When Less is More with Flexibility Training- Part 1- Times of Stress and Uncertainty

Hard work doesn't always pay off. Learn when a less is more approach is best when it comes to flexibility training.
Ashleigh Flanagan
September 24, 2021

When Less is More with Flexibility Training- Part 1- Times of Stress and Uncertainty

There is a pervasive cultural narrative that if we work hard, good things will come to us (‘we get out, what we put in’), and of course, this isn’t a universal truth. So much of our fortune is out of our control, and there are many times when less is more. This series will explore these times.

Part 1- Times of stress and uncertainty

If the last 18 months has reinforced anything, it’s that we shouldn’t take the privilege of stability for granted. What is interesting is how shocking uncertainty has been for many of us. Yes, widespread lockdowns and restrictions are a new phenomenon for Australians. Still, sudden periods of instability due to injury, illness, death, relationship breakdown, financial concerns, or job loss are normal, unavoidable parts of life. What isn’t normal is unremitting good health, prosperity and linear progress.

Our bodies function best when we feel safe and our needs are met. This is when we are rested, have adequate nutrition, are active, mentally stimulated, are connected and feel accepted. Our bodies will do what they can to maintain this status quo through the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulation. Our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) promotes growth and recovery by prioritising digestion, sleep, immune function, cognition etc. Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) prepares our bodies in times of perceived threat to fight, flight, freeze or flop (Flop is a new one for me. It’s best seen in animals that play dead as a way to trick a predator and get away alive). The ANS results in increased sensitivity to pain as a way to drive protective action. 

Times of stress and uncertainty increase pain sensitivity

Anytime we feel threatened, our bodies become more aware of things that may cause us harm so we can react quickly. The ANS activates to potential threat, not actual danger. We experience the same response if we see a snake or if we *think* a stick we see is a snake. Our bodies react in similar ways to potential threats that are physical, emotional, social or cognitive in nature, so we become more sensitive to pain in times of stress and uncertainty. 

While increased pain sensitivity when our security is threatened doesn’t seem particularly helpful, it can drive us to act in protective and nurturing ways. For example, if we are stressed out and tender, we might decide to take time out to get a massage, have an early night or do some gentle stretching rather than a heavy weights session.

As pain is part of our bodies way of keeping us safe, things that reassure our bodies that we will take care of them will reduce our sensitivity. Showing our body that it’s ‘business as usual’ and nothing to be concerned about is helpful. Being creative, taking charge, connecting and engaging is helpful. These things emphasise our ability to cope with the current situation and be optimistic about the future.

Flexibility training during times of stress and uncertainty

Flexibility training is often painful because we are loading our body in ways that are not usual and attempting to do things we have never done before. By their very essence, stretches represent a potential threat to our system. During times of calm and plenty, when we are less sensitive to pain, we will generally be able to tolerate more stretching load. During times of stress and uncertainty, our tolerance will be less.

Ultimately we may not be able to train flexibility as well when things are hard for any reason, but there are things we can do to increase our tolerance to training and reduce our sensitivity to pain.

Key tips for flexibility training during times of stress and uncertainty

- Priorities self-care. Eat well, sleep, rest and be mindful. Do what is in your power to manage stress.

- Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Stressful times are when we are least flexible. Aim to maintain. Be sensible and consistent. You are likely to see more progress when your life is more stable.

- Prioritise flexibility training that increases your robustness. Think strengthening through range.

- Include flexibility training that normalises stretching inputs. Think supported and sub-max stretches. 

-Practice self-soothing before your flexibility training. Think mediation, mindfulness, pleasurable activities, creative hobbies, and calming sensory engagement.

-Consider intuitive training and flexible programming. Listen to your body and use this to guide your training rather than being rigidly fixed to a training program.

-Train with others. For most people stretching with others is more enjoyable and increases pain tolerance.

Learn more about Pain and Stretching: Read the blog

Does exercise 'fix' pain?: Read the blog

Books an appointment with a Physio that knows about flexibility training: Book a Physio Appointment

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