Stress and Running

The Physical Self

As athletes, we tend to focus on the physical aspect of training. We pay a great deal of attention to our weekly mileage, pace per mile, and effort put into running. When something goes wrong we look back at to our physical self to determine the cause of the problem. We scrutinize every aspect of our physical self, including training, recovery, nutrition, etceteras. But what about areas of our life outside of running?

We usually neglect to think of life outside of running. While the physical act of training is a big piece of the puzzle, it is by no means the only important aspect. I’ve often heard runners (myself included) talking about why a given workout or race went poorly. We usually chalk it up to being unfit or not doing the right types of workouts. Hardly ever do we consider what is going on outside of our physical self.

The Holistic Self

In terms of wellness, we cannot achieve our full potential unless we maximize our wellbeing in each of the seven dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, and occupational. Each component is interrelated and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Thus, each dimension is equally important and they influence each other in one way or another.

So, how does this relate to running? Well, since everything is interrelated we cannot separate one dimension from the next. For example, if you have a really stressful day of work and you are mentally and emotionally drained, then your physical wellbeing will also be affected. That means that the body’s ability to perform physical work, such as running, will be compromised.

Stress and Adaptation

Many years ago Hans Seyle, a scientist studying the stress response, coined the term General Adaptation Syndrome. Seyle’s model stated that all beings follow a generalized adaptation in response to stress, including stages of alarm, resistance, and recovery/exhaustion. The degree and duration of stress, as well as our ability to cope with stress determines the impact on our body.

Simply stated, stress is a reaction to a given stimulus placed on the body. Some stress is actually a good thing, as our bodies need a stimulus to adapt. Exercise is a great example of this concept. When we run, we break down our muscles, which stimulates rebuilding during the recovery phase, leading to positive adaptations.

The inverted ‘U’ relationship demonstrates the concept of optimal stress and adaptation. With too little or too much stress, the body is not able to work to its full potential. An optimal stimulus however allows the body to adapt and thrive.

Relationship between performance and stress

Image Source: http://www.mindtools.com/stress/UnderstandStress/StressPerformance.htm

Application to Training

When we train, we are seeking this ‘optimal’ level of stress that leads to improved performance. From a physical standpoint, it’s actually quite easy to determine the appropriate amount of volume, intensity, and recovery that should result in improved performance. If we do workout X and long run Y and take a rest day, we should see improvements. While that looks good on paper, it often doesn’t translate to real life. Why not? Well, because of the other dimensions of wellness. 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 stress, or any other stress for that matter, should be treated the same as physical stress in terms of how it affects the body. This doesn’t mean that every time you have a stressful encounter in your life you should stop training. It just means that you should be mindful of how your body is feeling and to fit training around your life.

As a coach, I like to know details about my athletes’ day-to-day lives when I write them a training plan. If an athlete knows he or she has a busier day I will make sure training is lighter for the day. I also encourage athletes to move workouts around to better fit their needs. Having the flexibility to structure training around life events allows the body to better handle the physical stress. Since performance is directly related to the body’s ability to adapt and recover, this is an important aspect to consider when training.

Recovery

Recovery is another aspect related to stress and training that we often neglect. Rest is something we as runners know is important, yet often disregard. However, rest is essential as it is during the recovery period when positive adaptations occur. When the body is not allowed adequate recovery, as with chronic stress, or prolonged intense exercise; fatigue, overtraining, and illness can occur. The immune system, which protects us from foreign invaders and pathogens, is actually strengthened by short exposures to stress. Chronic exposures, however, coupled with inadequate rest can compromise the immune system. Additionally, psychological stress on top of physical stress produces an additive response, further compromising the immune system. Meaning, a hard training week with little or no rest along with an emotionally stressful week further increases the chances of fatigue, illness, and overtraining. Thus, well-planned recovery and consideration of all other life events is an important part of a training plan.

