Running coach James Kuegler discusses importance of the nervous system in our running performance.
We’ve all heard of “fight or flight”, right? The innate human response to stressful situations. For our primal ancestors, it was the means by which they responded to the sudden threat of some large and powerful four-legged beast pouncing to attack. Flash forward a few thousand years now to a time where fight or flight is more likely how we react to a comment on Facebook that we don’t agree with. But I digress; the point is that everyone has heard of this physiological stress response, but who knows the implications of it? What does it have to do with your general health? And to prick up the ears of you runners, what does fighting or flying have to do with your athletic performance?
Keeping it super simple, here’s the basic science of fight or flight:
The master control system in your body – the central nervous system – has a couple of main branches which manage all of our conscious and subconscious functions. In charge of those subconscious functions (like heart rate, blood pressure, hormonal balance) is the autonomic nervous system. This is where your fight/flight lives, but it resides with a much friendlier and forgiving flatmate – Mr. Rest & Digest. That’s right – we all come with an inbuilt counterweight to our combative stress response. At any given moment of the day, your entire body’s physiology is governed by the balancing act taking place between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) subdivisions of the autonomic nervous system. At any given moment, one of those two systems is outdoing the other. The sympathetic side fuels adrenaline and an increase in blood sugar levels, heart rate and blood pressure. The parasympathetic does the opposite, it brings everything down. Take a guess which one is causing chronic health issues in our society? Or, have a stab at which one is preventing you from making meaningful improvements in training?
Sympathetic dominance is a highly prevalent state of affairs resulting from the fast-paced, technology-driven, quick-fix culture we’ve come to know and grovel in. The constant deadlines we have to meet (wake up, make lunches, get to school/uni/work or all three on time, squeeze training in, make dinner, prepare for the next day), the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve, the bright blue backlight of our handheld devices used late at night. These are just some of the many stimulants that ramp up our sympathetic system and shut down the parasympathetic effect. A disproportionately high training load is another one.
Unsurprisingly, research in athletes is now showing us that those who are more balanced in their nervous system will experience greater training effects and achieve better performances in their chosen events. Runners and cyclists and other athletes who aren’t chronically dominated by their sympathetic system and are able to dial up the parasympathetic branch – which can be easily measured (more on this later) – are the superior athletes.
Think about that for a second. The life you lead outside of the hours you spend training is having a direct effect on the outcomes you achieve in training and racing, and it’s all via your nervous system. The training-work-life combination that you tire over balancing every day isn’t an interplay of three separate and distinct entities. They are all interconnected and have direct and significant effects on one another.