Triathletes tend to very good at the tough training aspect of fitness, but they often forget to relax, don’t know how to do it properly or don’t understand the mental and physical benefits it can bring.
Deep relaxation can reduce mental stress and release physical tension at the same time – the result, if it’s done properly, will be improved training effort and faster recovery. Effective relaxation can:
- Help eliminate tension-induced tiredness and pain, such as neck and back pain.
- Help to improve sleep.
- Reduce stress.
- Improve and accelerate recovery.
- As a preventative intervention, continued use of relaxation techniques can help to prevent injury.
Of course there is a difference between having a lie-in until noon – under the pretence of ‘relaxing’ – and the use of ‘active relaxation’ in your training programme.
Many studies have concluded that lowered stress levels as a result of active relaxation lead to improved health, not just in terms of heart and blood pressure conditions, but also by boosting the immune system. And by learning how to reduce muscle tension caused by intense activity, recovery is accelerated and muscle soreness reduced, which in turn improves flexibility and can allow you to continue training hard.
One of the most widely used active-relaxation techniques is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), also known as Progressive Relaxation. This is a technique in which you relax parts of the body by first tensing individual muscle groups, and then releasing the tension. Developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s, PMR has both physical and mental components – the technique works by focusing on the difference in feeling between the tensed and relaxed muscle, which helps to reduce overall tension.
In and out
Begin in a relaxed position either sitting or lying down, with your eyes closed. Starting with your feet and finishing with your head, tense the muscles in a given muscle group for approximately 10 seconds and then release for 20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group. Tense and relax muscle groups in the legs, abdomen, chest, arms, neck and face. Deep relaxation is possible using this technique so it’s not a good idea to try it just before a race.
Other excellent active-relaxation techniques include the following:
- Autogenic training: Participants repeat statements to themselves about the type of relaxation effect they wish to feel. This usually focuses on sensations of warmth and/or heaviness. For example, “My legs feel heavy and warm” begins the feeling of relaxation. This is then repeated for all the other parts of the body..
- Imagery: Imagery techniques are often used by professional sportspeople as a relaxation technique. All the senses (sights, sounds, smells, kinesthetics – awareness of the position and movement of body parts, rather like proprioception) are employed to conjure a relaxing scene (such as a beach or a beautiful garden); the feeling this invokes can be sustained with the use of relaxing cues or instructions. Participants can then imagine a positive training or competitive scene and link this with the sense of deep relaxation.
- Meditation and massage: Both techniques are also very good for relaxation, although but they tend to require more detailed training or expert assistance.
And then, of course, there’s breathing. Not many of us consciously breathe from the diaphragm (most of us breathe from the chest), but doing so can be taught easily, and can significantly reduce tension.
The technique is widely used in yoga, where it is sometimes called ‘The Complete Breath’. It involves diaphragmatic breathing as the first step, followed by thorax expansion and then chest expansion:
- First, take a slow, long, deep breath. The diaphragm moves downwards, which helps to draw air into the lower part of the lungs.
- The middle parts of the lungs begin to inflate and the abdominal area expands as a result.
- Finally, the chest expands, filling the lungs completely.
- Exhalation should follow the same steps; empty the abdominal area, then the middle of the lungs, and finally the chest and upper area.
These steps should be conducted slowly and deliberately; draw in breath and exhale without rushing. By doing this, the body is able to absorb all of the inhaled oxygen while relaxing at the same time. This means more oxygen is delivered to your muscles.
Executing this technique before and after training and competition, and even, if possible, during, will help you to become more energised and relaxed.
By introducing more relaxation into your training and racing programmes, you will see improved performances, quicker recovery times, and you’ll perform better every time you race. So, come on, relax.