Neurotransmitters, Recovery, And Your Training
Do you ever have days when you feel like all you could do is sleep no matter how much coffee you drink?
Or maybe you’ve been on a new strength program for the past 8 weeks and feel weaker than when you started?
Maybe you find yourself walking around the gym in a daze not wanting to get started?
If you said “Yes” to any of these you may have experienced a deficiency or imbalance of your neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitter are chemical messengers that get released in our body. They allow our cells to communicate and work together. There are 4 primary neurotransmitters: Dopamine, Acetylcholine, Serotonin, and GABA. They are both excitatory (speed our cells up) and inhibitory (slow are cells down).
All the neurotransmitters are constantly in fluxuation and balance with one another. This can have a huge effect on our mood, energy, and ability to focus. Some activities like lifting a heavy weight or taking a challenging test use up the neurotransmitters we have on hand.
Strength coach Charles Poliquin is a huge proponent of specific program design built around the athlete. Knowing which of the neurotransmitter types you are dominant in can help you adjust loading parameters, frequency and intensity of training, and plan rest days. Even having a basic understanding of which neurotransmitter type you are dominant in will give you a framework for decision making around your training goals.
Now lets learn a little about each neurotransmitter type.
Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter making it a huge factor behind your motivation towards training and activity levels. Individuals who are dopamine dominant tend to be the ones who are always fired up to exercise. They handle high volume and intensity well but tend to adapt quickly to a stimulus which can cause them to overtrain quickly if their workouts are not constantly varied.
Dopamine synthesis can be promoted by eating foods such as almonds, peanuts, soybeans, avocados, bananas, watermelon, yogurt, beef, tuna, chicken, chocolate, eggs, coffee, and green tea.
Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter responsible for intercellular communication between the muscles in the nervous system. Acetylcholine levels can make a huge difference in our ability to recruit the maximal number of muscle fibers. On days where you might not “feel strong” could be because your cells are having a hard time communicating to coordinate on a lift.
Meats, dairy, poultry and fish contain high levels of choline, with the highest levels coming from liver. One 3-ounce serving of meat contains approximately 70 milligrams of choline. Chocolate, peanut butter, brussels sprouts and broccoli also contain significant levels of choline.
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and is responsible for shutting the body down for rest and recovery. You may be experiencing low GABA levels if you find your mind racing or have trouble sleeping at night.
GABA levels can be promoted through probiotic rich foods like yogurt that improve gut health. Foods that increase GABA levels include berries, bananas, and Pu-erh tea.
Serotonin is another inhibitory neurotransmitter and really a jack of all trades. It helps regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to fatigue and depression.
Foods like chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, nut butter, eggs, and green peas all contain high levels of Tryptophan a precursor to serotonin production. One other way to boost serotonin production? You guessed it…exercise!
“I’ve been thinking about taking up a meditation practice.”
“I really need to drink more water…”
“I feel so good when I exercise, I want to go to the gym more often, but can’t find the time!”
If you’re like most people you probably have considered starting a new daily routine to optimize one or more aspects of your life. In a world where time has become more and more valuable, distractions are at an all time high, and to-do lists are as long as ever – people are looking for ways to better themselves. One of the most common ways that folks use to make a change is by adopting a new routine.
Routines are actions or a combination of actions that yield a specific outcome or result.
They are the surest way to make an impactful change in our lives. By the end of this article you will be familiar with the 3 key steps to consider if you want to start an effective daily routine!
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”
Step 1: Keep the end result in mind.
As humans we have hundreds of little routines we practice each day. Most of these we don’t care to or need to focus on, they simply happen. Adopting a new routine is usually in pursuit of something new that we wish to attain. The benefit of successfully completing the routines could improve us physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Make sure to keep the end result in mind as you select your routine.This life changing benefit will keep you motivated and excited to stick with your routine!
