Floatation Therapy for Athletes

By using Flotation Therapy, athletes don't even have to move to improve.

By Michael Hutchison

The most obvious effect floating has is relaxation. Peak athletic performances flow from relaxation: our descriptions of peak play emphasize looseness, fluidity, effortlessness, and keeping cool. By comparison the athlete, who is making errors, losing, is a study in muscular tension: jerky and struggling, making even the simplest plays look difficult.

But good relaxation is hard to find, and when we do it's usually only partial, and gone before we know it. Runners, for example, often stretch conscientiously, yet they still have piano-wire-tight hamstrings, calves, and lower backs. In fact, many authorities now believe that most of us have never experienced complete relaxation; we have no conception of what it feels like and no idea of how to make our bodies reach that state.

During floatation therapy, however, free from the tug of the gravity, the muscles unfold naturally, like Chinese paper flowers in water, growing supple and pliant. Several studies have used an electromyograph (EMG) which measures muscular tension, to compare groups that simply floated with non floaters who relaxed by using such techniques as meditation and progressive relaxation. In every study floaters quickly became more deeply relaxed than the nonfloat groups. Significantly, a sharp reduction in tension persisted, according to one study, for up to three weeks after a float

But muscular tension is only one component of a more complex mind-body reaction: the fight-or-flight response. Triggered by emotions generated, for example, in the heat of competition; anxiety, anger, frenzy, fear: this reaction increases blood pressure, muscular tension, heart rate, oxygen consumption, and the secretion of such stress biochemicals acts as adrenaline. They help when we need to run in mindless terror, but they also impair our ability to perform movements requiring skill and dexterity. Over activation of the fight-or-flight response,

in other words, is what causes us to 'choke'.

Fortunately, nature has provided us with an equally powerful counter-response, the relaxation response. When this is triggered, levels of stress-related biochemicals are sharply reduced: heart rate, oxygen consumption, and blood pressure drop; breathing becomes deeper and slower; muscles relax; dexterity increases; thinking becomes clear; our actions seem to flow. Unfortunately, the relaxation response is not easy to master.It's important news, then, that a number of recent studies have proven that a short floatation therapy session triggers a powerful relaxation response. Deprived of stimulation, it seems, the body instinctively comes to rest or, as scientists say, assumes a hypometabolic, homeostatic state.

What's more, floating also increases tolerance for stress by readjusting the level at which the body begins to pour out fight-or-flight biochemicals. According to flotation researchers Thomas Fine and Dr. John Turner of the Medical College of Ohio, "Floating could alter the set points in the endocrine homeostatic mechanism so that the individual would be experiencing a lower adrenal activation rate."

For athletes, this means competitive pressure that might once have caused choking may be easier to tolerate after floating. The studies also indicate that the relaxation response and a lower adrenal activation rate will carry over, so if you float one day, you might still be experiencing the benefits days later. By triggering a long-lasting relaxation response, floating not only could help you perform better, it could also speed up your post competition recovery and alleviate post game letdown. In competition the body is pushed to its limits; the muscles are filled with lactic acid, which causes fatigue and pain; the system is flooded with such fight-or-flight biochemical as ACTH, cortisol, and adrenaline, which can cause irritability, depression, and anxiety. After competition these substances must be cleared away and damaged muscle tissues rebuilt, a process that can take days or weeks.

Floating causes your blood vessels to relax and dilate, which speeds up the flow of healing, tissue-building nutrients to all cells as well as the clearing away of lactic acid and other wastes. And, as the studies by Fine and Turner indicate, floating decreases the amount of nerve-jangling stress biochemicals and keeps their levels lower for days. So some marathon runners, for example, have found that a single float speeds up their post race recovery by several days. Body builders intersperse hard-workout days with float days, since the total relaxation of floatation therapy is said to allow for quicker recovery, more efficient protein synthesis, and therefore more rapid muscle growth.

Also, floating can help decrease or eliminate pain. Sooner or later most of us suffer some injury, and often we want to return to competition despite the pain. Fine, whose clinic uses floating to help sufferers of severe chronic pain, told me, "Virtually all of our chronic-pain patients have said that during the flotation period they have lost awareness of their pain."

How can floatation therapy reduce pain ? One of Fine's experiments suggests that floating secretions of endorphins, the body's own opiates, reduces the pain. These natural pain-killers, thought to be the cause of 'runner's high', also create pleasure and could explain the euphoria noted by the floaters. Since our performance in many sports hinges on our ability to overcome pain, a float several hours before competition should, by flooding our system with endorphins, enable us to go farther before experiencing pain and increase our capacity for bearing pain when it does come.

