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V. Stress Management (Recovery)

What can create both a positive and a negative response, is something everybody experiences, most people desire less of, and many people struggle to balance?

The “S” word… STRESS!

Stress Management is our fifth component of our Six Components of Sport Performance. In our daily lives, we experience both physical and emotional stress. As athletes we need physical stress in the form of “training load” to provide the stimulus from which we can improve. The key to a good training program is one that provides just the right amount of stress; not enough and we stagnate or get stuck on a plateau, too much and we get fatigued, sick or injured. Both too little or too much physical stress leads to a lack of progress in your fitness.

Emotional stress encompasses stress from work, social/family interactions, and general life stress. Deadlines at work, bills piling up, and arguments with a loved one are all examples of the emotional stress people experience in their daily lives. While it’s impossible to avoid all emotional stressors, it is important to keep them to the lowest level possible. The key point here from an athlete’s perspective is that at the end of the day stress is stress, whether it is physical (training) stress or emotional (mental) stress. All stress adds up and contributes to your ability, or inability, to recover from your training and improve your performance.

Combining both your physical stress from your training and emotional stress from your life provides your complete ‘stress score.’

In general, the more stress you have, the more difficult it will be to train, recover, and improve. One of the largest factors that contributes to a professional athlete’s high level of performance is that they are able to organize their life in such ways to minimize their emotional (life) stress while maximizing their physical (training) stress. True ‘professional’ athletes are able to make training and racing their only job, minimizing their financial stress via sponsorships, minimize their social stressors and general life ‘overhead’.

Many struggling professionals, up-and-comers, or ‘recreational elites’ must maintain a job, balance a family/social life, and cultivate a much higher level of emotional stress that makes it difficult to compete with the more established professionals. Amateur athletes don’t have the luxury of mid-day workouts and time to put their feet up between training sessions. Amateur athletes must make their jobs and families priority number one and two and their sport takes the third or even fourth priority. 4:30am wake-up calls and/or late-night sessions squeezed in around their busy lives is a necessity. Lower training volume is almost always a result, as is also carefully (and often unsuccessfully) balancing the physical stress vs. emotional stress scale to maximize their performance. If your emotional (life) stress is heavy, then your physical (training) stress must be lighter. It all adds up! It’s critical to pay close attention to your stress balance if you want to make continued improvement in your sport.

 As athletes, we look at stress in two ways: chronic stress and acute stress.

Another key piece of stress management is recognizing the different types of stress and their effects on your body. I consider chronic stress as the long term effect applied to your body. This involves your endocrine system and maintaining hormonal balances. The human body releases the hormone cortisol (among others) when under stress. Cortisol is designed to help our bodies manage brief periods of stress, but when we put our bodies under extended periods of stress (through long, hard training sessions (physical), and/or long stressful days at work (emotional)) our endocrine system can overload our bodies with cortisol (and other stress hormones) that can disrupt your body’s natural functions. With elevated cortisol levels you may experience issues including fatigue, inability to recover, slowed tissue repair, digestive issues, weight gain, poor sleep, anxiety, and depression among other things.

How can you improve or lower your chronic stress load?

1. Get More Sleep

Sleep is perhaps the most important stress management tool. Aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep everyday is ideal. Often times, in periods of high stress, it is more valuable to skip a workout in favor of more sleep. Under periods of high stress, sleeping can become difficult for many people. Practicing improved sleep techniques like a warm bath, warm drink, and relaxation before bed can assist in improving sleep.

2. Diet & Nutrition

The more you are under stress, the more important a nutritious diet becomes. Eliminate the junk (sugar, fried foods, refined foods, etc.) and maximize the fruits and vegetables should be the the focus points (read my Diet & Nutrition article). Maintaining stable blood sugar throughout the day with small frequent meals will help regulate proper body functions as well.

3. Relaxation Techniques

Practicing yoga, deep breathing, visualization techniques, and simply reading a book can help lower stress levels. Spend time being still and quiet.

4. Sense of Humor & Laughing

Lighten up! Surround yourself with fun people at times and smile and laugh. It’s proven to relieve stress and make you a happier person.

