What You Need to Know About Long-Term Stress and Performance
How stressed do you feel right now? Our fast-paced lifestyles come with endless sources of stress. Long hours in the office and relationship problems are two of the biggest culprits, but you can probably think of many more to add to the list.
You might not even think you're stressed. Research suggests we've become desensitised to the effects of stress. It's been accepted as the 'new normal'.
This kind of logic is detrimental. Reducing stress is one of the best things you can do for your performance in the box - as well as your overall health.
Here's everything you need to know:
What is Stress?
Stress is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, without much consideration about what it actually means.
We tend to think of stress as a "bad" thing - something we should try to avoid at all costs. But that hasn't always been the case. The stress response actually evolved to protect our hunter-gatherer ancestors from danger. So, from an evolutionary perspective, stress can be a good thing.
When your body is stressed, it switches to "fight or flight" mode. It releases a range of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This provides a boost of energy and attention - preparing the body to deal with a potential threat. It also puts other body processes, such as the immune system and digestive system, on hold to conserve energy.
This still has its place in the modern world - but only as a short-term response to an imminent threat. The problems start when we experience long-term or repeated episodes of stress.
Can Regular WODs Reduce Stress?
If you're dealing with mild to moderate stress, research suggests regular workouts can help keep it in check.
Exercise reduces cortisol, and reduces mood enhancing hormones, such as serotonin. The combined affect of these hormone changes will reduce your body's response to stress.
This explains why so many of us turn to WODs as a way to destress after a tough day. But does it always work like that?
When you experience severe, long-term stress, overtraining can actually increase your cortisol levels. This means your WODs could be adding to your stress, instead of helping you deal with it. Many people believe this is one of the key contributors to a condition known as Adrenal Fatigue.
In these situations, it might be wise to scale back your training and focus on your recovery instead. If you don't, you increase your risk of several illnesses - as well as negatively affecting performance in the box.
How Long-Term Stress Affects Performance
If the threat to your general health isn't enough to make you tackle the source of your stress, remember it will negatively impact your performance in the box, too.
There are a few key ways chronic stress can damage performance:
Stress impacts important cognitive processes, such as attention and decision making. Both of these play a key role in sport - whether you're lifting or WODing.
As well as this, there's evidence to suggest you're more likely to feel anxious if you're stressed. This can negatively affect your mindset too, increasing the likelihood of negative self-talk and overthinking.
We've already discussed the way stress interferes with your hormonal balance - but what does that mean for performance?
The physical symptoms manifest themselves differently according to the individual. For example, stress may cause increased muscle tension, which can interfere with your ability to move well when you train.
One of the key physical symptoms of stress is fatigue. We all know how difficult training feels when we're tired, so it goes without saying that long-term fatigue will negatively impact performance. When you physically can't give the workout 100%, you're never going to get the maximum benefit.
The impact of stress on sleep is well documented. It can reduce both the quantity of sleep and the quality, depending on the individual.
We already know how important sleep is for recovery between WODs, so it goes without saying that long-term stress will impact your recovery.
Stress also shuts down many of your body's restorative processes, which further impacts recovery. This could mean your body doesn't repair itself sufficiently between workouts, increasing the risk of injury.
How to Deal With Stress
Stress management is another key factor to consider, along with mobility, recovery and nutrition, as part of your training regime. Long-term stress won't do you any favours in the box, but can also increase the risk of many illnesses - so shouldn't be ignored.
Stress management looks different for everyone, but here are a few recommendations to get you started:
- Avoid overtraining - consider cutting back your training volume slightly whilst you work on reducing the stress.
- But keep moving - regular exercise has been consistently linked to stress reduction. Consider reducing the intensity, but keep moving!
- Put sleep first - make sure you're getting enough sleep. If you're not, make it a priority.
- Spend time outdoors - research suggests time in nature can be an effective way to reduce stress.
- Deal with the source - stress management techniques will be ineffective long-term unless you deal directly with the cause.