Rest, Recovery, and Athletic Performance According to Your Element
Happy Friday readers,
In 2012 I was a full-time athlete and full-time desk job haver and I was out of balance. My gut was pissed after a recent trip to the Andes and Patagonia, my mind was mush because of my over-programmed life; I felt like I was constantly stealing time from one activity to give to another and I had no concept of self-care.
Upon discovering that I had brought yet another amoeba back from South America, I began seeing Dr. Liz for weekly treatments. Together, we applied every medical trick in the book to squash the little gut demons. Along the way, through our journey involving acupuncture, herbs, pharmaceuticals, counseling, and osteopathic work, I began to contact my internal balance point for the first time. Dr. Liz likes to say that once you get a glimpse of your balanced self it is really uncomfortable to be out of balance again and that certainly rang true for me.
The beginning of our treatments in 2012 also marked the beginning of this business and my slow transition away from my harried life in the city. My days of working hard at a desk job for a few years to save for an expedition, going on said expedition, and returning to the desk sick, tired, and broke were over; I was determined to find a permanent way to be in the hills while making time to grow a business and, eventually, to have a child. Together Dr. Liz and I discovered some amazing ways to work with my Metal constitution in order to bring my over-worked body into balance.
I will be forever grateful for her gentle, thorough approach and I'm so excited to share an informative guest post from her with you today.
Use the Wisdom of Chinese Medicine to Improve Your Training
Guest post by Dr. Liz Carter
A sure-fire way to up your training game is to learn more about yourself. Specifically, your own internal motivations, behavioral tendencies, and stressors. The 5 elements of Chinese medicine - wood, fire, earth, metal, and water - are the perfect tool for the deep introspection and growth that’s necessary for self-improvement.
Chinese medicine posits that we are reflections of nature and nature is a reflection of us, so it is possible to look to our natural environment in order to understand more about ourselves. If we are Metal, we’re like the mountains, if we’re Water we’re like a river or the sea. Pretty amazing, right? It’s even more amazing when you realize how accurate it is.
We each have two elements that influence and shape us the most (MN Note: I am Metal/Fire!), but we are able to access all five to a certain extent when we’re in a healthy state. The elements can show us so many things about ourselves, like how well we can go with the flow of life, why we’re awful or awesome and planning, and what kind of athlete we are.
How do you find out your elements? You might be able to tell what you are just from my descriptions in this blog! For a more professional option, you can see a 5 Elements acupuncturist who will diagnose and treat based on your elements. Make sure they are trained in 5 Elements, as the majority of acupuncturists are trained in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine which is not at all traditional, but that’s another discussion).
You can also check out my 5 Elements Personality Test that will tell you your two elements and provide you gobs of fascinating stuff about your core self, like what motivates and depletes you, what belongs in your life and what you need to let go of, and how to stay true to your foundational values. Use this link for $20 off.
All right, let’s get into these elements and what they mean for your performance and recovery.
Wood elements are workhorses and generally very robust in terms of athletic ability. They’re naturally drawn to movement because it relieves this angsty, frustrated, irritable feeling they are the prone to (more than any other element), so they’ve most likely been physical or athletic from a very young age. Movement acts as their main coping mechanism for stress and they often prefer more intense forms of exercise in order to really break up their stagnant energy. Wood elements are very logical and great planners, so they can stick to routine easily (sometimes a little too easily) and they love problem-solving and new, intense challenges.
Rest and recovery ability: challenged
Wood elements are not good at rest and recovery. With movement as a primary mechanism for stress relief, they turn to it often, even when they’re depleted. There’s a lot in this world that causes them to be irritable and stressed -- crappy foods, environmental toxin exposure (fabric softener should be banned!), alcohol, people who don’t think in a logical manner, and more. Wood people can become addicted to movement as a result because it gives them such relief and if something feels good they may ask themselves, “Why would I stop?”
The key for wood is to find balanced movement because it’s very easy for them to overdo it and make themselves vulnerable to injury. They’re used to feeling invincible with movement, so they really have to stay in touch with themselves and their abilities and not get wrapped up in assuaging this daily irritation with movement as their only tool. It’s crucial that they explore other ways to generate movement in their lives, like journaling or creativity, and start reducing the mental, emotional, and physical irritants that cause their unrest in the first place.
Fires love freedom and spontaneity, so they’re jazzed to take on new challenges in almost any realm. They’re very lighthearted, free-spirited people that like to collect experiences. They have a relaxed and casual attitude about life, which often means they’re excellent athletes. They don’t have preconceived notions about their abilities many times and they’ll try anything. Fires are definitely a “why not?” type of mindset rather than a “why?” type of mindset. The key for fire is fun. Something has to bring them joy and offer them connection to others for them to want to participate. Fires love to be around people (even the introverted ones) and get great joy from social experiences, athletic activities included.
Rest and recovery: detached
Fires tend to lose their ground easily. They get caught up in the moment, especially if there are other people involved, and they stop paying attention to their own internal signals. They’re the type who jump first and ask questions later. This can get them into lots of pickles, including massively overdoing it with training or events and injuring themselves. If they had stopped to consider the consequences for a second they could have averted the mess. But with their go-with-the-flow attitude they can usually recover gracefully and will absolutely love telling the crazy story later to their friends.