Optimize Your Training

In an ideal world, we would have ample time to train and recover without any other stressors in our lives. We would go into each workout with a clear mind and be able to complete the prescribed workout. After each workout we would take the time to stretch, consume a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates and protein, get some soft tissue work done, and then rest. Right. That never happens. So what can we do? I think taking a looking at your whole self, rather than just your physical self, can help you train smarter. Be honest with yourself:

How busy are you? What is your stress level? Are you on your feet all day after a workout? Is that really good recovery?

Once you’ve examined your current lifestyle and identified the limitations and barriers, you can better plan your training. For example, you may need to cut back your mileage or intensity workouts due to your work situation. Working on your feet all day is not the same as recovery.

I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago while I was training for Nordic skiing and teaching four college-level classes. I tried to maintain my current training load while teaching eight lectures each week. Like clockwork, around midweek I would start feeling run down and get a scratchy throat. By the weekends I was so exhausted that I couldn’t train or race. I kept this routine up for a couple months, missing eight races in total due to illness. Finally one day I had a long conversation with my coach and we identified that I was trying to do too much. Lecturing on top of training everyday was too much for my body to handle. I changed my training so I was only skiing three days per week on my ‘lighter’ teaching days. Slowly I started to feel better and was able to start racing again. By the end of the season I had completely recovered and had some of my best races ever- off only three days of training each week. I was skeptical at first, but when I backed off and listened to my body, I was able to thrive. You cannot underestimate the importance of rest and being mindful of your needs.

So how can you train smarter? I would start by moving your intensity workouts to days when you can get some recovery. This may mean a lighter workday or in an afternoon after work. I’d also recommend taking at least one day completely OFF each week. I like to take Mondays off, because it allows me to recover from the weekend and allows me to start the week off rested. I also think it’s important to focus on quality over quantity- prioritize workouts and long runs over easy distance runs. If you have to cut something out, skipping the maintenance runs can allow for more recovery and allow the other runs to be quality.

Finally, be mindful of your body and what it needs. If you are tired, take a day off or cut back on mileage or intensity. If you have a stressful day, respect the toll that it takes on your body and take it easy. By paying more attention to the mind-body relationship, you can plan your training accordingly and avoid the negative consequences of too much stress.

References

Henderson RK, Snyder HR, Gupta T, Banich MT. When does stress help or harm? The effects of stress controllability and subjective stress response on stroop performance. Frontiers Psych 2012;3(179): 1-15.

Walsh NP, Gleeson M, Pyne DB, Nieman DC, Dhabhar FS, Shepard RJ, Oliver SJ, Bermon S, Kajenience A. Maintaining immune health. EIR 2011;17:64-103.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Does any of this ring true for you? If so, what beyond-running stressors do you think affect your running (and the rest of your life for that matter)?
  • What kinds of coping mechanisms do you have/use to deal with incoming stressors? Do you reschedule your workouts, decrease your mileage, go to bed early, or something else entirely?
Stephanie Howe

, a coach and nutrition consultant at REP Lab in Bend, Oregon, started competing as a nordic skier and migrated to running in college. Stephanie now balances her schedule competing as an elite runner for The North Face, working at REP Lab and teaching at Oregon State University – Cascades in their Exercise Physiology program. You can learn more about Stephanie at REPoregon.com.

There are 21 comments

  1. Jim

    The past few posts on irunfar have really helped me mentally(and in turn physically) to prepare for a couple upcoming races. After a hard weekend of running, soft tissue work yesterday, a planned 2hr run today got nixed for 30 min run. Reading this made me realize the toll changing jobs(to what I don't know) and trying to sell a house are taking on me. Still feel bad about not cranking the miles day in and day out but if tweaked right, I can be ok with it by focusing on the quality not quantity until things get ironed out.

  2. Tim Chapman

    Sometimes after a really stressful day I need the run to reset me back to normal. I would notice a decrease in speed.

  3. Eric Coppock

    Great summary! Here's a catchy way to articulate it, something I learned from an old cycling coach:

    Q: What makes you stronger?