Some common results people shoot for with their routine include:
- Decreased stress
- Increased energy
- Better sleep
- Improved mental clarity
- More time
- Better performance at school/work/sport
Routines to achieve these outcomes might look like:
- Take 10 deep breaths before beginning a new project at work.
- Exercise at least three times each week.
- Turn my phone to airplane mode 1 hour before bed.
- Make a list dividing each job into its constituent parts.
- Plan out my daily schedule every morning while I drink my coffee.
- Visualize what a successful outcome would look like for my upcoming event.
- a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program.
Routines are most effective when practiced daily. Sometimes we need to focus extra hard on following through with a new routine until it becomes a habit. This is an important factor to consider in both the selection and implementation of your new routine.
Dr. BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist from Stanford, has a basic behavioral model he uses to describe the steps to change. He claims that in order for a behavior change to happen you need to have the right mix of motivation, ability, and a trigger.
If we are highly motivated to complete a task then the odds are that when a trigger occurs we will produce a successful outcome. Likewise we tend to be successful at tasks that are easy to complete even if we are not so motivated to get them done.
Makes sense right?
The challenge many of us face is that we fail to set up routines that take into account the motivation required to complete a task requiring a higher level of ability. We shoot for the stars and quickly burn out after our initial gusto wears off.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t aim to make big dramatic change with our new routine?
Kind of…not exactly…but yes.
At least Dr. Fogg would advise against it. Instead he suggest focusing on the smallest possible change available to you in your new routine. Consistency wins the long term change game so you should pick a routine that you know you you can complete every single try. This will generate momentum and a new skill that you can apply later to more challenging target areas.
Action Step: Get out a pen and paper and spend 5 minutes brainstorming some ideas of areas you would like to implement a routine. Think about the end result you would like to achieve and make note of the top 2 or 3 new routines that would be a first step on the path. Then let’s move on to step 2!
Step 2: Determine the lay of the land
This is a chance to take inventory of your assets and keep an eye out for potential pitfalls. Implementing a new behavior is challenging because it requires knocking our brain off of autopilot. Rather than coast through our day following the usual agenda we are throwing a strategic interruption to our thought pattern that lets us try something new. This step can be split into two categories:
Supporting Factors, things that can help you implement your routine. Some examples could be:
- A supportive partner or best friend
- A commute to work that offers some alone time
- Sticky note reminders you place all over your house
- A trainer, coach, or mentor who wants you to succeed
Distracting Factors, barriers, or common faults that would get in the way of you completing your daily routine. This might look like:
- Social settings where you may feel awkward practicing your new routine.
- People who interrupt you and take up your time (EVEN IF YOU YOU LOVE THEM)
- Physical struggles with things like exercise or waking up early.
- Bad influences on your diet, behaviors, or actions.
Action Step: List the top 3 assets you have that could help you start your routine and then the top 3 distractions that may keep you from succeeding. For the distractions, find a solution for how you could overcome it (eg. Coordinate workout schedules with a friend, sIgn up for a class the night before, or prep healthy lunches for the week on Sunday afternoon)
Step 3: Track Your Progress
Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the founding father of using routines for personal development knew the importance of tracking and measuring his daily practices. Each morning Franklin asked himself, “What good shall I do today? And in the evening, “What good did I do today?” Taking the time twice each day to check in on his progress created more opportunities for growth and self-improvement.
Not only that but Ben cycled through a list of 13 virtues he chose to improve his morality. He would focus on one for a week at a time and document any infractions to the redeeming quality. He noticed significant improvement in his adherence cycling through each virtue four times a year.
As you prepare to start your new routine you want to keep track of your progress. Having clear defined parameters will make you more likely to succeed and recreate the process again for future habits.
Action Step: Make a plan to track your progress. What is the the key aspect of the routine are you measuring. What time of day will you log your results? Are you writing it in a notebook or on your phone or laptop? What will you write on days when you forget to adhere to your routine?
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”– Archilochos
So now that you have the 3 key steps to starting an effective daily routine how are you going to implement them?