 

Acute stress is looked at more in the short term. It’s the immediate effect you experience in the hours and days following stressors (specifically physical stress). This is the immediate fatigue you may feel from a training session, or the soreness or stiffness you may experience after a tough workout. High amounts of acute stress can occur by increasing training loads beyond what you are accustomed. These can be planned increased training loads, as in a training camp, or they can be unplanned by doing too much too soon, training too far above your current fitness level. Muscle damage, glycogen depletion, and dehydration can all contribute to high levels of acute stress. Acute stress contributes to increased chronic stress, and if left unaddressed, this increased stress can lead to deep fatigue, illness and/or injury. Always being aware of how you can recover better and more quickly following training sessions will help you get on the right track for managing your acute stress loads.

Our saying is to “Take care of your body!” We see too many people willing to spend thousands of dollars on equipment, travel and entry fees, as well as enormous amounts of time in training yet be unwilling to spend some money on their body to keep it happy, healthy and performing at its best.

How can you manage your acute stress load?

1. Follow a Progressive Training Program

Your training must progress gradually to avoid excessive acute stress. Following a training plan or working with a coach that will keep you on track and hold you back if you are a ‘go getter!’ Fitness is a long term commitment and can’t be rushed.

2. Recovery Nutrition

Consuming calories immediately following long and/ or intense training sessions is a critical recovery strategy. There are commercial products on the market designed specifically for this purpose (First Endurance Ultragen being among the best). The key is to include both carbohydrates and protein in adequate amounts to begin the restoration process (see Diet & Nutrition post for more specifics).

3. Soft Tissue Massage

Massage therapy is helpful for increasing blood flow to damaged muscles and loosening adhesions of soft tissue. Two professional massage sessions a month is a worthwhile investment (weekly is even better, once a month is better than nothing). Daily self-massage (foam rollers, massage balls, massage sticks, etc.) is also time well spent and can be done before bed as part of a relaxation routine.

4. Manual Manipulation

Your body takes a beating with all the training. Take care of your body by visiting a osteopathic physician (D.O.), physical therapist (P.T.) and/or chiropractor to give your body the regular tune-ups it needs. These visits can go a long way to maintaining overall health and keeping injuries at bay.

5. Stretching

While science will say there is no evidence that stretching actually does anything, but most people will agree that, at the very least, it feels good. Unless you are genetically hyper-flexible, including some stretching in your weekly routine will help you stay loose and maintain an effective range of motion. It is another great activity to include in your nightly relaxation routine.

6. Compression

Another controversial technique in the recovery equation. The verdict is still out as to whether compression actually does anything, but if you think it does then go for it! Donning compression clothing post-workouts and pneumatic ‘compression boots’ are two tools to consider including in your recovery routine.

 


Written by Cody Waite, professional endurance athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Sessions:6 Sport Performance. Looking for help with your endurance sport training? Check out S:6’s Training Plans, Team Programs, and  Personal Coaching options created to fit your needs and budget. 

VI. Mental Fitness (Psychology)

The human brain is a powerful thing. Unfortunately, many athletes fail to recognize the power and importance of training the mind.

Often so intensely focused on training the body, athletes can miss out on one of the biggest avenues for performance enhancement.

Most new or less experienced athletes will make big gains in performance by simply focusing on the physical training. However, as you improve your physical fitness over time and get closer to your ceiling of physical potential, the more important improving what I refer to as your ‘mental fitness’ becomes to maximizing your performance.

That’s not to say that mental fitness is not valuable at low to mid-level fitness abilities; we’ve all seen the athlete that crushes their training partners in training sessions to only fall well short of their physical ability on race day, and vice-versa where the seemingly ‘weaker’ athlete in training outperforms their ‘stronger’ counterparts on race day. These questionable performances are almost always directly related to the athlete’s mental strength. On the higher end of the performance spectrum, elite athletes in a given sport are equally well-trained and talented. The higher the level of competition, the more homogenous the physical fitness and talent becomes. For this reason, many top level elite athletes recognize the power of the mind and the importance of mental training in allowing them to reach the success they desire. Often what makes the difference between becoming a champion and not breaking through is their mental fitness.

The topic of mental fitness, or sport psychology, is a big one and can include many areas of discussion. I’m going to focus on two areas that I find particularly important for endurance athletes and that are relatively simple and effective to integrate into your own training. The first area is related more to planning, organizing, and rehearsing your performances prior to them occurring. The second area is more of the ‘in the moment’ considerations and techniques to develop to help you achieve a higher level of performance on race day.