    A: REST

    Meaning, it is only during rest/recovery that you are actually getting stronger or more capable. The *stimulus* of training or racing is the necessary prerequisite, but the physiological (holistic, really) strengthening doesn't happen until the rest period.

  4. Eric Schramm

    Great article! I've really benefited from prioritizing the weekend long runs and hard days, even if it means skipping a few maintenance runs throughout the week. I've been resting more this training cycle than ever before, and as a result, I've been able to push harder more frequently than ever before, without risking injury.

  5. Ben Nephew

    I often wonder about the potential long term effects of the stress of long ultras, or even shorter races where runners get into serious trouble. There is some great research on the epigenetics of stress, including PTSD where a single event can have long term adverse effects on gene expression. No one really knows if a bad 100 can have long term effects, and given the lack of medical relevance, it's unlikely to be studied. I think the researchers claiming that even moderately intense training has negative consequences on health are way off, but do kidneys completely recover from rhabdo? What does mild or moderate heat stroke do to your brain? In this sport where it is common for runners to seek out more and more extreme races, I think it would be wise to consider the potential costs of some of these events.

    For those interested in a really good book on stress in humans, and several other mammals, read Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. I think if you know what stress can do to you, you'll be more motivated to make meaningful changes to minimize the stress in your life and/or deal with it more effectively.

        1. Ben Nephew

          Awesome, it is. He is even more impressive in person, the rare scientist that is also a brilliant speaker. Sapolsky's autobiography, A Primate's Memoir, is a great read as well. A final suggestion is Resilience by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. I heard Dennis give a talk last year in NYC on 9/11, and his work with veterans on susceptibility and resilience to stress related disorders is fascinating. The best part was him telling the story of how his kids realized he started challenging them more often as he started to identify the backgrounds and characteristics of those who successfully endured severe stress. I haven't had time to read the book yet, but I've heard good things about it.

  6. Logan

    Great article.

    As someone who has been affected by what multiple doctors have concluded is some mixture of a stress/depression/OCD/PTSD, etc. associated mental disorder over the last 14 months+, I have found that it seems most people not only have different stress levels from outside sources but they also have different lifestyles outside of work as well as different social circles, etc. When you combine a persons overall interaction in the world both social, professional, physical you get a truly unique situation. What I have found is that it seems most runners are prone to manufacturing such a clear routine or structure to their life that sometimes things may go unnoticed for long periods which we may blow off as just a niggle here or a stressful day there. Yet, before we know it our bodies, and in my case it seems my mind, (which we all generally presume to be in well above average shape) have been neglected in some way which in turn could in some cases festered into something bigger and more neurological than any long run or tempo run can shake out.

    It seems to me that we are pushing our bodies and minds further and further in terms of physical expectations which in this day and age is a natural and almost expected in the world we have fashioned around us. But maybe the real question is: Are we pushing at a pace that our bodies and minds have cleared us to shoot for? Or are we shooting for a number that at this point in human evolution, is simply just that, a number, that though it may be physically attainable at some point it still takes the perfect concoction of evolution, time, training, nutrition and probably most importantly emotional growth and development to reach it and know that the toll it took on you, us, in the end will all be worth it.

    1. Ben Nephew

      Thanks for sharing, Logan. As I'm sure you realize, struggles with OCD and/or depression seem all too common in ultrarunning when you start to read stories and look through blogs. Those who don't have much exposure to these disorders probably don't realize it, and there is a similar parallel with eating disorders and running in general. Of course, eating disorders, depression, and OCD are often comorbid. My concern is with people not knowing the long term consequences of their actions. I don't think most young runners who develop eating disorders realize that it may have a severe impact on the rest of their lives, and they are willing to incur that cost to qualify for XC nationals. It's unfortunate that some of the more self-destructive aspects of ultrarunning are often condoned or even celebrated.

