October 11, 2020

How To Balance Stress And Training


“I was feeling really stressed today, so I ran hard.” 

We’ve heard it so often that it’s almost an inside joke among coaches. The fact is that the body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. It can’t really differentiate between a tough tempo or a rough day at the office. It’s important to consider life stress in the context of training if you want to reach your potential and avoid burnout and injury. 

But, to advance in training we necessarily need a little bit of stress. Here’s how to adapt and approach your training to manage and distribute stress in a sustainable way for better long term physical and mental health. 

Breaking It Down

There are two main types of stress, musculoskeletal and systemic. Musculoskeletal stress is the breakdown of muscles, tendons and bones that happens when you run. We want a little bit of breakdown in training – that’s how our bones and muscles build back stronger. But, if you step onto the wrong side of that delicate balance those smaller breakdowns can turn into much larger overuse injuries. 

Systemic stress happens because running causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol, a stress hormone. During exercise, cortisol helps regulate glucose concentration in the blood which allows the body to burn energy efficiently. A little cortisol is good, but too much can cause a cascade of physiological and psychological issues. 

It usually starts with a decrease in performance that you might notice throughout your day outside of running. You might feel winded walking up the stairs or bending over. Your sleep might be disrupted or experience leg cramps in bed. If you keep pushing your cortisol levels without sufficient rest and recovery, you could end up headed towards adrenal fatigue or overtraining syndrome. 

Your first line of defense against excessive stress and unproductive training is sleep. Sleep is when your body balances out hormones and can clear some of the cortisol released throughout the day. If you’re not getting enough sleep, not only is your body unable to regulate the cortisol it already has, but can even release more. When athletes are feeling the push and pull of life stress, quality sleep is often the first thing to go, which leads to diminishing returns in training. For my part, I’d rather athletes skip a run to catch up on sleep than sacrifice those zzz’s for sloggy, unproductive training.

Training Stress and Life Stress

Running isn’t the only activity that causes your body to release cortisol. A tough meeting or a challenging workday can release cortisol just like a set of hill strides. When it comes to systemic stress, your body can’t tell the difference between the miles or meetings you’re running. 

That’s why it’s impossible to copy another athlete’s training regimen and expect similar results. Your Strava hero might have a two-hour nap blocked out on their Google Calendar while you’re trying to wrestle your kiddos into napping. Since your levels of systemic stress are different, your training responses should be different too. That doesn’t mean you have less of an opportunity to reach your potential. The key to quality, consistent training is working with the ebb and flow of life stress, not against it. 

It’s worth noting that not all sources of stress are negative, but they still need to be taken into account.

My friend and champion mountain runner Ashley Brassovan says she conceives of her stress as a pie. If one part of the pie, for example, her work as an energy consultant for Colorado municipalities, starts to grow, she needs to reduce her stress in training. Conversely, when she needs to nail a higher volume training week or prep for an FKT, she knows to rearrange her work and travel schedule to accommodate less stress. You only have a certain amount of stress you can tolerate, and if you tip the scale a little too far, the result can be burnout or injury. 

Your ability to manage and positively cope with stress can change over time, and we’ll go over some strategies for that later. The most important immediate step you can take when facing stress is to reduce your training volume. 

When In Doubt, Reduce!

Your training must be tailored to fit the realities of your life. Your training plan should complement your life plan, otherwise, you’ll end up feeling frustrated with both. 

When you’re feeling the push and pull of life’s demands, since we often don’t have as much control over what’s going on at work and home, we can adapt our training. When you’re stressed, be extra disciplined about taking easy days easy. Consider dropping intensity from your week and focus on easy running and aerobic work. While it may feel good in the short term to end a stressful day with an all-out run, that effort will undermine your ability to recover and compounds the systemic stress you’re experiencing with musculoskeletal stress. 

Different bodies respond to stress differently. Fatigue isn’t a lack of mental toughness or fitness and is usually your body’s way of saying HEY PLEASE COOL IT I AM VERY STRESSED LET’S PLEASE REST PLEASE. 

Physiological Coping Strategies For Stress

Most people will experience stress overload through physiological symptoms like increased heart rate, chest pressure, rapid breathing, sweaty or clammy palms and tight muscles. That’s your sympathetic nervous system, your “flight or fight” response kicking in. 

This response is an evolutionary survival mechanism, and it serves an important purpose. But, it’s not designed or healthy to be activated all the time. One way to turn that physical response off is to practice slow breathing. You can try square breathing or478 breathing.

Instead of being reliant on running as your only or primary coping mechanism for stress reduction, focus on building out a more robust stress management toolbox with things like meditation, yoga and grounding techniques

Stress is inevitable. It’s a necessary part of life, but only in the right amounts and at the right time. Learning to recognize and work with the stress you have going on will benefit you as a human, and as an athlete.