Stress and Running

Learn how the relationship between stress (including mental stress) and adaptation affect running performance.

By on April 30, 2013 | Comments

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

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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 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.


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
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