      1. LucyGK

        Ben, I agree with your comment completely – "It’s unfortunate that some of the more self-destructive aspects of ultra running are often condoned or even celebrated" – and I find it alarming that it's not just in ultra running, but in "real" life and work too – how many times have we all heard: "Oh, so and so is such a good worker, he never takes a sick day, he came in to do (insert some stupid meaningless report) last winter even with the flu (and got everybody else around him sick). Such fake-heroism is so unnecessary, harmful to the individuals and the ones around them, and sets false standards of excellence!

      2. Logan

        Thanks Ben, and yeah, spot on with that assessment. Balance in running, health, and life it seems nowadays is hard because we as runners or even coaches are still so young and naive as to the affects of pushing our bodies to the degree that distance and ultrarunners do that we are unable it seems in a lot of cases to see what the final outcome may be when you look at it over a broad number of runners/patients. It has been hard for me to treat my illness because part of me is still insistant on convincing my mind that though neurologically I may be in a fight, that my body can still continue "its" fight which I hope in turn keeps me in the right mindset to take the sickness head on and beat it. And that insistance is exactly I think what we are both trying to convey which is that these disorders(not really calling "running" a disorder, but I think you know what I mean)do infact seem to parallel themselves.

        1. KJA

          It is easy when you are young, and maybe older too, to not realize the consequences of your actions in your sport if you are driven to take it to extremes. I have paid a price large enough that I still do not truly understand it…I didn't know my limits, and I didn't know what would happen if I exceeded them. Ultrarunning seems to be a good example of this.

          I have discovered with the help of a doctor that between making sleep and excellent nutrition the highest priorities, it is possible to "treat stress" (physical and mental) to some degree. The only way I found to live with a relatively high level of stress, long and short term, is by eating and sleeping well. I think sometimes we forget that. Sleep and good food are critical during chronically high stress times! It is another good way to adjust lifestyle when you need to.

        2. Ben Nephew

          When I started to get involved in ultrarunning I soon noticed that many members of the American ultrarunning hall of fame had incredibly short careers. To say they exhibited some obsessive characteristics would be an understatement. Many current runners don't seem to be taking advantage of the lessons to be learned from studying the history of ultrarunning.

          The struggle to keep a healthy balance with running seems to be very difficult once you get to the point of diagnosable symptoms. I know several people that either can't really do their primary sport due to an ability to prevent an obsessive escalation, or just constantly struggle with the costs of their intensity. For some, trying to keep running balanced after having running related OCD issues almost seems like alcoholics trying to drink moderately.

  7. Christiane

    There is a saying "the middle path is always the best" and I have found this definitely applies to training. There has to be a balance between training and rest.

    The rest period after an arduous training session is when the body recovers, repairs the damage dome by the training and makes you stronger. This is where the actual gains take place. You have to view your life as a whole, as any stress or worries from other areas of your life will affect the benefits of any training carried out, and eventually the final performance.

  8. Michael

    Not sure if Stephanie is still checking this, but figured I'd post a quick comment and question. I'm a doctoral student and have definitely noticed my capacity for hard training (recently any sort of training) is inversely proportional to the gut-wrenching anxiety the program sometimes brings. This semester has been particularly tough; just this week finished my week-long comprehensive exams. (I passed!!!!)

    But it was bad, y'all. The whole semester was unbearably stressful…I even developed anxiety numbness in my hands. From my experience, it seems like I was bumping on the ceiling of overtraining with minimal training runs (average 30-40 miles/week) and a couple 50K's during the semester. As the exams approached, I just couldn't bring myself to spend 1-3 hours on runs…too much studying to do.

    Running became a burden to, rather than an outlet from, stress. So I listened to my body and took a break (about 2 weeks with no running, but with HIIT using kettlebells and stuff). Now that exams are over (finished a couple days ago), I just feel off. My legs are GREAT…but something feels off deep down….like at the core of my being.

    Just takes time to recover from stress like that? Would love input, either from Stephanie or the smartest group of ultrarunning comrades on the net!

    – Mike

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