There are few things that are unavoidable in life. Besides taxes and death, stress is something you can count on to rear its head and make itself known during seasons of life. And for me, the last couple of months have felt like a hell of a season. Stress impacts virtually every system in the body, and for that reason there are a ton of ways that stress impacts training.
In fact, training in and of itself is a stressor on the body, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Stressing the body in an intentional and reasonable way is what produces strength gains and improved results. But like most things in life, too much stress on the body can have some seriously negative consequences on training and performance. And as someone who has a tendency to set up camp (maybe build a house is more accurate) in stressful environments, and then deny the reality of the level of stress I surround myself with, I can definitively say that you don’t have to acknowledge stress to experience its consequences.
I think most athletes know on a cognitive level that training is a stress on the body, but we have a tendency to believe that training stress is different from every day stressors. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t usually subscribe to that same belief. In fact, they are designed to respond to all types of stress in the same way, and on a relatively consistent continuum. An increase in any form of stress creates changes in our hormonal systems. Cortisol, testosterone, adrenaline are all impacted by both workouts and life stressors.
Other changes happen as well, like tissue inflammation, which is part of the reason you might feel sore after a particularly challenging, or stressful, workout. Increased stress also means increased heart rate, whether we’re in the gym or dealing with our two year old who skipped a nap in the grocery store at 4pm.
But does this mean that we need to avoid all stress in order to keep our bodies happy? Thankfully, the answer is no. So how do we know if stress is going to bring about adaptations that improve our training, or if it’s going to derail our training all together? Well, we have to look at the volume of stress.
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When stress is going to result in improved functioning, it’s considered productive stress. Even though it may seem weird to classify stress as productive, there are ways that you can stress your body that are beneficial. For example, keeping training dynamic can help your body continue to adapt without stressing one system to the point of exhaustion. To accomplish this, most athletes utilize cross-training and make sure to spread out really tough workouts.
It’s also important to make sure that training is increased in a gradual way. Ever meet the enthusiastic runner who was so pumped about having run their first 10k that they immediately signed up for a marathon the next month? While I rarely dissuade anyone from chasing big goals, ramping up distance that quickly is a great way to end up injured. But give yourself a couple of months to build that mileage up over time, and you’re much more likely to find yourself at the start line without a limp.
Finally, all stress needs to be followed with rest and recovery. And in all honesty, this last point is the one that I probably struggle with most. But stress can only produce the positive results of growth if the body is allowed to rest and heal; becoming stronger in the process. So if you’re tempted to run that 5th long run in a row, you need to check yourself and find a Netflix show to binge instead.
So now that we’ve covered what productive stress looks like, it’s probably not too difficult to figure out what unproductive stress might be. For starters, fast and furious jumps in training are not generally beneficial. If you got a 150 pound deadlift last week, trying to pick 200 pounds up off the floor this week is not going to yield good results (unless you enjoy not being able to go from a laying to seated position on your own).
But the unproductive stress that I think is most discounted and ignored is compounded stress. Compounded stress is when multiple, separate stressors are all present somewhat simultaneously. Those time periods where you might find yourself cursing the fact that you can’t ever catch a break.
When you’ve got stressful situations like changes at work, trying to educate your kids, and worrying about family members all going on at the same time (sound relevant?), these stressors have a way of compounding and building on one another.
Similarly, stress that lingers for too long can also be unproductive. Mostly because it doesn’t allow your body to recover, but also because it can send your body into a state of survival. If you’ve ever survived that last month of pregnancy, you know exactly what I mean. Your body stops trying to recover, and instead just focuses on keeping you alive, depriving you of any improvements in training.
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This makes the impacts of each individual stress much more significant. When you toss in something like trying to nail track workouts on top of that psychological pressure, your body is going to have a really hard time keeping up. Because as much as working out and running can be amazing stress relievers, your athletic performance will likely suffer when you’re dealing with big life stressors.
Why does this happen? Well, for a number of reasons. Hormonal changes that are caused by stress can weaken your bodies natural ability to adapt to training. Experiencing a lot of stress is also a great way to lose a lot sleep, and unfortunately most of us don’t stick to lean meats and veggies when we’re feeling anxious or frustrated. All of this (sleep issues, hormonal changes, eating too much ice cream), decreases our bodies natural adaptive abilities.
Which means that instead of repairing and rebuilding, we just keep walking around 30% broken. Have you ever noticed that you feel sore for a longer period of time when you’re in the middle of a stressful situation, like moving? This is because your body is struggling with compounded stress and isn’t recovering as efficiently as normal.
And what happens when you keep training like a maniac (because you’re feeling anxious) when your body hasn’t had the chance to recovery properly? You find yourself the proud owner of a shiny new injury! Something else to worry about! Or at the very least, you experience the joy of workouts feeling harder than they should, and getting frustrated with the amount of perceived effort.
So how do we keep training in a healthy way that doesn’t result in middle of the gym temper tantrums (a personal specialty) or overuse injury? Here’s a few tips.
Managing the Impacts of Stress on Training
- Don’t Be An Ostrich – Don’t stick your head in the sand. Be aware and mindful of the different pressures you’re facing. The more honest you are with your circumstances, the easier it is to adapt your training. Look at your total stress load, which means family life, work life, physical health, training, and finances.
- Assess Training – And I’m not talking about giving yourself something else to be critical about. Assess how you feel during training. Are you frustrated? Do workouts feel hard? Do you leave the house feeling like you have to work out, instead of wanting to work out? These are good signs that you might need to take a step back or adjust training intensity.
- Make Adjustments – For someone as type A as me, this is easier said than done. When I’ve got a training plan outlined, I tend to do everything in my power to grip onto that plan and hold it with the reverence of religious text. This has caused me unnecessary pain on more than one occasion. If life starts throwing you curve balls, don’t be afraid to turn the dial down on your workouts. Adjust intensity, duration, frequency, or volume until life levels out a bit.
- Resist Compulsion – Unless you are a professional athlete, working out is something that should be an enhancement to your life. It should be a way to feel strong, empowered, and energized. When life is more frustrating than usual, don’t feel compelled to force workouts to happen. Take breaks when you need, and come back when you feel motivated.
- Ask For Help – Again, not something I am particularly skilled with. But I have learned just how much better life can be when I ask my husband to take care of grocery shopping (and I usually get an unexpected candy bar as reward) or folding the towels. Even if you don’t have kids, surviving this life can take a village. So don’t hesitate to ask for help with things like cleaning, finances, errands, or childcare.
- Maintain Decent Nutrition – Look, I’m never going to be the girl to tell you to turn down the company of Ben & Jerry when life is rough. They’re great company. But make sure you eat enough, make room for a vegetable here and there, and don’t over do it on the alcohol.
- Get Sleep – Sleep can be hard to come by when life is chaotic, but it’s even more important. If you need a few pointers on things you can do to improve your sleep, check out this article from Helpline.
- Find Ways to Relax – I’m never going to be someone who just raves about the impacts of meditation. Even as a therapist, I’m just not a fan of it; it’s not fun for me. But I do know the benefits of taking time and giving yourself space to be quiet, write, talk to a therapist, or do something creative. Find ways to wind down so that your body isn’t in a constant state of stress.
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The world we are living in can be pretty damn exhausting. Pandemics have a way of making things hard. So while training can be a great way to manage all of the difficult things going on in the world, make sure you are checking in with yourself regularly, giving yourself grace, and utilizing a little bit of flexibility. Your body, brain, and family members will be grateful.