The problem with non-training stress and some ways to fix it
Training consists of repeated cycles of overload and recovery that eventually result in positive adaptations, such as increased muscle mass, increased endurance and so forth. Many things interfere with this cycle that may prevent the athlete from making positive adaptations. Stress originating from sources outside the exercise/training domain (non-training stress), from occupation for instance, can cause that balance to tip towards overload, thus rendering the recovery side inadequate. When athletes fail to recover adequately, they are overtraining. Thus “non training” stress can cause an athlete to overtrain without that athlete increasing training volume or frequency. This is an important point to be aware of, especially for athletes who are balancing other high priorities, such as a job, or those going through a stressful life event.
The complexity of how non-training stress contributes to overtraining in athletes is not fully understood but we have an idea of how it probably happens. Briefly, we (humans, not just athletes) perceive “threats” (stressors) which trigger biological events in our bodies, of which the neuroendocrine system is the primary catalyst. Some of these events are quick to begin (the fight or flight response), while others are much slower (Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis activation). Both types of events require energy. They cause things (catecholamines, glucocorticoids) to be released into the bloodstream, which affect the break down and storage of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein), and also to “clean up”, in which those things in the bloodstream are packed up and put away. So, when an athlete, going about in his/her civilian identity, perceives a string of small “threats” over the course of a typical day (cut off in traffic, computer hiccups causing data to disappear, vehicle gets a flat, etc), the neuroendocrine system goes into action for each threat, catalyzing both quick and slow biological events. This equates to a lot of energy being drained without the athlete (still in civilian mode) having to lift a single weight OR run any distance. Here’s the real kicker, those biological events governed by the neuroendocrine system ALSO contribute to energy production during vigorous exercise. So, this athlete, having drained a significant amount of energy dealing with small stressors all day, will find, much to his/her dismay, that the well is dry when its time to workout or perform at practice that evening, especially if it calls for vigorous intensity activity. If this day is repeated enough, the athlete may fall into a state of overtraining, where adaptations will not occur, or worse, chronic underperformance does.
The Overtraining Syndrome remains an enigma as far as identifying and/or diagnosing it but there are many strategies athletes can employ to prevent it. One is to practice stress management techniques. Note the word practice. Stress management is not a pill or a quick cure, individuals wanting to reduce stress in their life must practice stress management skills with discipline, patience, and awareness.
Here are some ways:
Keep a stress journal; take a few minutes periodically each day to write down the stressful situations you encountered. These situations don’t have to be life or death; they are anything that caused a stress reaction in you, even if it was only for a few seconds. The idea is to write these in a stress journal, along with how you reacted, how you felt after you reacted, and if your reaction was helpful or not. When we keep a stress journal, we soon begin to recognize situations that routinely cause stress. We can then identify those behaviors/reactions that were beneficial and those that were detrimental. This can go a long way in coping or even avoiding stressful situations.
Positive thinking, Rather than fretting for minutes or hours over something that caused you to feel angry, frustrated, melancholy, or unappreciated, switch those thoughts to something positive. Here’s an example: rather than fuming as you sit in traffic because you will be late for an appointment, look on the bright side, now you have some time to relax, put that Spanish lesson CD in and catch up on your Spanish lessons, or put on some pleasant music. You have been given a gift, would you have taken that extra time for yourself later?
Acceptance; ultimately, we can manage to avoid most stressful situations but some things are beyond our control. In that case, sometimes the best way to cope is to shrug and say out loud, “and such is the way of things” or “and so it goes”. You may be surprised at how much relief a simple phrase or rather the simple act of acceptance can bring.
There are more techniques people use to manage stress as well as helpful resources here and here. Remember, just like improving your jump shot, or your running technique, implementing stress management skills takes practice. You may need to start with small steps but mastering stress management techniques can lead to long term health and performance benefits.
As always, if you have had success with any type of stress management technique please share. Hope this helps and thanks for reading!
Looking for guidance in improving your athletic performance? Better yet, ready to make a change in your life? I help folks eat, move, and recover well, contact me here to set up a free consult!
Published by mattktraining
I am currently the Owner of my soloprenuerial company Matt K Training. Through my fitness and nutrition programs I help adults develop skills and practices that help them eat, move, and recover well. Over the past 20 years, in various roles such as a Personal trainer, Exercise Physiologist, Clinical Researcher, and Health Coach I have helped hundreds of adults reach their health and physical performance goals. When not working, I enjoy active pursuits such as playing right field for the Charlton Giants (in a 38+ competitive baseball league), playing tennis, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing. I also enjoy indoor activities such as playing strategy board games, reading and discussing science fiction literature, dabbling with my guitar, finding creative ways to eat oatmeal, and being a good dad.