While many athletes first float for the physical effects, they soon find that the mental aspects of floating are the most impressive. Scientists estimate that the majority of the brain's work is the processing of external stimuli - visual and tactile information, gravitational forces, and so on. Freed of external responsibilities, the mind turns inward, and subtle mental processes that are ordinarily drowned out in the clamor of external stimuli gain remarkable force and clarity. One of these is the creation of visual imagery.

Rafael Septien, place-kicker for the Dallas Cowboys, began floating at the beginning of the 1981 season, when he was suffering from a crippling injury. While floating to ease the pain and relax, he found that during a session his ability to manipulate mental images was strengthened, so he began to visualize kicking perfect field goals (process known as psycho-cybernetics). Despite his injury, Septien, had a spectacular season and was selected All-Pro, due largely, he believes, to his daily visualizations. "There's no doubt that floatation therapy is powerful," he told me. "They say that practice makes perfect, but actually it's perfect practice that makes perfect. That's what you visualize -perfect practice."

Many studies have shown that an image held vividly in the mind tends to be perceived by the subconscious and the body as being real. Theoretically, visualizing yourself kicking twenty perfect goals can be as effective as doing the actual practice. The problem is that most of us find it hard to visualize performing a feat with the total concentration and clarity necessary to convince our body it's actually happening.

During a session, however, you are free from all distractions and light. According to Dr. Lloyd Glauberman, a New York City therapist with many years of experience in the use of hypnosis who is now using floatation therapy and hypnosis to help train athletes, "Your ability to visualize is much more powerful while you're floating than it is even in a hypnotic trance. Imagery seems more real, more dreamlike. Most of the time you're actually in the experience."

Bob Said, who has led two Olympic bobsled teams and three U.S. World championship bobsled teams, visualizes every foot of the bobsled run as he floats each morning. "In the sled," he says, "you know where you want to be in each corner, but often you find yourself someplace else. So you try to visualize all the different ways you can get into the corner, you're already programmed for coming out." By the time he emerges from the pool, ready to do his actual practice, Said claims, he has assimilated a real experience and 'muscle memory' of many runs.

In sports, with rapid-fire volleys at the net or screaming line drives, we need to act automatically. But too often we're paralyzed by the need to think. For Said, the muscle memory that comes from visualization frees him from that need:

"If you have to think of reactions in the sled, even if you have the world's fastest reactions, you're too slow. I'm definitely sharper after floating, but it's not a sharpening so much as it's allowing one's abilities to function the way they're supposed to, by getting rid of the clutter."

Dr. Roderick Borrie, a cognitive therapist with experience in changing such behavior patterns as smoking and overeating through the use of floatation therapy, explains the effect in terms of information theory. "The conscious brain," he says, "can process only about seven bits of information at one time. Complex athletic movements are made of far more than seven bits of information at a time. Visualization puts all those bits in one chunk, like putting together a bunch of random letters, which would be impossible to remember, so they form a word, which can be very easily remembered. While floating you put many actions together into a total image, so when the time comes to perform, the entire action is 'remembered' as a single image."

Just how real this 'memory' can be is attested to by javelin-thrower David Schmeltzer of the New York Pioneer Track Club, who used in-pool visualization to 'watch' himself throwing perfectly. Shortly after he began floating, he surpassed his personal record by several feet, and he recalls that "when I released the javelin on that day, it was like deja vu. At the point of release, I said, "I know this throw, I've thrown this throw before!" According to Borrie, who works with Glauberman in training a number of top flight athletes in pool visualization, "Almost every athlete we're working with who has competed set a personal record. And they keep on setting them. It's a very, very powerful tool."

In many ways the story of modern sports is a story of new and improved tools. Tools for improved training, like Nautilus machines: tools for mental training, like hypnosis and visualization: tools for recovery and relaxation, like whirlpools and ultrasonic machines. What's unique about floatation therapy is that it seems to perform all these functions at once. The wide variety of floating's effect has caused researchers to suspect that floatation therapy is, in the words of Fine, "a breakthrough tool in the field of psychobiology."

While floatation therapy is being explored by world-class athletes as a means to new records, it is a tool that can be equally valuable to plodding amateurs like me. Unlike many of the new training devices, which are outlandishly expensive or require the assistance of a trainer or medical professional, floatation therapy is quite simple . And while there's no guarantee you'll emerge to play a perfect game, at the very least a float will help you relax, alleviate pain, speed up your recovery from strenuous exercise, and, best of all, make you feel wonderful.

Michael Hutchison is the author of The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea

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