Whether you have your sights on a multi-day stage race, a single-day effort, or simply an experience or event where you know you need to be your absolute best in body, mind and spirit, it’s common to experience stress and anxiety as your big day (or days) comes into view on the horizon. Stress and anxiety are two different but similar emotions that have the power to sabotage our confidence, and make our simple day-to-day activities overwhelming, not to mention debilitate or negatively impact our performance when it matters most. But, by learning to recognize the fears and uncertainties that inspire debilitating emotions, and by using some simple Ayurvedic practices to manage them when they arise, we can reclaim our vitality, preserve our well-being and shine when the spotlight hits us.
Broadly speaking, stress is a response to a difficult situation, and anxiety is a reaction to stress. They are a part of human life and are not always bad. Stress is a normal fight or flight response to a challenge. Anxiety, on the other hand, is excessive fear which manifests behaviourally in anticipation of a physical, emotional, real, or perceived threat. Both can rear their ugly heads in just the moments when what we want to feel is calm, collected, confident and cool (like, before lining up for an important race or event.) It is completely normal to feel stressed and anxious in uneasy situations: it ensures that we are ready and alert to deal with any imminent danger. When we face any danger or challenge, the hypothalamus, a small region at the base of the brain, sends signals to our adrenal glands, which then release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones sharpen our senses, cause an increase in the heart rate, boost energy supply, and elevate blood pressure. This biological response is recognized as an elevation of vata dosha – the dosha that governs the movement of thoughts, emotions and energies through the body in Ayurveda. When vata dosha “blows” it’s energy and increases in the body, it provokes the flames of pitta – the dosha of transformation, passion and heat.
As these two doshas elevate in the body, and as stress and anxiety increase, our digestive system activity reduces and weakens (because our bodies focus on digesting the stress at hand, and don’t attempt to take on more, and all of these symptoms will continue to leave us a little elevated and on edge long after the challenge is over. If we ignore these patterns, our performance can be harmed by these side effects. But, if we anticipate stress and anxiety, manage it in accordance with our own constitution, and harmonize it into our race day preparations, we can avoid being hindered by stress and start benefitting from our body’s biological responses instead.
If left unchecked, or un-managed, stress and anxiety – even from seemingly small day-to-day activities – can compound and impact our performance in a big way. Whether the symptoms are acute, or obtuse (easy to notice, or flying under the radar) unchecked stress and anxiety (and elevating levels of vata and pitta doshas) will cause fatigue, headaches, reduced lung capacity, rapid breathing, gastrointestinal stress, nerves, lack of confidence, poor pre-race rest or post-race recovery.
The ancient medicine of Ayurveda has some unique lo-fi, high-impact tools for us to learn how to recognize stress and anxiety, manage them by way of balancing vata and pitta, and use them as a slingshot into our best selves. These lifestyle and dietary measures specifically help to keep mitigate stress and anxiety’s impact on the digestive, respiratory and nervous system, and will help us get to the start line (and the finish line) feeling calm, cool, collected and elevated by our biology in a way that will help us shine.
The day before a big event can be a whirlwind of to-do’s, social obligations and other little details that make the head spin. (Did you count out your nutrition? Tie on your race number correctly? Tires pumped? Shoelaces tied? Lucky charms rubbed?) Taking 5-15 minutes to sit someplace quiet and practice nadi shodana will work wonders for helping to release the pressure on the day and reducing vata dosha. This specific breathing practice effectively alternate nostril breathing helps train the body to move with ease between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Inhaling through the left nostril triggers your parasympathetic nervous system (rest/relaxation response). Whereas inhaling through the right stimulates your sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response.) Lubricating this leap between relaxation and fight response will help your brain, body and senses to be relaxed and ready on race day, and will prime your parasympathetic system to be more responsive over time (which means the more you practice it, the more it will improve your performance.)
The stress and anxiety of an upcoming event or race can start accumulating and impacting the digestive system days before we line up at the start. As a result, we may notice that diahhrea, constipation, gas and bloating result as vata and pitta increase, and we do not want any of this crap (literally or figuratively!) impacting us on the day. Traveler’s Tea is a tridoshically balanced tea that has been soothing and smoothing digestion for thousands of years by reducing the vata dosha accumulation in the digestive tract and it works wonders when sipped pre-race. Not only do the spices that comprise the tea keep the body warm and relaxed, but this specifically brewed elixir has the power to rebalance digestion and aid in elimination.
No, really. The ancient practice of abhyanga is not just lovely for the skin; it’s deeply nourishing and soothing for the nervous system, and specifically for Vata – the dosha that starts to fall out of balance when stress and anxiety pervade our thoughts. The practice also cultivates self-love and care; you’ve put in the time and the training, and now it’s time to be proud of proud of your body for what it’s achieved, and proud of yourself for putting it all together. Abhyanga is like the best congratulatory hug you can give!
