Don’t Stress Out: Understanding Training Stress

Understanding the elements of purposeful stress and then recovery in endurance run training.

By on May 1, 2018 | Comments

During the 1940s, in a laboratory at Quebec’s Université de Montréal, scientist Hans Selye discovered stress—our body’s primal reaction to infection, harsh environmental conditions, threatening situations, and/or physical and mental challenges. Selye named his theory of stress the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). In essence, GAS has three phases. The first stage is punctuated by alarm, the realization of real or imagined danger. In the second phase, the body and mind work to overcome or adapt to the threat. During the final and third stage, unless the danger abates, total depletion and exhaustion, rather than recovery, dominate. Imagine the roller coaster at your county fair. After several rides, you’d familiarize yourself with the loops and dives. However, what if the ride never stopped? What if it morphed into the Six Flags’s Kingda Ka with its nonstop hair-raising twists and turns? You’d likely be a shaking, emotional mess. The same deleterious nosedive would happen if we continually subjected ourselves to hard running day after day.

Since Selye’s discovery, running coaches around the world have built successful programs based on the GAS model. Plans developed using the periodization method build endurance, speed, and strength through stress, but the athlete is prevented from entering the completely exhausted/depleted final GAS stage. By incrementally introducing stress in the form of running workouts and allowing adequate recovery, the runner gradually grows accustomed to race-specific efforts as they near a goal event. After the race and a short layoff, the cycle begins again. In their book, Better Training for Distance Runners, David Martin, Ph.D. and Peter Coe sum up periodization this way: “The training life of an athlete is a constant cycle of hard work (with fatigue), recovery (with regeneration), improvement in performance (for a brief period), and a brief layoff (for mental and physical rest) to permit another cycle to repeat.” This system works only through a strategically arranged, well-rounded approach alongside an athlete who can accept and adapt to shifts in training due to work, family, or health issues.


The preparations for an important goal race can last for months. Therefore, proper scheduling is paramount in every training plan. Stress is good; it keeps us alert, spirited, and engaged, and it also helps us meet challenges. However, continual exposure to grueling workouts can produce chronic stress. Habitual training pressure disrupts every system in our body, eventually causing a litany of health issues. Common stress-related complaints include: constant inflammation and soreness, stress-hormone elevation and disruption, a suppressed immune system, connective-tissue wear and tear, everyday inhibiting fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, headache, diarrhea, dizziness, increased resting heart rate, loss of sleep and sex drive, and leaden legs. All of these are symptoms of an improper recovery from a heavy training cycle or race. Left untreated, these negative side effects can lead to an athlete’s undoing.

In order to properly parse out stressors, training is broken into organized, manageable chunks. The technical phrasing and descriptions for these scheduling phases are as follows:

  • Macrocycle: This term describes the entire training cycle and build-up to a significant goal race. This could be an entire year of running and racing or simply the necessary time needed to achieve maximal fitness.
  • Mesocycle: This block of training lasts between 2 to 8 weeks. It’s separated, typically, by time trials, very tough training bouts, or a competition. The subsequent training evolves depending on the feedback gathered by these tests.
  • Microcycle: A 7- to 14-day rotation of intensive training.

The goal is akin to climbing stairs, with each ensuing cycle building on the last. However, the height of each consecutive step varies on the athlete’s response to the previous training.


A coach modifies the height of her or his runner’s steps by varying each workout’s volume, intensity, and frequency while considering the athlete’s objectives, goal-race variables, and physical and mental ability to recover. Martin and Coe appropriately describe the seven training ingredients that can be altered to contribute to whole-body fitness, injury prevention, and race-readiness.

  • Aerobic conditioning: The bulk of our running, easy and long runs, fall into this category. Endurance-building preparations include an increase in capillary and mitochondria number and size, proficiency at burning fat, and more effectively storing muscle and liver carbohydrate.
  • Anaerobic conditioning: Stamina-building runs, like tempo runs, last between 20 to 40 minutes and reach efforts of a marathon or half-marathon. This training improves lactate threshold, perfecting our ability to run at a steady pace for a longer period of time.
  • Aerobic-capacity training: We are working much harder here and doing shorter bouts (2 to 8 minutes) of speed-based running that improve VO2 max. VO2 max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can use during intense exercise. The more oxygen we utilize during hard bouts of exercise, the higher our VO2 max and the more power produced during a workout.
  • Anaerobic-capacity training: This is all-out running lasting for 10 to 60 seconds. These workouts enhance the body’s ability to run very fast when the muscles are inundated with lactic acid and improve running economy by developing the coordination between the muscles and the nervous system. You can do these workouts on hills, too.
  • General mobility: Stretching and flexibility work allow the muscles to relax and lengthen, increasing range of motion and promoting circulation.
  • Circuits and weights: Running-specific strengthening exercises can retrain lazy muscles to work efficiently and quickly fatigued muscles to act with more power, build trunk stability, and fine-tune motor skills. Common examples are core exercises (planks, crunches, side-lying single-leg lifts), balance exercises, squats, jump rope, and lunges.
  • Health maintenance: Wellness care includes massage, ultrasound, Active Release Therapy, proper nutrition, blood-chemistry testing, gait analysis, VO2-max analysis, and sports-psychology support.


Unfortunately, even with the best training schedule in hand, we can still overreach. Unpredictable, intangible stressors often influence our stress pie, throwing a wrench into our plans. Inevitably, we’ll need to recognize and deal with real-life speed bumps like:

  • Obstacles: Setbacks like illness, injury, and lack of motivation can wreak havoc on what was once the best training cycle.
  • Personal responsibilities: Workouts take the back seat to bigger priorities like family, work, and friends.
  • Rate of adaptation: We’re not getting any younger. What worked training-wise 10 years ago will undoubtedly need some tweaking.

Sculpting a realistic yet challenging training plan can be daunting. However, by navigating the stress cycle carefully, remaining flexible, and understanding that hiccups arise in most training blocks, you’ll be better at adjusting your plan on the fly and getting back to the meat of your training as quickly as possible.


  • Martin, David E., and Coe, Peter N. Better Training for Distance Runners. Human Kinetics, 1997. Print.
  • “Hans Selye.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Apr. 2018,
  • “Sports Periodization.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Apr. 2018,

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What elements of the stress-recovery training cycle do you do well at, and which elements are harder for you?
  • Of the seven ingredients of successful endurance training, which do you incorporate the most and the least into your own efforts?
  • What about the influences of the rest of life on your training? How adaptable are you to incoming life issues as they happen?
Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at