the zone, not just to "control anxiety". Controlling anxiety, or tuning it so that it is "just right" is, to me, another Goldilocks moment. In other words, a lot of thought but no action.

Lets get back for a bit to anxiety, arousal, and stress. First of all, even though a high state of anxiety can correspond to a high state of arousal that does not mean that they are the same thing! Remember that state anxiety is the feeling of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear that one gets prior to performance. Trait anxiety is the personality component of anxiety that relates to the likelihood that you might find certain situations more of less threatening. Basically, the higher your trait anxiety the more you encounter state anxiety. So this is not an actual experience of anxiety but one's disposition toward it.

State anxiety can have positive effects on performance but it depends on many factors and if anxiety is preventing you from bringing your "A game" then the best thing that you can learn to do is RELAX. You can then learn to achieve the appropriate state of what is sometimes referred to as "psychic arousal" which is an attentive, activated, and focused state that is not associated with anxiety or other negative emotions.

Learning to relax by telling yourself to relax is an exercise in futility. Fortunately, there are many relaxation techniques one can use. At first, the goal should be to learn to "let go" and totally relax so that the negative feedback loop that occurs between the muscles and the brain is short-circuited. It may seem illogical to suggest such a relaxed state to enhance performance in an activity that requires a great deal of muscular tension. However, you can never hope to be in tune to your body and it's feelings and responses if you cannot first learn to relax.

Think of it like "turning down the noise" so that you can hear. All the negative thoughts and the inappropriate physical states that accompany it are the noise and depending on your personality you may not be aware of it until it is gone. If you've ever caught yourself holding your breath during a stressful moment you know exactly what I am talking about here when you realize you had been doing it for a while. So what we want to do is turn knobs to zero so that we can then learn to turn them up just the amount we want.

Also, a common fallacy exists concerning a charged or highly aroused state. Many athletes call this feeling "highly motivated".

Are arousal and motivation the same thing?

NO. Motivation is the intensity and direction of a response. Arousal is only the INTENSITY component. Think of it as energy without goal or direction. Without direction the energy is wasted. A boxer may feel very "intense" but great intensity is wasted without focus and direction. So the boxer's punches will be nowhere near as dangerous as they would be if he were to learn to channel his intensity.

This is why I suggest that we always have a goal of some kind for every workout. This gives focus and direction to the workout which makes it easier to regulate arousal for each individual effort. One of the biggest sources of failure is staleness and mundanity in training. We MUST combat this. You can be well-trained and prepared but if your training is always stale and boring and only focused on far-off goals, you can never be at an optimal state of readiness.

If you want to know why so many people think about entering competitions…you have an answer. If you want to know why so many people seem to feel like competition is the ONLY way to be truly motivated; you have an answer.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are many and range from simple breathing exercise to self-hypnosis. These techniques were originally developed to help people cope with stress and it is only recently that they have been applied to sport and exercise.

They are divided into two basic categories. The first is muscle to mind or somatopsychic which primarily attempts to influence somatic states and therefore control somatic anxiety which will result therefore in decreasing cognitive anxiety. For, as Edmund Jacobsen said it is not possible for an anxious mind to exist in a relaxed body!

The second group are cognitive techniques that attempt to relax the mind, which should, in turn, relax the body. These are meditative techniques that rely on mental devices to calm or cultivate a "passive" mind. Of the two methods, this is by far the most difficult since the more one "tries" to achieve a state of passivity the less passive one becomes. But in its essence, it is that elusive state of FLOW that I talked about in the beginning and once one can achieve this state, and indeed, "become" this state, one will have very little need for "techniques" of any kind.

Although muscle to mind techniques do take some time and effort and one must give them at least a few to several weeks to see significant improvements, they will probably be easiest to learn for most so to quickly begin releasing excess tension one should start with these techniques. Learning to relax the mind will take a great deal of "practice" and although many positive benefits should realized right away, it will take much longer to become adept with.

So, we will start with breathing exercises which are technically muscle to mind techniques but since proper breathing and breath control is fundamental we will give it a category all it's own. Therefore, breathing will come first, followed by muscle to mind techniques such as progressive relaxation and autogenic training and then mind to muscle meditative techniques such as relaxation response.

All of these techniques will require some time and dedication outside of the training environment. The more you put into it the more you will get out of it. A good strategy is to try you first relaxation sessions after a hard workout. When you are already fatigued it is easier to let go of muscular tension. This has a two-fold advantage: not only will your sessions be easier you will be facilitating recovery. Relaxation exercises can even help you recover from injuries and keep old injuries from nagging you. Injury sites tend to be surrounded by chronic tension of the tissues. After a workout, this tension may be greater putting a further constant strain on the injury site. Total relaxation, therefore, can help rest these injuries.

In fact, I will go so far to say that learning to really relax can replace all the ridiculous practices like ice massage and contrast showers, which have no real efficacy in modulating recovering and, indeed, tend to promote muscular tension.

Once you become practiced at relaxation you will be able to quickly relax prior to workouts or tough competitive situations. You will be more in tune with your body's state of tension and therefore be able to better control it. Most of all, unwanted anxiety and negative thoughts can be managed. During these times you will learn to relax momentarily, return yourself to a state of balance and control, and then hit those weights hard!

Be aware that anything worth doing takes time and it may take several weeks of practice before you notice the benefits. Not everyone will be able to relax to the same degree but the goal is to first learn COMPLETE relaxation. If you cannot relax completely you will never be able to relax momentarily for your workout or big lift.

Breathing is the best start. Far from just helping you relax, deep diaphragmatic breathing will improve your performance by increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood. If you normally meet a hard workout with stressed, rapid and shallow breathing then deep breathing can be both the cure for the stress and a direct improvement in your preparedness. So, in this way, you will increase both your preparedness and readiness satisfying physiological and psychological demands with one habit.

Benefits and strategies will be discussed in the individual entries concerning the different techniques, starting, as discussed, with breathing. They will all be linked here (and elsewhere under their proper categories on the site) so check back often.

The first article of concern is Paradoxical and Diaphragmatic Breathing. It describes the "inverted" breathing pattern versus proper diaphragmatic breathing, which is sometimes erroneously named "belly breathing". I include a fairly thorough explanation of the mechanics involved including how inverted breathing patters may lead to musculoskeletal dysfunction. This article should essentially teach you how to breathe correctly.

Second, we get to some actual breathing exercises (which I call practices).

See Getting in the Zone VI: Flow and Zone are Just Words

All Related Posts:

The Getting in the Zone Series

This page created 11 Dec 2009 21:30
Last updated 19 Mar 2018 03:55

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