We’re all pals here, right? Well, since we’re all pals, this week, I’m here to let you all in on this: one of the (if not THE) most undervalued skills that athletes can practice.
What is this skill? Learning to actually relax our bodies.
I know, I know. You’re probably all thinking that this is anticlimactic. But stick with me here. Just think about it: What are the things you think of when you think of the words “relax” or “relaxation”?
In no particular order, I bet a number of you are thinking of: vacations, drinks, entertainment, social gatherings, reading. I could go on and on. But what do all of these “traditional” relaxation-inducing things that you’re thinking of have in common? They are external. As such, they often distract the tension we are carrying and the stress we are feeling. And since they are distracting that tension and stress, they are not actually relieving it.
You’ve all heard me talk about how we should address the root cause of things, whether those things be injuries, pain, discomfort, etc. This is no different. We should be seeking to actually address the underlying thing that is making us feel the way we are, but often, we just distract our minds from it.
Why do we distract ourselves? I think that there are likely a few reasons for this. Number one is that we are actually very much herd animals. As such, we partake in those same behaviors that we see our peers engaging in. Other folks go on vacations, go to the spa, or go out for drinks to “feel better” and “destress”, so we do, too.
Another reason is that saying “relax” is easy to say and actually hard to do unless we practice HOW to do that. So simply put, we aren’t able to actually relax our bodies (and minds) because we don’t know how.
It’s really common for people to say things like “relax the body” or “quiet your mind” but I honestly get frustrated with that because it assumes that people should already know how to do that, and that they just need to be told to do it to put it into practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Based on my work over the last decade, I can say with a high degree of confidence that we ALL don’t really know how to actually relax our bodies. However. If we ARE able to relax our bodies, our mind follows. And as such, this is a very, very undervalued skill, if only for the reason that everyone is walking around thinking that we all already know how to do this.
I can tell you that this is NOT something that comes naturally to me. It is something I have to practice week after week after week. So, how do we start learning to relax our bodies (and therefore our minds)?
We can start with something as simple as this: “Banana stretch” in bed when you lay down to go to sleep. Draw yourself out long, raising your arms over your head and pointing your toes straight out. Hold this stretch for 5-10 seconds and then let it go. Focus on the sensations you feel as you let that stretch go. For almost everyone, a rush of good-feeling, relaxing energy will flood the body, if only very temporarily. But those relaxed, good feelings can help ease your body into sleep, and then start that connection to your brains says, “This is how we relax.”
This small, 10-second thing is how we can begin to practice how to relax our bodies. Do this every day for a week, and see if you can hold the stretch longer and/or have those positive post-stretch sensations linger longer. Over time, we can add in other elements such as yoga or stretching when we are feeling stressed throughout the day to cue the body to relax. And when the body relaxes, the mind will follow.
So, don’t feel like you’re alone if you haven’t been able to heed the well-intentioned advice of “Calm the mind.” Help yourselves out and incorporate a 10-second stretching/relaxation practice into your routine this week to help you refine the skill of relaxing the body. It can make so many aspects of your life - workouts, work, family, school - feel just a smidge better. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.