During football season, there's a lot of talk about getting in the zone, that focused flow that happens when we find ourselves progressing, undistracted, toward our goals. In this third installment of our four-part series on resiliency — becoming stronger in mind, body and spirit so that you can bounce back from whatever life throws your way in 2014 — two members of the ColoradoFit team target ways to help you find and keep your focus. To read earlier installments in the series — from coming up with a game plan and paying attention to what you eat to practicing self-love and learning how to say, “No, thank you” — visit denverpost.com/fitness.Practice emotional resiliency
For Denise McGuire, “getting in the zone” is about strengthening the connection between the mind and the body.
“When you listen to athletes being interviewed, they say, 'I don't know how I got there,' McGuire says. “They will describe things like the fact that the strike zone was larger than normal, or time stood still.”
A licensed psychologist who offers emotional fitness training at the University of Colorado's Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, McGuire says that “the zone is really our natural state of performance. The thing is, we get in our own way sometimes, so we have to remove the obstacles and the distractions that keep us out of it.”
“That's what peak performance is really shown to be about,” says McGuire, who is also a golf coach ( getinthezone.net). “You want to work on integrating the mind-body into a seamless entity so it can perform with the least amount of effort.”
McGuire teaches these three skills to help people reach their potential in the zone.
Try to be fully present in the moment
Notice what is happening to your body while you are participating in activities, McGuire says.
“Mindfulness is one of the tools that has been researched up and down, and proven to demonstrate that people are much better at being able to bounce back from stress when they notice and understand what's happening when they move and perform,” McGuire says.
Whether they're playing in a golf tournament or presenting a project to the board of directors, people who are aware of their responses to stress are more able to adjust and train themselves to react.
“It can be helpful to just check in with yourself,” she says. “Come up with a mental checklist or a way of assessing where you are, physically and mentally, so you can then move on to damage control, improvement or giving yourself encouragement or a pat on the back for being where you want to be.”
Pay attention to your breathing
“The ability to calm the body and the nervous system, integrate the mind and body fully — that's a skill that will help you in every aspect of your life,” McGuire says.
When you experience stress, your breath starts to come in more shallow and rapid bursts. As soon as you notice that happening, try to take deep, slow breaths, which will increase oxygen to the brain and also trigger it to calm down.
“The way the body is designed, is that when we breath out, we activate one part of the nervous system,” McGuire says. “Breathing in causes our nervous system to speed up, and breathing out causes our nervous system to slow down. Sometimes, holding the exhalation a little bit longer can be even better, especially if we're feeling performance anxiety or if the body has been in a stress response.”
McGuire advises athletes she's training to look for breaks in the action — for instance, when a tennis player is changing sides or between serves — to use that time to utilize slow-breathing techniques to their advantage. It's a tool that can be used by anyone, though, to relieve stress and bring balance back to the situation.
“Say you're about to give a speech or you have a presentation to give your boss, or you're about to have a conversation with someone that's going to be uncomfortable,” McGuire says. “Take a moment to assess where you're breathing is, and that will help you get back to the balanced state you need to be in.”
Shift your emotional gears
If you're in a stress state and know you have to stand up and present to a group of people, or you're about to go up to the golf tee and have butterflies in your stomach, it can be helpful to be able to mentally transport yourself back to a time when you feel sure of your abilities. The good news is, you can.
“Research is overwhelming that even standing in a confident pose will make you feel more confident,” McGuire says. “The key is, you have to get yourself to do it.”
McGuire says that it takes some practice, but you have more control over your emotional state than you realize.
“Any emotional condition you've ever felt is encoded in your body as a memory,” she says. “If you start to cue the brain and go back and re-experience that time when you've felt confident, you can go back and think, 'Where was I? What was I doing?' Put your brain back in that experience.
“If you cue it in the right way, it will release the neurochemicals that will reproduce the same feelings.”
We do this in a negative way far more often.
“If I were to ask you, 'I want you to start telling me about one of the most embarrassing moments you've ever had, or one of the times when you were the most angry or felt bad about yourself,' you would start to feel that way again immediately, right?” McGuire says. “We make ourselves experience those lousy feelings all the time.
“But we haven't fully embraced that it works in the positive ways, too, and we could really be using that to our advantage.”Bend, don't break
Over decades of coaching runners and being a runner himself — including winning the Leadville 100 race series three times — physical therapist Douglas Wisoff has found that much of the time, it's what is in our heads that causes the most injury to our bodies.
“We just tend to hold so much of our stress and our day-to-day stuff, our tension and what's going on up in our heads, tightly down in our muscles and in our chests,” says the Lafayette-based owner of Radiant Running ( radiantrunning.com). “That means we aren't breathing properly, our posture is wrong, and it just sets us up for injury.”
Wisoff likens his two-pronged approach toward bringing harmony between the mind and the body to bamboo, which is famous for bending rather than breaking.
“The symbol of stress in the martial arts is bamboo, because it is flexible; it bends and goes with the flow,” he says. “In the West, we have this tendency to just try to muscle through everything, and sometimes that works for us, because we can be so mighty and have this sense of our will to overcome. But then we find ourselves hurt, and we're kind of caught off guard. I think we can take some lessons from bamboo.”
Have a plan — and a backup plan
At the start of the New Year, many of us are starting a new exercise program, or now winter has set in and it's just after the holidays, and we're getting back off the couch again.
“This is where I suggest that people do what I call 'measured steps,' ” Wisoff says. “Just as in running, you don't want to overstride; in working out, you don't want to take too big of a step and wind up with an injury that will sideline you and keep you from your goals.”
Instead, Wisoff recommends setting your goal, coming up with a plan for reaching it — and then also scheduling contingency plans.
“A lot of coaches come up with the idea for the goal-setting and the strategies, but you don't always hear about the contingencies,” he says. “But I hear from people who say, 'Well, I was going to go for a run, but then it rained, and I didn't go.' But then they wind up on the couch or out to lunch with friends.
“You go off your strategy, and then you kind of lose your focus.”
Wisoff says he finds this is the biggest problem with New Year's resolutions — when people are trying to build a base of fitness. “Early on in your program, it's easy to miss one workout, then it's easy to miss two, and then you're not even on your program anymore,” he says.
The next component of this is the emotional jam, when we then start to stress out about not working out. “We hate to feel this way,” he says. “So to avoid it, we stop working out. And then that's it, we're done.”
Your best defense against this common issue, Wisoff says, is to anticipate that some workouts are going to be canceled each week, schedule extra ones, and go with the flow.
“If a morning cycling class doesn't work out, then get one going for after work right away,” he says. “Don't let your plan defeat you.”
Figure out how to release and relax your body
A new workout regimen is the fast track to muscle tightness, soreness and injury, and that can also be an easy way to convince ourselves this isn't for us.
But it's not just the muscles we're stressing — it's also our lifestyles and what's going on in our heads that affects them.
“The important thing to be aware of here is that you have tightness,” Wisoff says. “The tightness shapes your posture, and your posture keeps it in the shape it's in. As soon as you start to work those muscles, if you do too much, they're going to get way too tense, and that's when you get hurt.”
You want to do as much as you can to release tension so you're not working against your muscles, he says. Try yoga, Pilates, meditation, stretching, massage — anything you enjoy that will work out the tension and get the muscles moving in a way that relieves the stress on you, and your body.
“If a place is starting to hurt, that's probably where you're holding [tension],” Wisoff says. “I find that I can tell people some of what's going on in their lives by the way they hold themselves and what they've injured.”