TRAINING: How to manage stress and your workouts

TRAINING: How to manage stress and your workouts

The world is full of stressors: toxins, lack of sleep, emotional outbursts (that nasty boss or evil-eyed spouse!), physical exertion and more.

Every time we are subjected to stress our mind switches into a state controlled by a part of your nervous system called the  “sympathetic nervous system” – our “fight or flight” response. The system will stay in this state until it receives a convincing signal that the threat has dissipated. Your mind then switches into the para-sympathetic state (rest/digest or feed/breed!) which consists of two separate stages:

  1. First is Repair where the immediate situation is dealt with (tissue repair begins, stress hormones are flushed out etc.).
  2. After this phase there tends to be a very brief deterioration of well-being – almost like a little “test” (we’ll speak more of this later) of the system – before the final stage of Rebuild begins. This stage is where we get stronger – were a broken bone grows back stronger than the bone tissue around it that was not damaged and so on.

Unfortunately, our body cannot exist in the two states of fight/flight and rest/digest simultaneously and sometimes we either stay in the stressed state too long or we get hit by a second stressor before we have completed the Repair and Rebuild processes. When this happens the previous repair process is disrupted and incomplete and you return weaker overall as an organism. If you continue doing this you will wear away your well-being and fitness brick by brick. Over-training syndromes are related to a failure to complete the Repair/rebuilt process or of staying in the “sympathetic” (fight/flight) stage for too long.

Lorraine Moller, co-founder of the Lydiard Foundation, had a simple outlook on this that helped her run at the top of the women’s marathon scene for almost 19 years and win her an Olympic Bronze medal: “A lot of my best workouts were done on the couch,” she said. A 1 hour “snooze” after a 1-hour hard workout is really just the second part of the workout. Without this rest, your work is not complete.

the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system
The functions and effects of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system

How to optimise performance by managing your stress

So the tip of the day in relation to the topic of stress is this: let the Repair/Rebuilt process run its full course before you heap on more stress. The greatest problem facing us in modern life is artificial stress and stimulants such as caffeine. When you feel yourself getting tired and sluggish, even a bit ill, fight the temptation to try to “pep yourself up” – just let yourself dose down, close those blinds or take that snooze. It is not always an option but drowsiness and tiredness after stress or exercise should be embraced – not fought.

We have a certain expectation that we should always be fresh and alert but this is not achievable if you work hard and train hard. You need times of low energy where you allow yourself to be sluggish, lazy and just do nothing, sleep or hang around leisurely (any activity that involves a blue screen does not count!). Athletes feel guilty for these periods of laziness. I only have one word of advice for them: DON’T!

There’s a reason Percy Cerutty and his athletes, who trained three times per day, also enjoyed a long midday sleep. Similarly, we found in our experience on Club La Santa that it is no problem to do 3-5 sessions per day – as long as you do nothing but sleep, eat and lounge in between. If that is not your daily life, then you must adjust your training accordingly.

Read more about the “perfect athletic day” as designed by Cerutty here

Famous American marathoner Bill Rodgers provides a particularly exemplary view on how to embrace your recovery from stress: whenever he felt the slightest hint of a cold or any other ailment, he would leave work, go home, put on his pyjamas and stay in bed for 24 hours or however long it would take him to recover. Like with anything else in Bill’s career, there were no half-measures – no “half-recovery”. He understood, intuitively, what many have forgotten – most everyday illnesses are part your body’s way to heal or to force you to heal (sometimes this system goes badly wrong – because of chronic stress – leading to chronic diseases). So when his body wanted to heal – he let it do it. And he came back stronger for it. This does not necessarily suit the machismo culture that exists in many training minds. Understand: we are not trying to turn you into hypochondriacs – merely to allow yourself to rest when you are clearly not fresh.

What it means for your workouts

Oddly the time the body needs to spend in parasympathetic state seems to be very similar to the time that it spend in sympathetic state. So if you have been under hard stress for 1 hour, it will take about 1 hour of easier activity later to balance that out. In the case of workouts it can be a little bit more complicated because most of the body’s cellular repair happens from 22:30 to 2:30 in the morning.

