Is Stress Ruining Your Training?

Halfway through my 20-mile run, I was hitting the paces my coach assigned, but it was taking everything I had. It was supposed to be a moderate effort but it felt almost impossible. Lactic acid was building in my arms, my breathing was labored and, perhaps most telling of all, no part of me wanted to complete the workout.

Then I got passed and any motivation I had left crumpled. Sure, I got passed by 2:28 marathoner Nell Rojas, but getting passed still stung and I collapsed on my hands and knees.
Soon, I was sitting on a rock and reflected on my last few weeks outside of training. I ended a five-year relationship. I’ve traveled every other week since August. I found myself responsible for paying a mortgage by myself. Winter chores seem to be piling up faster than I can keep up.

In short, I’m stressed.

Athletes tend to focus on the physical aspect of training. We pay close attention to our weekly mileage, pace per mile and effort put into training. When something goes wrong, we scrutinize every aspect of our physical self, including training, recovery, nutrition, to find the cause. But often, our life outside of running holds the answer.

We usually don’t think about how life outside of running affects our abilities. While the physical act of training is a big piece of the puzzle, it’s not the whole thing by any means. The body doesn’t discern between different types of stress. It responds to all types of stress the same way. It increases stress hormones like cortisol, testosterone and adrenaline, prompts tissue inflammation, increases the heart rate and other physiological shifts that are designed to help us fight or flee from danger.

Scientist Hans Selye coined the term General Adaptation Syndrome. Selye believed that all animals, including people, follow a generalized adaptation in response to stress, including stages of alarm, resistance and recovery, which manifests as exhaustion. The degree and duration of stress, coupled with the ability to cope with stress, determines whether or not we can recover.

Stress is a reaction to a stimulus placed on the body. Some stress is good, as our bodies need a stimulus to adapt. Exercise is an excellent example of stress with benefits. When we run, we break down our muscles, which stimulates rebuilding during the recovery phase, leading to positive adaptations.

When we train, we seek the optimal level of stress that leads to improved performance. From a physical standpoint, it’s easy to determine the appropriate amount of volume, intensity, and recovery that should result in improved performance. Workout X followed by long-run Y and rest day Z should lead to improvements.

While that looks good on paper, it often doesn’t translate to real life. Other dimensions of wellness need to be taken into account when determining if and when stress produces diminishing returns rather than improvements. When we experience stress in another area of our lives, it inevitably affects us physically.

An ideal training plan will consider not just physical factors, but factors that occur outside of the running world. Trying to cram in high volume or intensity amongst a stressful workweek will not work. Even if the stress is ‘all in your head,’ it will still impact physical performance. Emotional anxiety, or any other stress for that matter, should be treated the same as physical stress in terms of how it affects the body.

You don’t have to stop training every time you encounter stress. But you should be mindful of how your body is feeling and to fit training around your life.