When trying to improve physical and cognitive performance, many of your tactics and techniques probably focus on squeezing every last ounce of potential from each day. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you can’t keep drawing water from the well if you allow it to run dry. That’s why you need to top your levels off with restorative practices that you repeat consistently. Here are a few proven ways to enhance your self-care routine.
Because breathing is autonomous and involuntary, it’s easy to dismiss it as something that just happens. Yet by becoming more aware of your breathing patterns, you can check in on your physical, mental, and emotional state throughout the day and deploy certain techniques to either ramp up or wind down, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
While more rapid breathing as found in the Wim Hof Method can help you elevate when you’re tired or want to rev up for an important meeting or grueling workout, most people need more help on the other end of the scale – coming back down again afterward. The simplest way to do this is to focus on controlled, nasal-only breathing. Publishing their work in the journal Breathe, a trio of Australian researchers concluded that taking five breaths a minute is the sweet spot for triggering relaxation.1 The easiest way to achieve this is to breathe in through your nose for five seconds and then exhale nasally for seven seconds. As little as two minutes can make a difference. Got that down? Then you could progress to box breathing. To do so:
- Breathe in through your nose for four seconds
- Hold your breath for four seconds
- Breathe out through your nose for four seconds
- Hold your breath for four seconds
- Repeat for five minutes. Once your feel comfortable with four seconds in each phase, you can progress to five or six seconds.
A few years ago, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner set out to identify commonalities between the healthiest people on Earth. He found that from Okinawa, Japan to Sardinia, Italy to Nicoya, Costa Rica and beyond, communities where people were still living with vitality in their 80s and 90s were all focused on walking. They traipse up and down hillsides, along beaches, and through cityscapes. Regardless of the landscape, walking is one of the easiest ways to fit in more daily movement, increase vitamin D production, and keep your circadian rhythms stable.
While a longer walk can rejuvenate your body and mind, you don’t have to go hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail to reap the benefits. A study published in Health Promotion Perspectives concluded that as little as 10 minutes of walking can improve your mood.2 Taking a walk is also a simple way to improve your recovery from a hard workout, as it will help increase blood flow, oxygenate your soft tissues, and reduce soreness by flushing out lactic acid and other byproducts.
It’s all very well to train your body to go faster and harder for longer, but if you move poorly and/or have range of motion limitations, you’re going to struggle to fully express this physicality in your sport and daily life. The remedy? According to Dr. Kelly Starrett, founder of The Ready State and author of Becoming a Supple Leopard, simply, “Do 10 minutes of mobility work a day, every day.”
There are several ways to do this. First, you could work from head to toe over the course of a week to make sure you’re hitting all the major muscles, joints, and soft tissues regularly. Or you might prefer to target the areas of your body that you taxed during your daily training session, spending at least a couple of minutes using a band, ball, roller, massage gun, or other tool on each. For example, if you did squats and pullups today, you could focus on mobilizing your quads, hip flexors, and lats. Here are a couple of sample mobilizations to get you started:
If you’re committed to eating clean most of the time, you’ve already gone most of the way toward an ideal nutritional strategy. Yet whether it’s the demands of a hectic work schedule, an increased training load as you push toward an upcoming race or PR attempt, or just the ongoing stress and worry coming from the COVID-19 pandemic, food alone might not be enough to meet your body’s increased needs.
In which case, you’d do well to start taking some fundamental supplements daily. A paper released via The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport noted that consuming 25 grams of whey protein after exercise enabled people to train hard again more quickly than those who didn’t supplement.3 So if you’re already drinking a post-workout smoothie, be sure to add a scoop of pure, high-quality protein. Struggling to get sufficient sleep? Then consider also taking a supplement containing melatonin nightly. A meta-analysis of 35 studies concluded that it helps people drift off faster and stay asleep longer.4
5) Contrast Therapy
From your car to the office to the grocery store, it’s easy to move from one air-conditioned environment to the next all day long. But while doing so might seem comfortable, avoiding temperature fluctuations has unintended health consequences. As Scott Carney reveals in his book What Doesn’t Kill Us, we need to experience both heat and cold to keep proteins that regulate immune function turned on (CSPs and HSPs).
The simplest way to reactivate them is to squeeze in a sauna or hot tub session, followed by an ice bath or cold shower. This won’t merely boost your immunity but can also help you wind down after a tiring and stressful day. Don’t have time to get both hot and cold? Then just focus on the former. A team of Finnish researchers found that during the cooldown period after a sauna session, participants’ heart rate variability (HRV) increased, which indicates that they were stimulating a parasympathetic (aka rest and digest) response. Their recommendation? Spend 30 minutes in the sauna.5
1 – Marc A. Russo, Danielle M. Santarelli, and Dean O’Rourke, “The Physiological Effects of Slow Breathing in the Healthy Human,” Breathe, December 2017, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6064756/.
2 – Meghan K. Edwards and Paul D. Loprinzi, “Experimental Effects of Brief, Single Bouts of Walking and Meditation on Mood Profile in Young Adults,” Health Promotion Perspectives, July 2018, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6064756/.
3 – Jonathan D. Buckley et al, “Supplementation With a Whey Protein Hydrolysate Enhances Recovery of Muscle Force-Generating Capacity Following Eccentric Exercise,” The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, January 2010, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18768358/.
4 – Rebecca B Costello et al, “The Effectiveness of Melatonin for Promoting Healthy Sleep: A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the Literature,” Nutrition Journal, November 2014, available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4273450/.
5 – Tanjaniina Laukkanen et al, “Recovery from Sauna Bathing Favorably Modulates Cardiac Autonomic Nervous System,” Complementary Therapies in Medicine, August 2019, available online at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229919301943.