The other day I got a question on Twitter from someone asking about stretching routines because they can’t fall asleep at night after games. I’ve written quite a bit about stretching and stretching routines in the past, so I’d refer you to the below articles if you’re interested in reading on the topic and/or just stealing some good stretches:

  1. Stretching For Hockey
  2. Hip Active Isolated Stretching for Hockey Players
  3. Dispelling the Stretching Myths
  4. Three Hockey Stretches to Keep Your Hips Loose

Some of the above articles address the concept of stretching in general, while others present specific stretches. you can also use many of the exercises/positions in this video as stretches:

I don’t believe, however, that stretching in itself is the answer to this gentleman’s question. In fact, while I think there is definitely some benefit to the rhythmic fluid movement associated with a full body stretching routine, I think the primary benefit of stretching within the context of “dimming the lights” after a game is simply the relaxation effect of going through a basic routine and breathing calmly for 5-10 minutes. With that in mind, I think it’s worth addressing WHY someone may have trouble falling asleep instead of just posting a stretch routine.

Sympathetic Stimulation

In the minutes leading up to and during a game, there should be an up-regulation of your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is your “fight or flight” system that is responsible for mobilizing resources (e.g. hormones, blood, etc. ) and altering other systems (e.g. breathing rate) to give the body the energy and focus it needs to be successful in fight or flight situations. This system is incredibly important for high performance and should be up-regulated during most training sessions, practices, and games.

One of the major problems our modern day society faces is an over-utilization of this system and a failure to shift out of a sympathetic-dominant state. There are many things that can trigger an up-regulated sympathetic state (poor dietary choices, environmental toxins, loud sounds, bright lights, etc.), but one of the major ones is psychological stress from school, work, and/or relationships. Think of your “SNS Resources” as a 5-gallon jug of water. Because you have a limited capacity, you want to save it for when you REALLY need it; for training, practices, and games. Utilizing, say, 4 gallons during these scenarios will allow you to perform the best, and recover optimally. If, however, you don’t sleep well at night, are worried about mid-terms, forgot to pack a lunch so you opt for chicken nuggets and tater tots, and are coming off a game where your coach yelled at you so you are stressed about making a better impression at practice later in the day, you’re basically starting off with a jug only 4-gallons full (because of poor sleep), and slow leaking that supply throughout the day so that when practice time comes around, you’re left with only 1.5 gallons left. This will not only impair your performance that night, but it will have a residual effect on your performance and recovery over the next few days, and if not addressed, weeks and months.

Here’s the kicker, even if you nail all of those things, many players have a very difficult time coming down from their “game high” for two major reasons:

  1. They used some sort of caffeinated energy drink or supplement before the game
  2. They have no strategy to shut their mind off afterward

If you’re in the first group, it’s important to recognize that you’re fighting physiology. I read several years ago that the half-life of a unit of caffeine, on average, is around 4 hours, meaning it will have around an 8-hour influence on your body. There is quite a bit of variation in an individual’s response to caffeine based on specific genetic and enzymatic profiles, but if you’re taking caffeine later in the day and having trouble falling asleep, that may be a sign that you need a new strategy.

In regard to the second group, shifting OUT of a sympathetic state into a more parasympathetic (the “rest and digest” system) is more easily accomplished if you have a better developed aerobic system. While diving into various methods to improve this goes well-beyond the scope of this article, if you’re playing adult-league hockey and aren’t doing much on top of that, doing some Tempo Runs or Bike Rides for 12-20 rounds of 15s on at 80% maximum effort and 45s of walking/light pedaling would be an appropriate starting place. On a more short-term basis, using specific breathing strategies can be an extremely effective method to drive this transition. There are a lot of variations of how you can implement this concept, but to get you started:

  1. Like on your back with your feet on the wall or resting on a chair so that your hips and knees are bent 90-degrees.
  2. Breathe in through your nose fully, but calmly for 3-5s.
  3. Exhale through your mouth fully, but calmly for 5-8s.
  4. Pause for a few seconds, and repeat for 2 minutes.
  5. If you are aware of tension anywhere in your body, think of letting it go.
  6. If a thought pops into your head, acknowledge it and then let it go. The goal is to focus only on your breathing.

