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Float on: how floating can quiet your mind, relieve muscle pain, and make you a better runner

Floating is starting to garner buzz among the early adopters and health-trend aficionados of the world. It’s typically spoken of in conjunction with meditation, and offered in spas and salons. While it’s not quite a widespread technique yet, it’s definitely on the rise – and recent research indicates it might be particularly useful for athletes.

What is floating?

Floating – formally known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) – is lying down in a lightproof and soundproof pod filled with 10 inches of body-temperature salt water. The water is filled to near saturation with Epsom salts, so you float effortlessly. The body temperature combined with light and sound deprivation quiet down your senses, removing all possible outside input. You stay in this pod for a minimum of 45 minutes – though most professionals suggest 60 minutes, with an optimal time of about 90 to 120 minutes per session.

What are the potential benefits for runners?

Since floating was invented in 1970 by neurophysiologist John Lilly, there have been many studies conducted on flotation therapy’s effects on nearly every ailment. Below are some interesting findings for runners:

Stress and mental well-being
Running is of course a stress-buster in itself, but we runners sometimes get in our own way and undermine ourselves when we’re stressed or anxious. Runners perform better when they’re relaxed and well-rested, and floating can impact these quality-of-life factors significantly.

A meta-analysis in 2005 showed floating significantly lowered cortisol levels and blood pressure, and might be a more effective stress-management tool than relaxation exercises or biofeedback. Another study showed floating was effective for alleviating stress-related pain, anxiety, and depression, while increasing quality of sleep and optimism.

And it might even boost mental performance. One study found significant increases in creativity scores after just one floating session. Floating is also associated with a decrease in anxiety, hostility, and fatigue, and an increase in energy and curiosity.

Physical performance
Floating can relieve muscle pain and enhance performance on athletic tasks, such as basketball and archery. It can also improve an athlete’s concentration, lower a perceived exertion, and enable more consistent performance.

Essentially, floating has similar effects to a meditation practice, but it accomplishes them far more quickly. It can catapult you into a mental state that’s primed for relaxation and integration of muscular and visual memory, helping to relax and improve performance at the same time.

What does it feel like?

Sounds great – so what’s the downside?

I’ll be honest – it’s pretty scary. Shutting off all your senses means your mind turns inward, and this means it goes a little bit haywire. If you’ve ever struggled to maintain concentration while meditating, it’s like that – except that you have nothing else to distract you but more thoughts, so they speed up and pile up onto each other.

Experienced floaters say it usually takes them about 20 minutes to quiet down this mental noise, but if you’re floating for the first time, expect about 30-40 minutes of uncomfortable racing thoughts. The payoff, though, is a wonderful feeling of deep, intense relaxation like you’ve probably never felt before. And that’s a bare minimum of what you could get out of this practice.

Written by Varia Makagonova.

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