RECOVERY? ARE YOU GETTING IT? The Nervous System & Endocrine System Revealed

High Performance Training: Motor Skills

As our scientific understanding of movement, strength, even how to asses and screen for both injury and baselines  has evolved, so too has our movement capacity in sports and athletics.

Functional fitness means to restore and refine the balance of the human physique, as well optimizing homeostasis in the body through tissue restoration (ample recovery). For example, too much over-specialization on traditional strength models; like “body building” with pullups, pushups or squats creates a complementary imbalance in the functionally opposite direction which must be addressed, or we face first diminishing returns, then plateau, then regress, followed by pain and eventually injury. Like anything if you play that sport, you train for it, but if you do not, then you are ultimately not setting yourself up for success.

For most athletes the standards are higher; sometimes these standards come with playing for a high or elite level team, and some standards are the ones we place on ourselves , but most perform their cycles in spite of their fitness levels rather than because of them. They do well and survive because they had the passion and dedication to commit, but not always the right training. Even with effective preparation to perform at high intensity, does not give all athltes the ability to recover fast from high stress. Whoever recovers fastest wins, because if you do not – your risk for injury and possible your game/career ender sky rockets.

When we think of sports in essence we think about training the body, and in this, we think of only the musculoskeletal system (muscles) and the cardiovascular system, and neglect some of the other more important responses and adaptations in our body. Most sports require a variation of fine and complex motor skills performed at high intensity.

What happens when intensity increases?

How do our motor skills respond and adapt to high intensity training?

If you cannot answer these questions; you are setting yourself up for injury and possibly failure.

In high intensity training, you lose untrained, fine motor skills at approximately 65% heart rate maximum. (Heart rate maximum is 220-age). You lose untrained, complex motor skills at approximately 85% heart rate maximum.

You can increase how long you keep the skills, but with each new situation, a new stressor. You can only adapt to specific stress. So, you may be able to remain calm during “practice drills” but when game time hits, with another team you know little about, or perhaps embarking on an ultra multi day event, carrying 40kgs of equipment, to an unknown route, with unknown environmental factors, and if and when you are surprised, your chance of making mistakes increases substantially and the result is, you feel overwhelmed and do not operate at 100%. And much of this is also mental training, but I will save that for another article.  Whoever can recover fastest from surprise, mistakes and overwhelming odds… wins. That’s the paleo meat and hold the potatoes of it all.

Recovery = Systems Restoration

Notice, I did not just say “tissue;” much like the above, we need to start thinking of whole systems adaptation, not isolation of one system. Rest and recovery are critical components of any successful training program. They are also the least planned and underutilized ways to enhance performance. We must recognize that ‘Rest” is not the same as “Recovery,” just like “Mobility” is not the same as “Movement.”

“ Rest is relaxation, where there is an absence of activity. When you appropriately recover, you do not require or desire rest. See the difference. Rest should only be required when you do not sufficiently recover from excessive stressors, when you are under-recovered, you oscillate between excessive stress and forced rest; a common, viscous cycle in our industry. Traditional relaxation techniques become unnecessary if one fully recovers from excessive stress; relaxation is our natural state when our various nervous systems function as they should.”  (passage from my previous post of my “Movement Series”)

A great excerpt from Andrew Read; Master RKC and Endurance Trainer, in an article called7 Essential Elements of Rest and Recovery:

“ If you train for ten hours per week, you have 158 non-training hours or 95% of your time left for rest and recovery. Where is all of this “extra” time going and why do you walk into your workout dragging?

Training = Work + Rest.

It’s not. It’s multiplication. 

Training = Work x Rest.”


The Nervous Systems When Training:

Your nervous system cannot tell the difference between the physical threat and a mental or emotional threat.

Unfortunately, many athletes do not take advantage of this. Whoever endures, stays. But that is not TRAINING. That is merely WEEDING out those who are not yet trained for high performance stress. To TRAIN someone for stress, it must be woven into the conditioning. This isn’t a “sink or swim” approach.

