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Injury recovery . . . from a different angle.

Understanding the Sympathetic & Parasympathetic Nervous Systems in Running

As runners, we often focus on our muscles, joints, and cardiovascular fitness, but what about the nervous system? If you have a chronic injury that just won't heal, you may want to think about your stress level and your nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates involuntary bodily functions, plays a crucial role in running performance and recovery.

The ANS is divided into two main branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Understanding how these systems work and their impact on running can help us optimize training and recovery.

The Sympathetic Nervous System: Fight or Flight

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is often referred to as the "fight or flight" system. When activated, it prepares the body for intense physical activity. Key functions include:

  • Increased Heart Rate: To pump more blood (and oxygen) to muscles.

  • Dilated Airways: To enhance oxygen intake.

  • Energy Mobilization: Breaking down glycogen and fat for immediate energy.

  • Blood Flow Redistribution: Directing blood away from the digestive system to the muscles.

When you start a run, especially a high-intensity one, the SNS kicks in to prepare your body for the physical demands. This is why you might feel your heart race and breathing quicken as you push your limits.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System: Rest and Digest

On the flip side, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is known as the "rest and digest" system. It promotes relaxation and recovery, counterbalancing the SNS. Key functions include:

  • Slowing Heart Rate: Reducing the heart’s workload.

  • Promoting Digestion: Stimulating digestive activities.

  • Energy Conservation: Focusing on rest and repair.

After a run, particularly during the cool-down phase, the PNS helps bring your body back to a state of rest. Engaging in activities like deep breathing or yoga or meditation post-run can stimulate the PNS, enhancing recovery.

The Impact of Running on the Nervous Systems

Running can significantly influence both the SNS and PNS. During a run, especially an intense one, the SNS is dominant. This activation is beneficial for improving cardiovascular fitness and increasing endurance. However, chronic activation without adequate recovery can lead to overtraining and increased injury risk.

Post-run, the goal is to switch from SNS dominance to PNS dominance to promote recovery. Cool-down exercises, stretching, and hydration help facilitate this transition, allowing your body to repair and grow stronger. If you are living a high stress life, (Yes, this may be exactly why you run!) you may benefit from scheduling daily or at least weekly PNS time: meditation, massage (relaxing, not deep tissue/sports massage), sauna, something that relaxing the "inside" of you.

Injuries and Their Impact on the Nervous System

Injuries can disrupt the balance between the SNS and PNS. Pain and inflammation from injuries often trigger a prolonged SNS response, keeping the body in a heightened state of alertness. This prolonged activation can delay healing and lead to stress and anxiety.

Conversely, the PNS plays a crucial role in injury recovery. Activities that promote PNS activation, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and gentle movement, can help reduce pain perception and speed up recovery. Ensuring adequate rest and engaging in activities that promote relaxation are essential for a balanced recovery process.

Practical Tips for Runners

  1. Warm-Up Properly: Gradually increase intensity to activate the SNS smoothly.

  2. Cool Down: Incorporate a proper cool-down to transition to PNS activation.

  3. Mindful Recovery: Engage in activities that promote relaxation and PNS dominance, like stretching, foam rolling, and deep breathing.

  4. Listen to Your Body: Avoid pushing through pain, as this can lead to prolonged SNS activation and delayed recovery.

  5. Balanced Training: Incorporate rest days and light activities to prevent overtraining and maintain a healthy balance between SNS and PNS.


Understanding the interplay between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can help you train smarter, recover better, and reduce injury risks. By respecting your body’s need for both activation and relaxation, you can achieve a more balanced and sustainable running routine.

Comment and let me know how you personally train your PNS. (Because, I personally need to get better at this!)

Happy running, Dayna


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