To ensure you get optimal recovery from stress you can follow these easy guidelines:

  1. Estimate how many hours of any given day you are significantly stressed. Plan in about equal easy hours over the course of the day
  2. Go to bed so you are fast asleep at around 22:30 whenever possible
  3. Start to slow down your evening and get away from technology no later than 20:00
  4. Ensure your evening meal is rich in protein, zinc and magnesium which will help repair and support a restful sleep
Example A: An athlete does a morning workout of 60 minutes (mildly but positively stressful), has a relaxing shower and breakfast (1 hour) before a stressful drive in rush-hour traffic (1 hour) and a hectic morning meeting (2 hours) followed by a nice lunch (1 hour). Most of the afternoon is quiet work until an angry phone call (1 hour). Then follows commute and pick-up of kids (an hour and a bit quite stressful) before a nice social family dinner and downtime (3 hours).
A day like the above includes about 5 hours of stress (fight/flight response) and 5 hours rest/digest as well as some hours with a bit of both. By the time bed-time is reached, the stress of the day should be managed and the athlete in the example should get a good sleep. But consider this:
Example B: An athlete does a morning workout of 60 minutes rushed in before work (stressful throughout thinking of the clock ticking), he hurries through a shower, grabs a breadroll and runs out the door before an angry commute in rush-hour traffic (1.5 hours) and a hectic morning meetings (2 hours) followed by a working lunch. By afternoon, he is wrecked and tops up with coffee before an angry phone call and several hours of struggling to stay awake at the desk. He gets out late to pick up the kids, manages half an hour at the dinner table before checking emails for an hour in preparation of the next days meeting and then sneaks to bed in the late hours.
You don’t have to tally the count to see that there is little balance between the two systems in our second example and that most of the stress in the later example will not be dealt with – Example B will enter the second day weaker while Example A will be stronger. Even worse, even if Example B got more work done, it will not last very long. As he or she burns the candle at both ends, she will soon lose effectiveness – like a car without maintenance. This is the same reason that hard training days are generally followed by easy – to balance stress and recovery – and why two hard days are often followed by three easy days (because cumulative stress is more damaging than single stressors because you do not fully repair in between sessions of cumulative stress).
Watch out for our upcoming series of webinars on how to manage stress in life and athletics.

The curious case of “business man’s flu”

The stress response explains the strange experience that many busy businessmen (and women) have these days. You rush to finish your work in the days before a holiday (your boss has probably given you unrealistic deadlines and long hours to ensure everything is finished before you go – thus nullifying many benefits of the break coming up) and you do your packing, planning and other practical work last minute.

Businessman's flu
Businessman's flu!

In this situation, your body has very likely been in stress mode for the majority of the days or weeks going into the holiday. The moment you arrive on that nice sandy beach or pretty mountain chalet, your mind recognises that the “threat” is now over. This trigger the end of the stress response (including all the adrenaline and other fighting hormones that go with it) and the beginning of the repair and rebuilt response. Naturally, your energy levels sink and you may even get a mild illness that is just a symptom of your body repairing itself (I will not go into the complex biochemistry of this here). This is called “businessman’s flu” and often lasts at least 3 days. At the other end of the holiday, you often get a second stress response as you remember that you “have to go back to normal life” – in essence meaning you recover less and stress more in the final days of the holiday. Carpe diem!



But isn’t some stress good?

But don’t we humans need stress to get stronger and survive? Isn’t there some good stress. There is in fact an important distinction to make on stress invented by the brilliant Hans Selye. Stress can be differentiated as bad (distress) and good (eustress) and this is how you can tell the difference:

  • Eustress: Anything you perceive as a positive challenge
  • Distress: Anything you perceive as a negative threat
So how you perceive what happens to you is a very important part of how damaging the stress is to your body.
Also, if we were never stressed, we would never get stronger and tougher. Humans are not meant to live in cocoons. Our society has gotten dangerously close in some ways with air-conditioning, central heating, cushioned shoes, rain-proof jackets and inactive lifestyles. This means we lose a lot of positive stressors (eustress) that used to make us tougher and healthier while at the same time being subjected to more negative stress (distress).
Distress and eustress
For every stressor there is an optimal level for more health and performance. Too little and we get fragile, too much and we get crushed!
Both eustress and distress, however, require time to adapt from. If you expose yourself to so much eustress that you begin to break down then it will quickly turn into distress. But having a positive attitude to life’s challenges greatly reduces the amount of distress you face and increases the eustress.
We often see this distinction when runners try something that is new and extreme to them – perhaps running barefoot on tarmac to strengthen their technique. This can be eustress if done correctly and in the right dose. If the athlete is tired or overwhelmed, however, a negative emotional response forms to the experience and the exercises becomes distressing. It’s important that you design workouts so that they feel like “positive challenges” and not “negative threats”. But you must adopt a positive attitude and some sense of adventurousness – otherwise you’ll never progress outside the comfort zone. And no greatness ever happened in the comfort zone…
To read more about why some stress makes us stronger check out René’s article “Anti-fragile”
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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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