The focus of the training must be upon how fast you can recover from a high intensity output so you can stay at your “A” game, both physically and mentally. “

Most often high athletes approach high level training preparation with a tenacity unlike any other, it is what makes them brilliant athletes, but the drawback is that they will push themselves beyond safety into over-training injuries and illness, and still keep going more with injury and while ill. We see this with retired athletes who no longer play at that level, but want to continue to train at that level because it recreates the same sense of glory on the field, court, track – whatever your place of sportage homage is.

The nervous system does not know the type of resistance, it only knows intensity. Your biomechanics do not know what kind of exercise you are performing; it only knows degrees, direction and load.  It only knows how much and how much stress. It cannot tell that the stress is from injury. It cannot say a broken shoulder is a different pain, than the pain of high intensity exercise like clapping pullups. It only knows the degree of stress. Therefore, your mental preparation and thought process tells the body – is this good stress or bad stress.

The body cannot tell the difference between heart rate maximum from exercise, and heart rate maximum from being shot at. It only knows heart rate maximum. Therefore, whoever recovers fastest from high stress in training without injury and illness, will be more operationally prepared to perform in high stress with injury and illness.

Do you see where we are going with this?

 “The first goal of training must be “do no harm.” This takes some mental paradigm shifting for many “hard-chargers.” I honor them for their willingness to sacrifice themselves, but they must not do this in training, so that they are able to be so honorable in combat.” – Scott Sonnon, Rmax International (TACTICAL MAGAZINE 2011)

Successful periodized sports specific programs include education behind how our body metabolizes and regulates stress and recovery. This boils down to two fundamental systems; the nervous system, and the endocrine system. If an athlete understand the biochemical responses, transmissions and transfers within their body; they will have greater success in energy output, intensity levels and when faced with unprepared game changing events; on and off the field.


The Nervous System in a NutShell:

The human nervous system is composed of two parts: the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which is composed of nerves and nerve networks throughout the body. The two main components of the nervous system, I have been especially interested in during my research into tactical training and response, is the somatic nervous system and the parasympathetic system, but let’s give you a run-down of the nervous system in its entirety.

The peripheral system (PNS) is composed of a number of nerves that extend outside of the central nervous system. The PNS can be further divided into two different systems: the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for involuntary functions, as well as emotional responses like sweating or crying.

Somatic Nervous System: The somatic system transmits sensory communications and is responsible for voluntary movement and action. This system is composed of both sensory (afferent) neurons, which carry information from the nerves to the brain and spinal cord, and motor (efferent) neurons, which transmit information from the central nervous system to the muscle fibers. These are our transmission and communication highways.

The Sympathetic Nervous System: The sympathetic system controls the body’s response to emergencies.  Known as the fight or flight response, this system responds by preparing your body to either fight the danger or flee.

 The parasympathetic nervous system functions to counter the sympathetic system and restore the body’s functions. This system helps to calm the body, slows the heart and breathing etc.

How are the endocrine and nervous system linked? The brain structure known as the hypothalamus connects these two important communication systems together. The hypothalamus is a tiny collection of nuclei that is responsible for controlling an astonishing amount of behavior.  Yet, in most training programs the necessary education into the “why” we train and the “how” our body operates is still stuck in just the response and effects on the musculoskeletal systems, not how we internally respond, improve, degrade, progress, regress, etc. These two systems are paramount, and to be tactical operators and officers is a necessity.



The endocrine system is a collection of glands that produces a wide variety of chemical messengers called hormones; which are necessary for normal bodily functions. These hormones regulate processes such as metabolism, growth, digestion, and response to stress. The glands release the hormones directly into the bloodstream where they are transported to organs and to tissues via our interconnected matrix highways. At these target organs and tissues, the secreted hormone evokes a specific, pre-programmed response from the targeted cells. . The specific functions of the endocrine system include:

  1. regulating the chemical composition and volume of the body
  2. regulating metabolism and energy balance, including digestion
  3. regulating contraction of smooth and cardiac muscle
  4. maintaining homeostasis even during crisis events
  5. regulating components of the immune system, and
  6. regulating the integration of growth and development.

Thus, appealing to the endocrine system is one way in which the body coordinates its actions with information collected from the environment. The endocrine system is responsible for teaching the body to react to the physical, emotional and mental stress around us.