Following this sequence can be a very powerful tool to shift the body into a more parasympathetic state, and to stop the mind from racing. If you’re having trouble falling asleep after practices or games and you aren’t crushing caffeine before hand, start here. Modified versions of this (you don’t always need to lay down, or do this for several minutes) can be a great tool to help ease nerves or shift into a more rested state throughout the day. A few calm, slow, purposeful breaths while shutting down outside thoughts can do wonders to help keep those that are going through stressful times a little more even keeled and can even be an effective strategy after a hard shift or play to decrease heart rate and breathing rate closer to baseline levels, essentially serving to conserve resources.

It’s also worth looking into magnesium supplements. The majority of the population (at least in our country) has some degree of magnesium deficiency anyway, but more relevant to this discussion, magnesium is known to have a calming effect on the nervous system. Over the last year, I’ve introduced Poliquin’s Zen Mag Px Liquid to our staff and many of our clients and it’s gotten rave reviews. We joke that it’s like a bear tranquilizer because it’s so effective at helping us sleep. The breathing sequence above is good to include for a variety of reasons anyway, but if it isn’t doing the trick to help you fall asleep, it may be worth grabbing some of this magnesium!

Zen Mag Px Liquid
Best. Supplement. Ever.
To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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I hope you had a great weekend. I had a busy few days as I spent Friday and Saturday with the US Women’s Olympic Team, then headed a little north to watch UMass Lowell’s home opener with my friend Devan McConnell. As always, it was great to work with all the girls and the coaching, medical and support staff with the US Team. Such a great group of people. It was also nice to finally get to watch some hockey!

As you may know, I spend the better part of my non-coaching time attending courses or reading research/books on a variety of topics within the fields of sports training, manual therapy, and physical therapy. The underlying scientific explanations and interactions are of particular interest to me, because these create the foundation for the way the body adapts to everything we throw at it, from a therapy or training standpoint. In the realm of recovery, there is A LOT to consider. With the advances in technology and the efforts of private companies to simplify taking your health into your own hands, it’s now easier than ever to measure things like heart rate variability, nutrient status, food sensitivities, and hormone levels, all of which can have a profound impact on an athlete’s ability to adapt to further training stresses, and therefore are worth monitoring. A couple weeks ago, I finished reading Biochemical Monitoring of Sport Training by Atko Viru and Mehis Viru that dives into these topics in further detail. It’s a little outdated at this point, but still has a lot of interesting information.

Biochemical Monitoring of Sport Training

That said, the reality is that only a small portion of the athletic population are even aware of these factors, let alone the importance of monitoring them. Those that get this far still may not know HOW to monitor these things and/or be able to afford the available options. Furthermore, it seems silly to track a lot of these things when most athletes have sporadic sleep patterns and horrific diets. As is often the case, recovery efforts, and therefore maximizing your ability to adapt, starts with mastering the basics.

This was a main part of the 2-hour talk I gave to the Flyers Junior Team at the beginning of the season. The goal is to simplify powerful strategies that you almost always have control over, so that you can be CONSISTENT in adhering to these basic concepts. Below are 3 powerful strategies to maximize recovery.

1) Stay Hydrated
Even mild dehydration can significantly impair physical and mental performance. This is one of those things that everyone knows, but few athletes are diligent about adhering to. Keep a water bottle with you sip water throughout the day. There are lots of water recommendations, but the easiest way to assess how you’re doing here is by checking your urine color. Clear, consistently, is the goal. Naturally, the more active you are and the more you sweat, the more fluid you’ll need to replenish. If you’re a heavy sweater and/or prone to cramping, it may be worth looking into picking up some Gatorlytes, which are just packets of electrolytes to give you a little extra sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. When you sweat, you lose water AND electrolytes. Your body likes to keep a specific concentration of electrolytes based on the amount of circulating fluid to optimize a number of processes (like muscle contraction). If you only replace the water, you’re missing a big piece. A lot of people do fine with this simply from eating food or from taking a quality sports drink like Biosteel or Generation UCAN, but some athletes benefit from getting in a little extra. Gatorlytes are easy to transport and take in a hurry, so there a good option. You can get them at a lot of places, but I tend to buy a lot of my supplements from a site called because you can get quality brands at discounted prices.