While getting quality rest before a big event may seem like a challenge, giving your digestive system a proper rest is actually quite easy (AND, crucial!) When our digestive systems are fatigued and on overdrive, specifically when vata and pitta are provoked, they fail to properly break down and assimilate our nutrition…which means that you may be burning just a half-tank of gas instead of a full-tank on your big day! Alternatively, a well-rested digestive system not only processes our food into fuel efficiently, it also boosts our immunity, sharpens our focus, clarifies the nervous system, and helps to (you guessed it!) reduce the impact of stress and anxiety on our bodies, minds, and spirits.
How to give your digestive system the rest it wants and needs? EASY: eat dinner at least 12-14 hours before you plan to eat breakfast, and preferably 3 hours before you go to bed. This means you’re effectively doing a fast while you sleep (without missing any critical nutrition you need before race day.) Eating at least 3 hours before bedtime means your food has the opportunity to finish it’s first phase of digestion before your head hits the pillow, which means that your body temperature can lower and you can fall asleep easier, and recover more completely.
The same nadi shodana breathing practice that helped you to ground before race day is just as effective, and frankly more important to ground your morning and prepare you for competition. Take a moment to land, breathe and get ready to crush.
The practice of starting the day with warm lemon water w/a little salt is a wonderful practice to embrace any day, but on race day it will ensure that you’re hydrated, and it will kick start your digestion and encourage elimination without the drying or irritating effects of coffee. After your water is consumed, enjoy coffee or tea at will, but make sure the first thing to hit your lips is that warm water.
Yes, yes, eating a breakfast that includes plenty of complex carbohydrates plus some fat and protein for satiety is super important. But Ayurveda has some other requests of your pre-race breakfast as a measure to keep vata and pitta at bay. First, consume this meal at least 2-3 hours before you arrive to the starting line if you can, especially for endurance efforts (or races longer than 3 hours.) This will allow your body the time to get a headstart on digesting and assimilating your food before you start shunting blood to other parts of your body as you start competition. You can have an easy shot of carbohydrates closer to your start time to keep your energy stores topped off, but we want this complex meal on board early. Additionally, it’s important that this meal is as easy to digest as possible to make sure that your meal gets digested completely, even when you’re body starts to prioritize your sport. Consuming foods that are challenging for digestion is a leading cause of digestive distress for endurance athletes. Lastly, Ayurveda recommends incorporating all Six Flavors into your meal to ensure energetic and nutritional balance. Some examples of an easy, Ayurvedic breakfasts? Creamy Vanilla Millet Porridge, Perfect Apple-Date Porridge, Sesame Nori Savory Porridge, or Navajo Blue Corn Porridge are great options.
Our digestive systems are strongest, and most effective at breaking down and assimilating our nutrition, when they have the opportunity to rest between meals. But during long endurance events, or just long race days, the consistent snacking required to keep energy stores topped off starts to diminish digestive strength. Further, the kinds of high carbohydrate fuel options that keep those glucose stores ready to rock start to feed less-than-beneficial biotics in the gut. This can contribute to digestive distress and discomfort during your race. Ginger, however, is a prebiotic and helps to not only settle the stomach but keep digestive strength high. Incorporating a sports drink with ginger into your routine, or including chewy ginger candies or lozenges for long events can be a powerful fueling choice to not only keep fueling well, but keep your ability to digest and use that fuel strong.
Understanding your doshic constitution is a powerful tool when it comes to understanding the fuel that best suits your body before and after your event, and particularly in training, but this information is also so helpful in determining what sorts of fuel won’t just be easy to digest, but will help to keep you balanced when the pressure is on. Eager to learn more about what YOUR optimal fuel looks like? An Ayurvedic consultation can help!
Your recovery meal after a big effort is one of the most critical tridoshic fueling practices. And while it’s tempting to cave into the decadent cravings that often pervade our thoughts during competition (that big burger! A fat ice cream sundae!) we’re wise to mainline a meal that’s easy to digest and packed with simple, flavorful nutrition first. Why? Because cold foods (like ice cream or ice cold beverages) shock the digestion and ice it down, preventing our bodies from properly assimilating those critical replenishing nutrients. And challenging-to-digest foods, like burgers or pizza for example, will be all the more challenging when digestion has been taxed with race nutrition, when anxiety and stress are leaving the body, and when blood may not have completely returned to the core of the body. As always, the way we rebalance and recover the body is with opposites. Racing is rough, no matter the discipline, so consuming something smooth is the smart way to go. A warm bowl of kitchari is a perfect snack; a drop of powerful, easy-to-digest nutrition and digestive spices to help your body slide easily back into digestion mode.
You’ve got it; reintegrating, arriving in your body, reducing the swirl of adrenaline, and washing away stress and anxiety starts when we return to the breath. Your nadi shodana practice is the perfect portable tool to integrate it all.
Whatever this looks like for you, whatever feels like the appropriate way to commemorate your powerful body, sharp mind and indomitable spirit is the right answer here. Enjoy a meal that you’ve been craving. Dance, spend time with friends, or just hit the hay. Whatever feels like the right capstone for your effort is the right way to amplify the joy — and that’s one of the most important Ayurvedic practices we have.