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One of the most important things to know about stress is that it’s non-specific. That means that regardless of the source, stress is stress. Challenges at work can impact your performance in your next long run just like high training stress can impact how you’re showing up for your partner or your family. It’s all connected. If stress is present in high amounts or for long periods of time then your body and mind are going to be affected.
Stress isn’t something that should be avoided at all costs. In fact, up to a certain point stress can be productive having positive influences on things like energy levels and focus. However, if stress progresses and prolongs then your stress-fighting resources will eventually become depleted particularly impacting hormone levels and things like cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormones. The implications of this can be pretty serious causing things like fatigue, loss of motivation and joy, injury, and sickness.
Stress: Demand vs. Available Resources
The best way to think about how stress shows up in your life and running is to make sure that you’re operating in a harmonious balance in which you have the resources needed to meet the demands you’re facing. When assessing how stress is showing up in your life, take stock of your total stress load. That means you need to consider training stress, competition stress, life stress, work stress, and family stress. None of them occur in a vacuum and, instead, are all variables in the same equation.
It’s also important to notice that not all sources of stress are negative, but still need to be accounted for. Whether you’re low on sleep after a recent foray into parenthood or nailing your highest weekly volume during a peak week in preparation for your next ultra, you’re still going to feel the effects of those efforts even though they are positive things. We have all a limited number of resources available and when we start to run low due to the demands in one area of our life, we are going to feel the effects in other areas.
One way to improve your ability to better tolerate and manage stress is to increase the number of coping resources you have available. I’ve broken down some effective coping skills based on the way stress is affecting you. Do you feel it in your body? Is it impacting your ability to focus or think? Is it hampering your ability to get things done? Stress hits everyone differently and it’s important to have a broad set of tools to manage whatever way it shows up.
Physiological Coping Strategies
One of the most common ways you can experience stress overload is through physiological symptoms. This materializes as symptoms like increased heart rate, pressure in your chest, quicker breathing, sweaty or clammy palms, and tighter muscles. These physical sensations are very real and are a result of your ‘flight or fight’ response or your sympathetic nervous system being revved up.
This stress response was developed as a human survival mechanism and it serves an important purpose. However, it’s not something that was designed or intended to be ‘on’ for long periods of time. Without the ability to turn it off or at least turn down the volume, many negative implications are possible. An effective way to track physiological stress is with heart rate variability or HRV.
While your heart rate is measure in beats per minute, heart rate variability is a reflection of how much your heart rate varies throughout the day. While you think of lower heart rates as being consistent with healthy individuals, when it comes to HRV we are looking for higher numbers. That suggests that our HR varies quite a bit during a period of time, indicating that you’re an active individual who exercises but also implements recovery periods where the heart rate is low. While a lower HRV measurement in a sedentary person might be a result of lack of exercise, when we see that in an athlete or active person, it usually indicates that the body is under some kind of stress that is preventing proper recovery. A lower measurement here and there could indicate the need for an extra rest day or suggest that your body is fighting off a cold or some other sickness. But, more prolonged periods of lower HRV typically suggests that stress is too high.
Slow breathing is an extremely effective way to disengage your sympathetic nervous system, promote relaxation and recovery, and increase HRV. The gold standard is 20-minute per day, but you can break it up into smaller breathing sessions. The idea is to slow your breathing to 10-second breath cycles or six breaths per minute. Personally, I like a 4-second inhale followed by a 6-second exhale, but you can play around with your ratio to see what feels most comfortable.
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Behavioral Coping Strategies
Stress doesn’t just impact how you feel, it can influence how you act. You can experience lack of focus or motivation, negative moods or short temper, or failure to eat and sleep as much as you need to. Not only are these behaviors unproductive for your goals, but they have a negative influence both on you and the people around you.
Structure and routine are great ways to combat stress. As someone that balances time between multiple commitments like training, working, running an LGBTQ organization, and making time for personal relationships, I often feel like I’m being pulled into multiple different directions. Compartmentalizing my day has had a profound impact on my levels of stress. I break up my day into a consistent schedule in which time is allotted for each of my various commitments. Whatever thing I’m focusing on at any given point gets my full effort and attention. However, when it’s time to move to the next thing, I try to leave behind any worry or anxiety associated with my previous commitment so that it doesn’t bleed into what I’m doing next. If there’s something you didn’t get to, write it down and get to it tomorrow.
Cognitive Coping Strategies
Lastly, stress also impacts thoughts and cognitive processing. Even if you’ve committed to putting your physical effort and attention somewhere, your mind could be somewhere totally different. Mindfulness practice is a wonderful tool for being present and preventing your thoughts from straying to unproductive or unpleasant places.
Self-talk strategies are another effective way to manage the cognitive impact of stress. Your inner dialogue serves guideposts for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Make sure it’s directing you to someplace that you actually want to go. You can dive deeper into self-talk in a previous article, but the main takeaway is that it is something you should be paying attention to.
Stress is inevitable. Actually, stress is necessary! But, only in the right amount and at the right time. Take some of these coping strategies into your life and make sure you’re controlling stress and it’s not controlling you.
Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance.