I’m sure you’ve heard that having good blood circulation is…well…good! In fact, we’ve mentioned that such and such food or exercise can help to improve blood flow in several of our articles. That’s great and all, but do we really know what having good blood flow actually entails? Why is it so important for our health and athletic performance, and what can we do to make sure it’s (literally) running smoothly?
How does blood circulation work?
The body is a complicated machine, full of weird systems and confusing names for confusing parts. So let’s make the topic of blood circulation a bit simpler. The blood circulatory system—also known as the cardiovascular system—consists of the heart and all the blood vessels that run throughout the entire body. Arteries carry blood away from the heart, while the veins transport it back. There are two additional circulatory systems that comprise the cardiovascular system that you need to know about. These are the systemic and pulmonary systems. Systemic circulation is what transports oxygen and nutrient-rich blood through our arteries to our organs, tissues (that includes our muscles) and cells. When it releases those vital substances, it takes on carbon dioxide and other waste substances (like lactic acid). Now low in oxygen, the blood is collected by the veins and transported back to the heart. Pulmonary circulation occurs when we breathe in fresh oxygen and in enters the blood stream, while carbon dioxide is simultaneously released from the blood.
And so the cycle continues: The heart acts as a pump, transporting oxygenated blood to our organs, then carrying de-oxygenated blood from our organs back to the lungs to get oxygenated again.
This is how blood circulation should work in the body. As you can imagine, the circulatory system is vital for everyone—but especially for athletes looking to perform at the limits of their capacity. With good blood flow comes good distribution of nutrients—especially oxygen. With more oxygen flowing to our muscles, our time to fatigue in exercise is lengthened, which means we can move more weight or run/row/double-under for longer until our muscles force us to stop to take a rest. Having good circulation also helps stabilize body temperature, maintain our pH balance and transports nutrients and waste products to and from cells. If we have a problem with our circulation, our physical capacity and our general health will suffer as a result.
The impact of poor circulation
Poor circulation occurs when the blood doesn’t flow freely through the body due to a blockage in the arteries. This is bad news, as it means that your organs (including the heart and the brain) aren’t receiving all the nutrients they need in order to function properly. In addition, your extremities—your legs, feet, hands and arms—won’t be receiving enough blood either. Combined, this can lead to a host of problems, some of which are potentially life threatening.
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-High blood pressure
-Vertigo and dizziness
-Carpal tunnel (a condition in which there is excessive pressure on the median nerve. This is the nerve in the wrist that allows feeling and movement to parts of the hand.)
-Varicose veins (swollen, twisted, and sometimes painful veins that have filled with an abnormal collection of blood)
That’s quite a long list. In addition to having to deal with the ill effects of these conditions on a day-to-day basis, an individual that is suffering from poor blood circulation will struggle to perform athletically. You simply won’t be able to move as much weight, run as fast or recover as quickly when you can’t get oxygen to your muscles and get rid of lactic acid and other waste from the body.
What are the causes of poor blood circulation?
More often than not, an individual suffers from poor blood circulation as a result of their lifestyle habits. Smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet (typified by high sugar, trans fats and alcohol intake) all contribute to different conditions that affect blood flow. For example, arteriosclerosis—or hardening of the arteries—is a side effect of diabetes and is brought on by smoking, excess weight and lack of physical exercise. This condition comes about when fatty acids such as cholesterol build up in the blood stream and form hard plaques in the arterial walls. This narrows the arteries and restricts blood flow.
In addition, prolonged sitting—that’s right, sitting—can lead to poor blood flow in the body. When your muscles aren’t moving, your circulation slows. This means that you’ll be using less glucose (blood sugar that the body uses for energy) and burning less fat, which is not good. Slow blood flow allows fatty acids to clog the heart, which causes high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. It can also cause blood and other fluids to pool in the legs, which can lead to varicose veins and the formation of dangerous blood clots called deep vein thrombosis. It’s no wonder that people with sedentary lifestyles are twice as likely to develop a cardiovascular disease as those who are more active.
So what can you do to ensure you have good blood flow?
I could tell you not to smoke, to watch your intake of sugar and trans fats, and to keep your drinking habits contained—but I’ll assume that you already know the health benefits in doing all of these things. And since one of the best things you can do to keep your blood flowing smoothly is to exercise regularly, I know I won’t have to lecture you about the benefits of working out (because you already do you that you rockstar). However, there are some other things that you can be doing to help your circulation operate at an optimum—and when your blood flows freely, your athletic performance will benefit.
Eat beets/Drink beet juice
Beets contain a high amount of inorganic nitrates, which is a natural chemical found in the air, soil and water. When consumed, it turns into nitric oxide, which is a potent vasodilator [a compound that opens blood vessels in the body]. It’s believed that the nitric oxide dilates the blood vessels and reduces the amount of oxygen required to perform exercise. By helping to facilitate the widening of blood vessels, nitric oxide helps to promote increased blood flow in our skeletal muscle (meaning that more nutrients like oxygen can be moved around the body) and regulate our blood pressure.
Yoga can provide a myriad of benefits to an individual, which include lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. Multiple studies have shown this to be the case. High amounts of stress can cause hyperactivity in the sympathetic nervous system—a part of the nervous system that serves to accelerate the heart rate, constrict blood vessels, and raise blood pressure as part of the fight or flight response. Furthermore, chronic stress can also lead to behaviors that increase blood pressure, such as eating and drinking poorly and not doing things that lower blood pressure naturally. This is where yoga can come into play, as multiple poses have been shown to help the nervous system naturally quiet down. As Yoga U reports, “Two studies published in the British medical journal The Lancet, showed that simply practicing the simple yoga pose Savasana (Corpse Pose) for three months led to a 26- point drop in systolic blood pressure and a 15-point drop in diastolic blood pressure.”
Get a sports massage
In addition to improving flexibility, reducing pain, decreasing tension and improving sleep, a sports massage helps to improve circulation. In fact, that’s the main goal of a sports massage. After a week of tough training sessions, our muscles and fascia have undergone microscopic damage that needs to be repaired through increased blood flow (as the blood will bring important nutrients to those areas). Massage helps to increase blood flow through the different strokes employed by the masseur. Long stroking movements help fluid move through the circulatory system, and deep massages help to increase permeability in the fibrous tissues, allowing more fluids and nutrients to flow through the tissue.
Eat more superfoods
There are quite a few superfoods out there to choose from, but I’d recommend getting as many in to your regular diet as possible. Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (like wild Alaskan salmon, kale and walnuts) can raise the amount of good cholesterol in your blood (HDL) while lowering the amount
of bad cholesterol (LDL). Other foods that are high in ‘good fats’ and contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties include:
-Organic coconut oil
-Raw organic chocolate
Photo from the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games