Stress – What does it mean for us and our training goals?
Stress is one of the biggest factors in holding back weight loss and also performance. Every single person has some form of stress in their lives.
Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our stress response. This is activated when we PB our Fran time, when we are late for picking up the kids, when you’ve missed that deadline at work, when you drop the shopping all over the floor at Tesco with two screaming toddlers in tow, when we are confronted by a burglar in our house in the middle of the night, when we win the lottery or when we crash diet.
Some of these are “good” stressors, others are “bad”. All are stimulus to the body, which it will adapt too. We all know that too much stimulus in the gym, can lead to overtraining. The same applies to stressors in general…the body will lose the ability to adapt and respond to new stimuli if we push it too hard.
The parasympathetic Nervous System is the opposite. It is activated when we are having a nap, stretching and mobilising, having an easy walk in the sun with a loved one, meditation, light easy aerobic work.
The fact is that many of us, myself included are too sympathetic dominant. We are designed to live in the wild, hunt our food and spend actually a large majority of our time eating, resting and socialising. This lifestyle is impossible today.
Our ancestors had their SNS raised every so often when faced with danger or hunting. This then receded and we went back to our PNS. Nowadays our SNS is bombarded everyday all day.
Our body doesn’t know the difference between hunting a wild animal and getting stuck on a train on the way too a big meeting. Cortisol is a hormone released in response too a stressor, it is a good hormone and essential to the body……just not when it is chronically raised as ours tend to be today.
This leads to insulin insensitivity, elevated resting heart rate, high blood pressure, systemic inflammation and an inability to process energy with the danger of slipping into diabetes, obesity and cancer further down the line. Sounds like scaremongering and a bit OTT but it is something to consider and it is all on a sliding scale.
The way we fix this is by just calming down a little bit….seriously!! Make an effort to find time too relax and unwind. Something that is easy, 30 minutes of stretching, some mobility or very easy aerobic work (rowing/walking/swimming etc). This may mean that one week you do four ‘tough’ sessions instead of six. Or you replace one session with an hour of mobility and stretching. Or maybe you replace your max effort, balls out hill sprints with an easy 30 minute run followed by 20 minutes of stretching.
We live in a culture of more is better and a quick fix. Especially within fitness. The above is why. Most of you can’t change the fact that the work or home environment can be extremely full on, what you can control however is actively trying to activate PNS and also how much ‘intensity’ you hit.
In terms of developing fitness, getting stronger, staying healthy and losing body fat harder and more is not always better. I have learned this the hard way through numerous injuries and a lot of stalled progress.
This is not to say you shouldn’t work hard and sitting on the sofa with Netflix every night will get you shredded and deadlifting 250kg……but we should all, regularly, take a look at our lives and try to assess where we can improve. Don’t let the rat race to the top (in the gym, at work, socially) crush you!!
So I guess the moral of this rather long post is that nutrition and training are not the only factors to consider in terms of progress, wether that is performance, health or aesthetically based.
Some easy assessments are:
– Do you struggle to get out of bed in the morning?
– Do you have a resting heart rate of over 70?
– Do you wake regularly in the night?
– Do you feel stressed or like you are at breaking point?
– Is motivation to train low?
If the answer is yes to some of these questions it is worth looking into implementing some of the below. We can’t just remove stressors, we have to promote our parasympathetic activation.
– Add 30 minutes of focused, thorough stretching in daily.
– Sleep in a totally blacked out room, avoid electronic devices 1-2hrs before bed.
– Make time to go for a 30-45 minute walk once or twice a week, we are lucky to live in a very pretty part of the world and in minutes you can escape the busy-ness (a word???) of town and be in the middle of nowhere – I know that we are all mega busy, but try to make this part of family life? This can also be an easy AB or row.
– If you are feeling very fatigued and physically sore (Picking up niggles/injuries, not recovering well) don’t be scared to take a week where you reduce the hours at the gym by 50% and replace it with mobility/stretching or easy rowing/walking.
– Cut down alcohol consumption, it truly is bad news in terms of recovery, digestion and inflammation and therefore performance and fat loss.
In terms of training, if you really hit a rough patch, then I would recommend taking the intensity down a bit for a short period, or add in an extra rest day or focus on technique/movement in lifting.
There are lots of factors at play in our stress responses, this hopefully gives you a good basic overview of how to manage them.
As an athlete you need to be even more on top of this stuff than the average person as being able to adapt and respond to new stressors is absolutely essential if you want to keep making progress.
A great example of this is seeing world champion weightlifters taking a full 6-12 months away from training after an olympic cycle. How often do we see anyone take any time off in the sport of fitness?
All I see on social media is athletes who have just gone through an extremely intense cycle leading into the open and then regionals going straight back into hard training cycles.
This just is not going to lead to long term progress and eventually many of these athletes will pay the price. Longevity in this game is vastly underestimated, I highly recommend you play the long game.