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KGB Vol 8: Is your resiliency like a gas tank?

For many of us this is an exciting but difficult time of year. Maybe you are in tryouts and striving for the next level, or you have already made the team and now you are trying to see how you can fit in and contribute. From a coaching perspective, there are probably some familiar faces with whom you want to stay connected, new faces where connection needs to be established, and the face in the mirror that always needs attention. 

What about those of us who missed the mark this off-season? Sure COVID was tough but does this mean the end?  I certainly hope not! Building resiliency is not easy and it most often rises from the ashes of defeat. None of us are immune to that fact. In my world of consulting, I get hired and fired almost every week. “Antifragile” is a term that gets thrown around in nearly every environment where you find competition and stress. This can be a mindset, or it can be a positive physiological adaptation to stress.

            Can you train toward this resiliency or is it simply a magical substance that comes and goes from the gas tank of our spirit? I have always believed that the “strength” we develop in training is useful for so much more than just lifting heavy objects. 

There was a time in coaching where “mental toughness” was developed by mentally and physical beating your athlete to a pulp. As they recovered and returned to normal, the coach would usually take credit for toughening up their athletes or coworkers. Tough love has been a strategy implemented by coaches, parents, and superiors all over the world for eons. Does it work? Sure, for some, it works well. Has this style of personal development started to run its course? Absolutely, but the need for antifragility has not gone away.

Can you improve your stress tolerance? In my experience the answer to the question is unequivocally YES. There are several strategies to achieve increased stress tolerance and there are even more gimmicks and gurus out there who may entice you toward some fringe strategies. At its core, increasing stress tolerance is a physiological adaptation (a change in your body). Here are three simple ways that you can easily incorporate antifragility training into your existing routine:

  • Heat/cold stress: This has become more and more popular over the past few years. Both cold water immersion and sauna use have shown to have benefits in adapting to stress. Adding a few minutes of cold water during your shower could be a simple step in the direction of cold water immersion. Spending twenty minutes in the sauna has been reported to increase heat stress much like that of an intense training session. There is plenty of room to discuss application of these tools when targeting recovery, but this conversation is simply a way to add positive stress to the system.
  • Breathing training: Okay, I know this conversation is hit or miss. In my practice, my clients either hate or love this conversation. With dedicated athletes, it is a mandatory road to travel. A recent book written by James Nestor can give you a much more eloquent overview. Simply focus on nasal breathing. There are three times during the day where nasal breathing can be applied:

1. During long, slow aerobic activity, focusing on breathing in and out of the nose only will maximize the transfer of air in your lungs and will help regulate your heart rate to maximize your aerobic (oxygen rich) adaptations.

2. During recovery from intense bouts of exercise, try to use nasal breathing as your recovery breath and force your heart and respiratory rate to return to normal with a healthy balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This “stress” will help your lungs, heart, and blood vessels improve their ability to respond to physical stress.

3. Right before bed, spend 20 minutes focusing on nasal-only breathing. It can help the body move into a rest and digest mode where it down-regulates the natural fight-or-flight response from stress in the body. Improved sleep quality will never go unnoticed in the realm of performance.

  • Time-restricted feeding: This practice certainly has its time and place in the weekly, monthly, and yearly performance plan, and the results are certainly helpful. Finding time for your body to reduce the stress of digesting food and converting it to energy is helpful to allow it to focus on other aspects of repair and recovery. Many times, this long space between meals will help your body find energy from other sources like stored body fat or from the common villain of exercise, lactate. A simple eight hours of eating and 16 hours of not eating is a common approach. Forcing your body to adapt to the stress of no food improves its overall efficiency when practiced appropriately. This is certainly NOT the preferred method of eating for in-season high-performance hockey. This may best be applied in the off-season or during extended breaks in the schedule.

Stress is not always the enemy. Not making a team you worked all summer to make is devastating but not the end, difficulty gelling with your new teammates is worrisome but also not the end, looking at yourself in the mirror and having hard conversations about self-improvement can be daunting but never a signal to end the fight or raise the white flag of defeat.

 Challenge yourself, build resiliency, build antifragility, and more importantly build the foundation for success. One big mistake is to wait for the perfect environment in which the gas tank of stress tolerance is magically filled up. This is not the route to antifragility. Exposing your body to stress in a focused and programmed manner can ensure that you recognize and reorganize stress in your life to be a force for good in future endeavors in and out of sport.

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