Glass of Water

The most powerful supplement there is…

Anecdotally, I can tell you that a lot of times when players come to be complaining about early fatigue in practices or games, and a variety of other symptoms like not being able to concentrate or getting headaches, poor hydration is an underlying factor.

2) Get Quality Sleep
When it comes to minimizing the damage of accumulated stress (e.g. that from training, practices, school/work, relationships, nutrition excesses or insufficiencies, and the environment), nothing is more powerful than quality sleep. Simply, it’s time for your body to rest, repair, and regenerate. We are very poor “resters” in our country. From a practice and training standpoint, there is often an overemphasis on “doing” and an underemphasis on “adapting”, which takes a more holistic look at the stimulus-recovery relationship. That said, even those that try to sleep long enough may not be getting quality sleep. Here are a few tips to help get you started on the right path:

-Track the number of hours you sleep every night. The goal is to be above 8 every week. Factor in that it probably takes 30 minutes for you to fall asleep, meaning you’ll need to set aside closer to 9 hours to get 8 of sleep each night.
-Go to bed and wake up within an hour of the same times every night THAT YOU CAN. In short, get off of Twitter and Facebook  and stop texting in bed. -Remember the phrase “An hour before midnight is worth two after”
-Keep the room COLD, DARK, and QUIET! Use blinds to block outside lights, turn alarm clocks away from you, place cell phones face down (so you can’t see the light), and turn off your ring or vibration. It can wait until the morning.

All of these things can go a long way toward improving your sleep quality. If you have trouble falling asleep, I’d look into picking up an Earthing Sheet (Read more about this here: Recovery Week: Earthing Products) and/or a magnesium supplement like Poliquin’s Uber Mag Px or TopicalMag, both of which are great at quickly quieting your mind and helping you transition into a deep sleep.

Poliquin's TopicalMag

Rub a few squirts of this on your feet for the best sleep ever…

3) Eat REAL Food, Almost Always
Simply, real food can be hunted or grown. The overwhelming majority of the kids I talk to eat very little, if any, real food throughout the day. Most eat something along the lines of cereal, sandwich with chips, and whatever my parents cook me (typically pasta or chicken…and pasta). Everyone can do better. The overwhelming majority of food that enters your body should be meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and various oils (e.g. Extra Virgin Olive Oil). The food you eat literally provides the building blocks for every structure within your body. If you build your body with garbage, you will feel and perform like garbage. This may express itself in different forms. Some people get fat, some are moody, some have frequent gastrointestinal distress (cramping, bloating, farting, etc.), some have poor energy or attention spans, some have a difficult time putting on muscle mass, and some are more injury prone (among others). NO ONE is unaffected. Think about the meals you have over the last week and how many of them have been comprised of real food. Start by changing breakfast and move on from there. There are TONS of quality meal ideas in Ultimate Hockey Nutrition so check that out if you’re not sure where to start.

I tell our players that there are times when you don’t have control (or you have less control) over what foods you can eat (e.g. on the road), so it’s important to eat as well as you possibly can during the times when you DO have control (e.g. during the week and during weekends with home games). The goal is to spend as much time eating “right” as possible, so maximizing controllable opportunities is a big piece of the puzzle.

As you can see, there is nothing overwhelmingly advanced about any of these strategies. Every athlete has almost complete control of these at all times. Although none of these are very “sexy”, they are extremely powerful. In a couple days, I’ll be back with a few more recovery considerations, but until then, stick to the above and start gaining some momentum toward optimal health, recovery, and performance.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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A couple weeks ago I wrote a random thoughts post on topics ranging from youth hockey performance to heart rate variability to hip impingement. If you missed it, you can check it out here: Hockey Training Random Thoughts

Today’s post follows up on that with some discussion on the disconnect between exercise selection and adaptation, nutrition, supplementation, and the importance of context. Enjoy!

