“Before the (Olympic) trials I was doing a lot of relaxing exercises and visualization. And I think that helped me to get a feel of what it was gonna be like when I got there. I knew that I had done everything that I could to get ready for that meet, both physically and mentally.” Michael Phelps, swimmer.
When the body is relaxed the muscles rest so the nerves associated stop sending and receiving messages to the brain. Relaxation exercises have to be included for a complete training plan because of its many benefits. Physiologically, relaxation exercises help to avoid fatigue, and psychologically it helps to sleep better, reduce sensations of anxiety, and it improves self-esteem. In terms of performance, when athletes are too tense their attention, optimal level of activation, and self-talk are affected and can have detrimental impact on performance.
There are two different ways to relax, from the body to the mind (e.g., breathing exercises, progressive muscular relaxation), or from the mind to the body (e.g., some types of meditation, visualization). The body-mind exercises are usually easier to practice for athletes and people who exercise regularly. Even with just one or two weeks of practice people can notice a positive difference. The best time to teach and learn any relaxation techniques are once the muscles are tired after doing exercise.
Relaxation can be used for many purposes within sport, two very useful are:
- To provide momentary relaxation for specific events:
-During a competition break to relax tense muscles or to manage worrying thoughts.
-After competitions, to let the body get back to its usual state.
2. To regulate the optimal activation state of the body, and also to be aware of specific parts of the body being tense.
Breathing is one of the simplest ways to relax and release bodily tension. You can try this simple breathing exercise to relax:
- Seat comfortably or lye down.
- Place one hand on your abdomen.
- Place the other hand on your upper chest.
- Inhale through your nose counting silently to 3. The hand on your abdomen should rise. The hand on your upper chest should not move.
- Exhale slowly counting silently to 4.
- Swap hands and repeat this breathing for 4 minutes pausing slightly before each breath.
Progressive muscle relaxation is another way to relax the muscles. This technique basically consists in contracting specific muscles, holding the contraction, and then relaxing them.
- Seat down upright, do not cross your arms or legs, put the feet flat on the floor and the palms of your hands on the thighs.
- Tense your right arm and hand, notice the tension. Do not tense the muscles as hard as you can.
- Hold the tension for 10 seconds
- Let go of the tension and notice the difference on those muscles for 10 seconds
- Continue with the other arm and hand.
- Then face and head; neck and shoulders (bringing your shoulders as close as possible to your ears); legs and feet; finally the stomach.
(Jacob Postuma foto from unsplash)