PART ONE: Preparation

  • Goal Setting

Goal setting is one of those things many people know they should do but few actually the the time to do it correctly and effectively. Goal setting takes time and consideration, and is best done at the beginning of your training season. You need to establish both long term goals (1-5 years) and short term goals (1-5 months) that are quantifiable and challenging yet achievable. Once you have your goals established, you need to figure out your path or steps you are going to take to achieve these goals. Then you need to share these goals with friends and family and make them visible in your daily life to serve as reminders of what they are and why you are working towards these goals.

  • Imagery/Visualization – 

Perhaps one of the most valuable training practices is visualization and imagery. What we see happening in our minds as ‘virtual reality’ has a much higher chance of occurring in reality. If we routinely see ourselves performing a skill or putting out a great effort, our brain will begin to accept that we already have or are capable of actually doing it. Elite athletes utilize the strategy of visualization leading up to important competitions by imagining their races in great detail from both start to finish or in smaller segments in great detail. Then once they are actually in the moment on race day, their minds are better prepared and capable of managing the real life situation, leading to greater success.

  • Race Strategy – 

Less of a mental exercise and more of a straight forward planning and preparation, forming your competition strategy is an important element of mental fitness. Use your brain power to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, the course elements and other ingredients that will constitute your race day challenges. Form a plan on how to pace your efforts, decide who/what you will respond to and what/who you will let go, what and when you’re going to eat and drink, when you plan to conserve energy and where you plan to empty the tank. All of these factors go into your race strategy and will lend to a more successful racing experience. It is also important to understand that even the best race strategies can quickly go out the window mid-race and you must be willing and able to adapt to the challenges.

  • Self-Belief – 

Believing in one’s self is critical to success. If you do not truly believe you can accomplish your goals, visualize yourself succeeding, or executing your race strategy then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s easy to think or say we believe in ourselves, but it has to be a real and unshakable belief. Much of a person’s self-belief is instilled in them from their childhood, life experiences and parental influences, but it can be changed for the better through disciplined mental training, just like exercise can alter their physical fitness.

PART TWO: Competition

  • Race Persona/Alter-Ego

Competition requires being a fighter. On race day, particularly in the race, you need to be excitable, aggressive, and perhaps even a little mean to fight your way to the top of the podium. This does not mean that you need to be this way in your regular life. In fact many of the world’s best athletes are actually quite calm, cool and humble people that change when the gun goes off and they get into ‘race mode.’ Recognizing this transformation and actively using it to your advantage is a classic sport psychology strategy (particularly for those calm, cool, humble athletes). Creating an alter-ego to be used on race day can get you in the mode to be focused and open your willingness to suffer to your fullest and attack the race with everything you’ve got. XTERRA World Champion Lesley Patterson publicly shared her race alter-ego; Becoming “Paddy McGuinty” allows this diminutive Scottish athlete to transform from one of the nicest people you’ll meet into a hard, tough, Celtic fighter capable of running down anyone in front of her on race day.

  • Focus – 

Gaining and maintaining focus is perhaps the most important mental element to competitive success. The longer and less intense the event, the harder it becomes to maintain focus. Staying in the moment allows you to identify and respond to your efforts and the efforts of those around you. Losing focus allows your mind to drift and inevitably your pace slows and your performance deteriorates. Maintaining focus is tied into your self-belief, what you think you can truly achieve and whether you feel it’s worth the effort. Staying focused will allow you to embrace the challenge and short-term discomfort and will keep you from the long-term disappointment that occurs from losing focus.

  • Willingness to Suffer

Make that ‘ugly face’ and get to work! Some amateur athletes are either unwilling or don’t know what it means to truly suffer in the heat of the moment. Whether it’s a short, fast, intense race or long distance grudge match, being willing and able to suffer is crucial to reaching your fullest potential on race day. Staying in the moment and maintaining focus will improve your willingness to dig deep, but understanding that the pain is temporary but the disappointment is forever will allow you to crawl deep into the pain cave in your priority events.

  • Mantras – 

A great tactic to help maintain focus and keep going in the face of pain is using mantras, or repeating inspiring words or short phrases, during the tough moments of competition. Mantras work by keeping your focus off the pain and on the job at hand. It can be helpful to incorporate a rhythmic mantra that you can repeat over and over at a particular cadence to keep you moving along at your desired pace. 2014 XTERRA 40-44 female National Champion, Kathy Waite, uses the mantra “I am strong, I feel great” as she mows down competitors on the run.

 


Written by Cody Waite, professional endurance athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Sessions:6 Sport Performance. Looking for help with your endurance sport training? Check out S:6’s Training Plans, Team Programs, and  Personal Coaching options created to fit your needs and budget. 

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