While the endocrine system consists of several different glands that secrete over 50 different hormones, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland control such a broad range of bodily functions that they are often referred to as the master control center. Here is a breakdown of the major operations:

Hypothalamus: The hypothalamus is located in the brain. It regulates many aspects of the body, such as heart rate, body temperature, water balance, and the amount of glandular secretions from the pituitary. It secretes hormones that help regulate the pituitary gland and also responds to their presence in a feedback mechanism.

Pituitary Gland: This small gland is tightly connected with the hypothalamus and secretes two hormones of particular interest to athletes. Anti-diuretic hormone( ADH ) promotes water re-absorption in the kidneys and is released from the pituitary when sensors in the hypothalamus determine that the blood is too concentrated, i.e., when dehydration occurs. For those deployed, away from water sources, or in hot climates, this could be critical. Adrenocorticotropic hormone ( ACTH ) stimulates the adrenal gland to produce cortisol; while the pituitary secretes numerous other hormones necessary for growth and survival. Because cortisol is secreted under duress; and your nervous system cannot differentiate between physical, mental or emotional stress; occupations that require higher stress overall means the secretion of this chemical could degrade function. When your immune system is working overtime, your body relies on that fight or fight response, which if cortisol gets to high  – remains turned on, like an alarm clock you can’t shut off. More on that in the adrenal gland section below.

Adrenal Glands: We have two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney in the lower back. Each gland consists of an outer layer called the cortex and an inner core called the medulla. Secretion from the adrenal medulla is controlled via the nervous system, whereas ACTH controls secretion from the adrenal cortex. The major hormones produced by the adrenal medulla are adrenaline (also called epinephrine ) and a related hormone called noradrenaline ( norepinehprine ). These hormones cause the changes that occur during an emergency situation ( the fight-or-flight response ). Such changes include: increased heart and breathing rate, increased blood flow to muscles, cessation of digestion, and increased blood glucose levels and metabolic rate. The adrenal cortex produces two main classes of hormones: glucocorticoids and mineralcorticoids. The main glucocorticoid hormone, cortisol, promotes the breakdown of muscle proteins into amino acids that enter blood. The resulting increase in amino acid levels in the blood then causes higher glucose blood levels when the liver breaks down these amino acids. Cortisol also favors metabolism of fatty acids over carbohydrates. This hormone works in opposition to insulin, raising blood glucose levels. In a different mode, cortisol counteracts the inflammatory response that can lead to the pain and swelling of joints in arthritis and bursitis.


The endocrine system can become fatigued just like a muscle that is continually overworked. At some point it just can’t produce the stress hormones as it should. A tired ( but not damaged ) muscle may recover in 24 to 48 hours, but it takes an overused endocrine system weeks to recover.

During high intensity training cortisol serves the body well by mobilizing energy stores and reducing inflammation. Afterwards, it temporarily blocks the desirable effects of insulin, and repair of the body is slowed. This is why recovery and recovery protocols, along with joint mobility is so important.

Even when the cortisol levels fall to normal after a few days, there are lingering effects from the disturbance of the endocrine system. If the body is called upon to respond to stress again, adequate levels of cortisol cannot be produced, resulting in a crash or hitting the way response. All motor control slows, along with mental fortitude.

The varied nature of these symptoms points to suppression at the level of the central nervous system hypothalamus/pituitary axis. That is, it isn’t just one gland that isn’t working right nor is it some simple nutrient deficiency.

In Closing:

When setting up a sports specific training program, or any program design for any client who is moderate to high activity;  these are two major systems you should consider educating your athlete or client on, so that you can fully understand the needs and requirements of your body moving into the phase transitions of your periodization. If your mentality is to “go hard, or go home,” you may very well be going home yourself, less one athlete, because that athlete in now spending the next 8-12 weeks with our physio team and in corrective movement.

As one of my mentors and friends; Carmen Bott, Performance and Conditioning Specialist at Fortius Centre in Vancouver; “Darwin was incorrect; it is not the survival of fittest who survive, it is those who adapt survive.”


About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

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