  1. There seems to be a general misconception that certain exercises necessarily deliver certain adaptations without a respect for how the exercise is loaded and performed. For example, we use kettlebell swings often as a power exercise. However, if the swings are performed like they are in most bootcamp settings (more like a squat into front raise), and not with a rapid eccentric loading and quick transition, the power benefit of the exercise is lost. Likewise, a squat loaded at 50% 1-RM for 3 sets of 8 may be used as a recovery or teaching tool, 50% with a rapid concentric or “up phase” could be used for power development, loaded at 75% may be used for hypertrophy, and loaded at 80-90% for 8 sets of 3 could be used for strength development.  Simply naming an exercise doesn’t always dictate the adaptation.
  2. I think people make the assumption that all food choices with the names “smoothie” or “salad” are healthy. The reality is that most smoothies that you can purchase at a restaurant or stand are complete garbage. Most smoothies are pre-made mixes or use a fruit juice base, which is almost always loaded with sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup. The “real fruit” component of smoothies means they put 2-3 frozen strawberries in the mix and may add half a frozen banana. Likewise, most salads leave a lot to be desired. Cesar salads are the worst offenders. Romaine lettuce has a nutrition value slightly above that of crunchy water, croutons offer no worthwhile nutrition value, and all your left with after that is some grated cheese and dressing (which COULD offer some valuable fats if made well). The grilled chicken that often tags along is the only thing that offers some actual nutrition. Nutrition isn’t that complicated, but the efforts to mask unhealthy food as healthy steers a lot of people wrong. If you’re at a loss for what to eat while staying within the boundaries of “healthy”, I strongly encourage you to check out Ultimate Hockey Nutrition, which provides lists of best, good, and bad food choices, smoothie recipes, grocery lists, sample snack ideas, preparation tips, and more!
  3. It seems like omega-3s and vitamin D have received a lot of attention from the nutrition community and even the popular media. More people are aware of the health benefits of monitoring and (when appropriate…which is almost always for most people) supplementing these two supplements. I think magnesium is the next big supplement to gain traction and reach the masses. Magnesium serves a lot of functions in the body, but in general it has a calming effect on the nervous system, which is one reason why it’s found in a lot of sleep supplements. Given the high and prolonged levels of stress that today’s students, athletes, professionals are under, magnesium deficiencies are probable and supplementation will likely have an immediately positive impact. This post dives into some of the science behind magnesium’s role in the body and the differences between the various forms: Opens the Door to Obesity Fight
  4. In a perfect world, people should get certain health/nutrient measures monitored and then adjust lifestyle/nutrition/supplementation accordingly, a topic I covered here: Recovery Week: Monitoring Nutrient and Hormone Status. The problem with doing this within the general medical system is that there is a notable difference between “normal” and “optimal”. I’m not involved enough in the medical world to know this for sure, but I’ve read that the “norms” are determined by calculating averages of relatively large sample sizes of the population. On the surface, this appears to be a valid approach, but is undermined by the fact that widespread insufficiencies are likely to bring “norms” down far below optimal levels. With the “population average” approach, obesity in the US would be considered “normal”, and wouldn’t raise a red flag in the medical system. Naturally, this is not the case because the norms in this regard were established using prior to the obesity climb, and with some different outcomes as supporting markers.
  5. Every piece of exercise advice needs to be understood within the context from which the person is recommending it. I’m a huge believer in heart rate variability monitoring (as I discussed here: Hockey Training Random Thoughts), but I think it holds a lot more power in situations where athletes are in-season, or training 4+ days per week. Not that the information is ever worthless, but if you only have an opportunity to influence an individual’s training habits one day per week, the total stress your program will add/alleviate in an hour per week is a fairly small drop in the bucket. You could still use HRV information to make lifestyle recommendations, but the direct effect on the day’s training will be less, in my opinion. Likewise, most of the best coaches I’ve had an opportunity to learn from agree on more than they disagree on, and most of the differences in program design stem less from a philosophical difference than strictly operating under different circumstances: space, equipment, supervisors, coach:athlete ratio, athlete level/training background, etc. If you’re in the training industry, understand who you’re taking advice from before you take it.

That’s a wrap for today. I have a couple posts coming in the next week on the bilateral deficit and groundbreaking research on hip injuries, so be sure to check back!

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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