This post was first published in The Outdoor Journal
I believe that body awareness is an athlete’s best friend. Here’s how listening to subtle body cues could help your training routine and improve your performance.
I was an over motivated 15-year-old, a promising Cirque artist with a strong feeling of invincibility that made me fearless. I remember how brave everyone (including myself) thought I was for performing a highly acrobatic act with a newly subluxated shoulder: two men perched on small platforms, would throw me high in the air above a net. I would execute flips and spins and then they’d catch me. My stubbornness, enhanced by a strong cocktail of painkillers, made it possible for me to perform the act, but at the cost of further damage. Today, I can’t even begin to understand what my immature, younger self was thinking.
One of the most significant teachers in an athlete’s career is his or her own physiological feedback. Developing an accurate understanding of our body’s way of expression is one of the most important assets we have to improve our performance, general physical condition and wellbeing.
How much can your body teach you?
“Body awareness” is a multi-faceted term. It somehow became a taboo expression, especially in cases where we have to push our boundaries daily and often deal with pain in order to reach our peak. However, unless you overcome the belief that listening to your body makes you fragile, you won’t ever be able to use your full range of abilities and become the pro athlete you crave to be.
Body awareness involves sensory awareness—the ability to identify and experience inner sensations of the body (e.g., a tight muscle) and the overall emotional/physiologic state of the body (e.g., relaxed, tense). If you have been working with your body as your main tool for a lifetime as I have (starting as a 4-year-old who took her ballet classes very seriously), you might know the feeling of analysing every single movement, angle, type and intensity of pain. For many years, my very first thought upon awakening in the morning was: “How painful?”
I would proceed, from my bed, to mentally quick-scan my whole body without moving and then, further examine every discomfort, recurrent pain and known injury in order to determine how my day would go and how I could adjust my training in order to get the most out of it. I haven’t always been reasonable, I have greatly abused my own body for years until I slowly learned, oftentimes through bad circumstances, to develop a two-way relationship with my body and get the best out of natural biofeedback.
Overtraining is not a myth
The first big mistake an athlete makes is to not listen to signs of distress. The human body is an amazing creature, it has the capability to communicate down to the smallest detail what’s right or wrong, giving us helpful hints in order to improve wellness. Knowing one’s exact conditions is a very powerful advantage.
The sooner you identify that you are on the wrong path, the less damage you will do. If you put a lot of consistent effort into your training, yet no longer improve and even sometimes regress, you might want to ask yourself whether you are training the wrong way. Should you reassess your techniques and overall plan, or are you simply training too much? I’m no stranger to both mistakes but I can now recognise when my lack of result or my diminished strength, energy, concentration and motivation is not due to laziness but to a wrong approach or simply my body’s cry for help asking for 48 hours of rest.
In extreme sports, we tend to not give a lot of value to people being attentive to pain or weaknesses. We should think of body awareness as body intelligence; every input we are given can be used to enhance physical performance, especially the most subtle ones. Managing pain and discomfort doesn’t mean ignoring it. I am not implying either that you should back off at the first sign of muscle soreness; be more open and understanding to your own body and use the weaknesses to eventually become more powerful.
My personal experience
My relative wisdom is the result of a long journey influenced by many episodes of injuries, overtraining, total loss of body abilities (dramatically thinking my career was over), desperation and eventually getting some common sense. Personally, I’m still an overachiever, highly motivated to improve my physical art. Nonetheless, what has changed today, is that I retain a completely different mindset to the one I swore by when I was that 15-year-old acrobat. I treat my body kindly, and am very sensitive to all its needs. I now rarely suffer from real injuries, because I am able to prevent them by recognising early signs and acting accordingly. I adjust my nutrition, and my training timings and intensity daily, yet I follow a fixed plan in order to reach new goals.
A few tricks to start with
Learning to not only hear your body’s needs but to listen to them is the first important step to developing body awareness. This is what I believe marks the difference between a good and great athlete, and improves the duration of one’s career. Start by consciously evaluating and journaling the way you feel physically at the beginning and end of each day, detailing as many aspects as you can notice and remember.
There are three basic things that you need to personalise and connect to your journaling: training, diet and sleep. Make sure to monitor these along with the way you feel. This simple task should soon become part of your athletic routine.
Secondly, by simply stretching properly, you will improve your brain’s relationship with your muscles and joints and their ability to monitor muscular coordination and function. By improving such connections, the physical screening I’ve described previously will become easier and more accurate.
Additionally, meditation can be a valuable extension to biofeedback. The meditative state requires awareness of internal, physical and psychological cues, and thus, may be useful as a mental skills technique especially during stressful situations such as competitions.
My message is meant to reach every person, elite athlete or not. Stop listening to what you “should” be doing, and start listening a little bit more to your own body, it is astounding how much it will teach you.