What can create both a positive and a negative response? Is something everybody experiences? Most people desire less of? And many people struggle to balance?
The “S” word… STRESS!
Stress Management is our fifth component of our Six Components of Sport Performance. In our daily lives, we experience both physical and emotional stress. As athletes we need physical stress in the form of “training load” to provide the stimulus from which we can improve. The key to a good training program is one that provides just the right amount of stress; not enough and we stagnate or get stuck on a plateau, too much and we get fatigued, sick or injured. Both too little or too much physical stress leads to a lack of progress in your fitness.
Emotional stress encompasses stress from work, social/family interactions, and general life stress. Deadlines at work, bills piling up, and arguments with a loved one are all examples of the emotional stress people experience in their daily lives. While it’s impossible to avoid all emotional stressors, it is important to keep them to the lowest level possible. The key point here from an athlete’s perspective is that at the end of the day stress is stress; whether it is physical (training) stress or emotional (mental) stress. All stress adds up and contributes to your ability, or inability, to recover from your training and improve your performance.
Training Stress + Life Stress
In general, the more stress you have, the more difficult it will be to train, recover, and improve. One of the largest factors that contributes to a professional athlete’s high level of performance is that they are able to organize their life in such ways to minimize their emotional (life) stress while maximizing their physical (training) stress. True ‘professional’ athletes are able to make training and racing their only job. Thereby minimizing their financial stress via sponsorships, minimize their social stressors and general life ‘overhead’.
Many struggling professionals, up-and-comers, or ‘recreational elites’ are very busy. They must maintain a job, balance a family/social life, and cultivate a much higher level of emotional stress that makes it difficult to compete with the more established professionals. Amateur athletes don’t have the luxury of mid-day workouts and time to put their feet up between training sessions. Amateur athletes must make their jobs and families priority number one and two. Subsequently, their sport takes the third or even fourth priority. 4:30am wake-up calls and/or late-night sessions squeezed in around their busy lives is a necessity. Lower training volume is almost always a result. As is also carefully (and often unsuccessfully) balancing the physical stress vs. emotional stress scale to maximize their performance.
If your emotional (life) stress is heavy, then your physical (training) stress must be lighter. It all adds up! It’s critical to pay close attention to your stress balance if you want to make continued improvement in your sport.
Chronic Stress vs. Acute Stress.
Another key piece of stress management is recognizing the different types of stress and their effects on your body. I consider chronic stress as the long term effect applied to your body. This involves your endocrine system and maintaining hormonal balances. The human body releases the hormone cortisol (among others) when under stress. Cortisol is designed to help our bodies manage brief periods of stress. However, when we put our bodies under extended periods of stress, through long, hard training sessions (physical), and/or long stressful days at work (emotional)) our endocrine system can overload our bodies with cortisol (and other stress hormones). This in turn, can disrupt your body’s natural recovery functions. With elevated cortisol levels you may experience issues including:
- Inability to recover
- Slowed tissue repair
- Digestive issues
- Weight gain
- Poor sleep
Stress Management: Your chronic stress load?
1. Get More Sleep
Sleep is perhaps the most important stress management tool. Aiming for 8-9 hours of sleep everyday is ideal. Often times, in periods of high stress, it is more valuable to skip a workout in favor of more sleep. Under periods of high stress sleeping can become difficult for many people. Practicing improved sleep techniques like a warm bath, warm drink, and relaxation before bed can assist in improving sleep.
2. Diet & Nutrition
The more you are under stress the more important a nutritious diet becomes. Eliminate the junk: sugar, fried foods, refined foods, etc. Maximize the fruits and vegetables. This should be the the focus point (read Diet & Nutrition). Maintaining stable blood sugar throughout the day with small frequent meals will help regulate proper body functions as well.
3. Relaxation Techniques
Practicing yoga, deep breathing, visualization techniques, and simply reading a book can help lower stress levels. Spend time being still and quiet.
4. Sense of Humor & Laughing
Lighten up! Surround yourself with fun people at times and smile and laugh. It’s proven to relieve stress and make you a happier person.
Acute stress is looked at more in the short term. It’s the immediate effect you experience in the hours and days following stressors; specifically physical stress. This is the immediate fatigue you may feel from a training session. Or perhaps the soreness or stiffness you may experience after a tough workout. High amounts of acute stress can occur by increasing training loads beyond what you are accustomed. These can be planned increased training loads, as in a training camp; or they can be unplanned by doing too much too soon training too far above your current fitness level.
Muscle damage, glycogen depletion, and dehydration can all contribute to high levels of acute stress. Acute stress contributes to increased chronic stress. If left unaddressed, this increased stress can lead to deep fatigue, illness, and/or injury. Always being aware of how you can recover better, and more quickly, following training sessions. This will help you get on the right track for managing your acute stress loads.
Our saying is to “Take care of your body!” We see too many people willing to spend thousands of dollars on equipment, travel and entry fees; as well as enormous amounts of time in training, yet be unwilling to spend some money on their body to keep it happy, healthy and performing at its best.
Stress Management: Your Acute Stress Load?
1. Follow a Progressive Training Program
Your training must progress gradually to avoid excessive acute stress. Following a training plan or working with a coach that will keep you on track and hold you back if you are a ‘go getter!’ Fitness is a long term commitment and can’t be rushed.
2. Recovery Nutrition
Consuming calories immediately following long and/ or intense training sessions is a critical recovery strategy. There are commercial products on the market designed specifically for this purpose. The key is to include both carbohydrates and protein in adequate amounts to begin the restoration process (see Diet & Nutrition post for more specifics).
3. Soft Tissue Massage
Massage therapy is helpful for increasing blood flow to damaged muscles and loosening adhesions of soft tissue. Two professional massage sessions a month is a worthwhile investment (weekly is even better, once a month is better than nothing). Daily self-massage (foam rollers, massage balls, massage sticks, etc.) is also time well spent and can be done before bed as part of a relaxation routine.
4. Manual Manipulation
Your body takes a beating with all the training. Take care of your body by visiting a osteopathic physician (D.O.), physical therapist (P.T.) and/or chiropractor to give your body the regular tune-ups it needs. These visits can go a long way to maintaining overall health and keeping injuries at bay.
While science will say there is no evidence that stretching actually does anything; however most people will agree that, at the very least, it feels good. Unless you are genetically hyper-flexible, including some stretching in your weekly routine will help you stay loose and maintain an effective range of motion. It is another great activity to include in your nightly relaxation routine.
Another controversial technique in the recovery equation. The verdict is still out as to whether compression actually does anything, but if you think it does then go for it! Donning compression clothing post-workouts and pneumatic ‘compression boots’ are two tools to consider including in your recovery routine.
In conclusion, stress management is a critical factor in your training progression. Work to get the balance right and you’ll better absorb your training efforts which leads to higher performance.