Fires have to stay grounded and in touch with themselves, otherwise they open themselves up to injury. If they’re chronically scattered, either on the trail they’re running or in their training schedule something’s bound to take a turn for the worse. Speaking of schedules, fires are not a fan. They feel stifled with too much structure, so a healthy training plan involves switching things up a lot and trying new routes and activities. While exercising, it can be helpful to set a timer every 10 minutes as a mental checkpoint to assess what’s happening in your body and make sure it’s still within your limits. Another way to ground is by communing with nature. If you’re running on a trail, stop at the large trees, feel their bark, take a moment to wonder and check in with yourself.
Earth elements aren’t typically drawn to ultra-athleticism, but they can certainly be talented athletes. Earth enjoys comfort and nurturing others. So they often like to stay in their comfort zone and will only push themselves out of it if they’re doing it for someone else. So if a good friend is really into ultra running, maybe they’ll consider it. Earth is also very sensitive, in-tune with themselves, and grounded, so they can push themselves hard, but they’re not going to make progress as fast as other elements who might regularly push beyond their boundaries. Earth’s training would naturally include more down time and rest. Earth people are very uncomfortable with conflict so they generally dislike competition. They’d rather have everyone get along and they’ll extricate themselves from situations where people don’t.
Rest and recovery: good
Earth knows how to stay grounded and in touch with themselves. I mean, they are literally the ground in the natural world! So they understand how to rest, recover, and nurture themselves better than any other element. But athletic culture doesn’t really support these traits so they often don’t feel particularly welcome. They don’t need to be first or the best, just supported and in harmony with others.
Earth elements need to make sure they are training for themselves, not a friend or a trainer/coach. They need to feel good about what they’re doing for themselves, otherwise they’ll grow to resent the others they feel are pushing them too hard. In essence, they have to learn to speak up for their needs. And sometimes earth needs a kick in the pants to push themselves out of their comfort zone to make progress.
Metal elements are very adept athletes from the structured, regimented, very focused perspective. They love details, planning, and analysis, so they’re the data nerds, tracking everything meticulously. Wood can do this too, but not usually to the same level. You need discipline, structure, focus, and determination to be a great athlete and metal elements have this in spades. They also have a very strong spiritual side and tend to find great meaning in the pursuits that deeply define their life. They have an affinity for beauty and aesthetics so being active outside in nature can be very soothing.
Rest and recovery: challenged
Metal elements can get very rigid and dogmatic about their schedule because structure is their comfort zone. They start paying more attention to their schedule than they do their own internal cues. They are also perfectionists, so they put immense pressure on themselves to stick to their schedule and make sure their data is trending the right way. Their determination and focus can blind them to what they actually need.
Metal elements need to back off the internal pressure they put on themselves to achieve and allow for ups and downs in energy and training. We are not linear robots; the body has natural rhythms and we need to respect them. Metal elements have to learn to listen to their bodies rather than adhering to an arbitrary training schedule. In other words, if you’re tired, rest.
Water elements are drawn to extreme sports and adventure because they are thrill seekers. They really enjoy pushing their limits and finding that adrenaline rush. For a water, there is a deep-seated fear of their ability to survive, so they will push harder and harder to prove that they can. There are a lot of water athletes out there because the athletic mindset and community mirrors their natural tendencies. It builds them up and praises their extremeness, their love of competition, and their daringness. Water elements also seem to have massive energy reserves, like a wood, and can push beyond normal limits. All elements can do this, but water does this routinely and pathologically. At the base of all the bravado is fear and insecurity.
Rest and recovery ability: most challenged
Waters more than any element don’t know how to rest. They will push themselves to the brink of collapse. I’ve also seen other elements do this, but because water people live in the extremes, they tend to crash harder and take longer to recover. Water’s don’t want to admit their own limitations so they try to control their bodies. They are the essence of the “push through the pain” mentality of athletes because they truly believe they are the masters of their body’s signals.
Water elements have to learn to slow themselves down and listen. The body is wise and is always sending you information and you have to pay attention. You can’t always overrule it. Take a step back from the push and try slower activities. Let go of the fear that’s pushing you and embrace more calm and joy. Fear is our most powerful driver and has the strongest grip on water elements out of all the elements. But it can’t be turned on 24/7 otherwise waters will burn out and injure themselves. Work toward a sustainable practice with slower, more gentle and peaceful activities integrated in.
I hope this post gave you a little more insight into yourself and what you need for rest and recovery. As you may have noticed, most elements are challenged in their ability to slow down and recover. This difficulty is highly influenced by our own cultural biases and especially the athletic culture of pushing-doing-going-never-stop-until-you-die.
When your elements are balanced, it’s much easier to disengage from these behavior tendencies (which are actually defense mechanisms) and toxic cultural influences and really get to the core of yourself and your own needs. When the slate is cleared, you start to see yourself in the mountains, rivers, trees, ground, and sparks of life surrounding you in nature and the universe.