Relaxation and Recovery – The 5th Requisite for Greatness

By Stephen Walker, PhD and Kevin Peters, MS

The next requisite is the ability to relax and recover. This one overlaps a bit with pain tolerance, as they are two sides of the same coin.

I have divided the ability to relax into three different categories.

1. Being able to relax into pain

2. The ability to take it easy so that recovery is possible.

3. The ability to find your optimal arousal level for a given task.

After I talk about those three categories, I will provide some ideas to help with relaxation.


1. Ability to relax during pain. Refer to the Pain Tolerance Requisite for how to better deal with pain. Defusion and expansion. This is a running-specific example from a book titled Running Within: “Hi, fatigue…it’s you again. I’m busy right now…got a job to complete. If you want to hang around, you can, but I won’t have time for you until I finish.” This is defusion because you are separating the fatigue from yourself.

Expansion is the same as before. Breathe, let it happen, allow it space, avoid the suppression of it.

You can visualize the discomfort as a wave passing through you.

2. The ability to take it easy is also very important. In exercise physiology there is a concept called the super compensation effect. The idea is that if you don’t relax or take it easy, you will never reap the benefits of your hard work.

Nothing good is happening to your body during the process of vigorous exercise. In fact, during the time that you are working out, you are actively making your fitness level worse.

Let me repeat that: while you are working out, your fitness is getting worse.

Imagine lifting a dumbbell 12 times but on the 13th repetition being incapable of lifting it. When you put the dumbbell down you will not be able to lift it 12 times again. You will need to wait until you have recovered.

Everything good that happens because of working out happens during the recovery. Once your workout is over, only then can your body begin to respond to the stimulus you just gave it.

Recovery is key and highly undervalued by many athletes.  It is important to cool down, rehydrate, eat something right after you are done, and sleep well, because those things aid in the recovery process.

If you do things correctly and you allow your body the time to recover, your fitness will improve beyond the point where you were before you first worked out. If you wait too long however, your fitness will regress to its original state. Ideally you will work out again at the peak of the super compensation curve and over many cycles of doing this, your fitness will improve dramatically.

If you cannot take it easy, improvement will become a lot more difficult and you will likely not reap the rewards of super compensation.

I know someone who always wanted to be pumped up for races. He decided that listening to a certain song got him very excited to race. He decided that it was a good idea to listen to this song before his races, such a good idea that once he listened to this one song for an entire week leading up to a race. It wasnt surprising that come race day he didnt have a lot left in the tank for the race. Also, not surprising is the fact that he was frequently injured. I believe that if he had been able to relax and take it easy, he would have become a much better runner.

To give you an example of someone that got this right, I heard that Ryan Shay, when he was still in college would listen to music right before he warmed up.

But this was not heavy pump up music like you might think. He listened to country music because he said that it was about working hard. Now, Im not personally a fan of country music but I do really like this dynamic.

Shay was listening to music that calmed him down but with lyrics that helped him ready himself for a difficult physical battle.

3. The next idea is about the optimal arousal. Zero arousal would be dead, in a coma, or asleep; whereas a 100 percent arousal stage would mean you are so pumped up that you are yelling, screaming, and have zero fine motor skills.

Your performance level will fluctuate depending on your level of arousal. The idea here is that for a given task you can either be too relaxed or too amped up to perform well, and that there is an optimal level somewhere in the middle that will be the best for you to reach a peak performance. This curve may look different for different people and likely looks different for different events.

For example, one likely needs to be more amped up for a 1500 m race than for a 10K race.

You can definitely relax too much, but we need to be reminded that we can also be too aroused, amped up, or pumped up in order to perform well.

With the ability to control your level of arousal and find the right spot for you in a given event, you will likely increase your performance.

Part II

Finally, here are some techniques to help with relaxation.

1. Focus on specific things, such as a certain muscle group, your breathing, your arm cadence, or a relaxing setting.

2. Maintain a narrow focus. Focus on the present, on something specific, preferably something internal to you instead of outside.

3. Think of your fatigue as a good thing. Fatigue means your body is working hard, that it will respond favorably when you rest, that you are able to withstand the fatigue.

4. Use your dashboard. Think of the dashboard of a car: it has your speed, odometer, rpms, etc. Set up your own internal dashboard and cycle through the different readings. Maybe you cycle through your breathing, arm cadence, your footfall pattern, how your calves feel, how your quads feel, and then start over. This can be especially helpful during the middle phases of the race right up until it is time to kick.

This last suggestion, I recommend for anyone that wants to be better in anything.

5. Meditate! This will improve your focusing skills. This ability to focus on “one thing” is sometimes referred to as mindfulness. Focusing skills are  important for everything in life. Shoot for 15 minutes daily, but even two or three minutes a day will help. If you can do it twice a day, that’s even better.


If you have: A Growth Mindset, Motivation, Commitment, and Effective Pain Tolerance, but do not have the ability to relax and recover, it will be more difficult for you to achieve your potential.  Unfortunately, those who have trouble with relaxation and recovery tend to experience burnout more frequently. They tend to get injured, and oftentimes lose control when competing. Consistency is the key – and – control allows the athlete and coach to establish predictable training and performance goals.


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