I’ve been underwater with work recently so I haven’t posted in a few weeks. Rather than post something startling, I’m opting for a gentler reintroduction to the blogging world. I’ll be talking about floatation tanks (aka sensory deprivation tanks) and their role in recovery.For the last few days after getting back from our Maui mini training camp, I was shelled. Not just tired, but feeling like roadkill that’s been run over so many times that it’s become pressed into the pavement. A friend of mine suggested that my mind– and not my body– really needed the recovery.
Fortunately, I knew just what I needed– an hour in a sensory deprivation tank. I discovered how amazing a floatation tank thirty years ago when I was a very stressed out law school student. Granted, I ran just about a minute per mile faster back then (I could hold a 5:40 pace for a 10-K pretty consistently) but I was mentally a wreck– especially around exam time. Unlike undergraduate studies, grades for law school classes depended entirely on one exam. It didn’t matter how attentive I was in class– or if I even bothered to attend classes. All that mattered was how I did on one three-hour test. So during final exam week, I was an absolute wreck. I would kill myself getting ready for one exam but then have to turn around and get ready for the next exam. In the bustling South Street area of Philadelphia was a floatation tank center. So after each exam I booked an hour in the tank. I entered a stressed-out wreck. I left reborn and blissful– ready to calmly tackle the next exam.
Fast forward thirty years and I’m in an indoor cycling class at my team’s center (CycleU in the Sandpoint neighborhood of Seattle) and the instructor mentions that she had just discovered a new floatation tank center called Floasis near Green Lake in Seattle. This was big news for me– I had been looking for one for years. I immediately booked an appointment and rediscovered how awesome a float can be for eliminating stress.
Stress is Stress
While I do have a very busy workout schedule, my life isn’t very stressful. I work from home and, while it certainly has its busy moments, my work life is pretty even keel and relaxed. We don’t have kids or tons of outside commitments. But I do have workout stress– especially after coming back from the training camp in Maui.
The mind has a strange way of dealing with stress. The central nervous system can’t distinguish between a week of high-stress meetings and a hard training week in Maui. So when I came back from Hawaii, my body was tired but so was my mind. I might as well have been through a weeklong conference as far as my amygdala was concerned. And stress creates stress hormones like cortisol, which gets flooded into the body from any kind of stress. Cortisol is bad– it hampers recovery, does nasty things to your cardiovascular system and metabolism, and just feels awful. So when my friend suggesting that my brain needed a little recharging, I knew what he meant.
What to Expect
A sensory deprivation tank is a pretty simple apparatus. It’s basically a dark box with a pool of water that contains about 800 pounds of epsom salt. You shower, step inside and lie down. The water is at your skin temperature and because of all the epsom salt, you float like a cork. Once you close the door, you’re in complete darkness and silence. So you literally deprive all your senses– you can’t feel anything, hear anything, smell anything, or see anything. It feels like you are floating on a cloud.
After a few minutes of deprivation, your senses start to retune to the new surroundings. You might move your head back and forth and hear the gentle sound of your hair swishing in the water. You’ll start to hear your heart beat and your breathing, of course. While it might sound claustrophobic, you wouldn’t know it– because you can’t see, feel, or hear anything, you could be floating in a giant chasm as far as your senses are concerned.
I feel an incredible feeling of relief for the first few minutes of being in a tank. It feels so incredible to “unplug”– to spend just a few minutes turning off all the “noise” of the world. After you have been in a tank, you gain a heightened appreciation for how much our senses are bombarded all day and night– and how much stress this causes to our conscious and unconscious minds. After the first minutes, I then start relaxing more and more. I follow my breaths in a meditative fashion. trying to let go of all the thoughts– good and bad– that occupy my attention during the rest of the day. As I near the end of the hour, I start to get fidgety. It’s usually about this time that gentle music starts playing– telling me that my hour is at an end.
When it’s time to leave, you just sit up (the water is only about 8-10 inches deep), reach up to the door, and push it open. Then you step out, shower, reacquaint yourself with the world, and leave. Each time I get out of the tank, I really imagine myself being reborn– in both a good and a bad way. It’s startling and a bit uncomfortable going from a warm, protective womb-like enclosure into the light and cold of the world. The shower initially feels harsh against the skin and the light feels blinding. Afterwards, walking outside, everything feels new again. Familiar sounds seem new and interesting. It’s like seeing the world after cleaning your glasses.
Some Pointers for Floatation Tanks
If you’re interested in trying a floatation tank, here are a few pointers.
First, try to stop by first to get a tour. You’ll want some place clean and well-maintained. Be sure to check out social media sites (e.g. Yelp) for reviews. While the tanks have an thorough and automatic cleaning cycle between each use, they still have to be emptied and refilled regularly. If the tanks look dirty on the inside, they are probably fine (nothing bad for you can grow in that much epsom salt) but you’ll feel more comfortable in a clean tank. A few salt crystals on the sides are fine– discoloration of those salt crystals suggest the tank is overdue for a cleaning.
Second, bring sandals. You go into the tank naked and they’ll provide a towel, soap, and everything else you’ll need. But walking between the tank and the shower is like any other wet public place (e.g. a swimming pool).
Third, don’t go if you have any cuts– or cover them with vaseline. The water in an isolation tank is far saltier than anything you’ve likely experienced. In fact, it has so much epsom salt dissolved in it that it feels slightly oily. That means that you want to keep it out of your eyes, nose, and any cuts. Every decent facility will have vaseline that you can use to cover your cuts. Similarly, try to avoid shaving right before your session.
Fourth, don’t workout hard or drink caffeine or alcohol before your session. While these might sound like awesome ideas, they aren’t. I must have floated at least 30 times in my life and so I’ve tried all of these (intentionally or accidentally) before floating– and I regretted each one. Working out before a float revs up your metabolism making it difficult to relax. Same with caffeine. If you do that, you’ll be climbing the walls well before your hour is over. Alcohol before a float just puts you to sleep, which just leaves you feeling awful afterwards.
Did I Mention the 800 Pounds of Epsom Salt?
There’s another reason why floatation tanks are awesome: it’s the 800 pounds of epsom salt. Obviously, epsom salt has been used for painful muscle for hundreds of years and you will never experience such a concentrated bath of epsom salt anywhere else. This high of a concentration of epsom salt also means that some magnesium sulfate (the chemical name for epsom salt) is making its way into your body, which is also a very good thing. As I’ve blogged about before, most of us are magnesium deficient and magnesium is a key electrolyte for athletic performance.
I think a floatation tank is the best possible way to “reset” your mind and flush out a ton of mental stress. Sometimes, you may feel like your body’s okay, but something is still dragging you down. Or you may have just come off a tough week at work but your workouts still suck. Or you might be a stressed out mom who is having not-so-great workouts after dealing with your screaming kids all week. These are a sure sign that your brain may need a little love just even more than your body does. If so, give a floatation tank a try.
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