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Stress and the Runner
Stress: we’ve all dealt with it in one way or another. With the (unofficial) end of Summer, vacation days are wrapped up, kids are back to school, days are getting shorter, and your work routine may experience a little bit of a shake-up.
But as athletes training in the Fall, we often deal with a double dose - in addition to lifestyle/mental/emotional stress, we’re also in the midst of physical training and competition.
An athlete who understands how to manage their stress can actually use it to their advantage, allowing it to fuel their focus and energy! But when stress becomes too much, an athlete can lose their competitive edge, enthusiasm for their sport, and increase their risk for injury and illness.
What is stress, and what does it actually do to us?
In its most simple terms, stress is a reaction of the body and brain in response to some outer threat or challenge. This stress response can be triggered by psychological, emotional, or physical “threats” from the outside; “fight or flight” for example.
So let’s look at what actually happens when we’re stressed. As soon as you perceive a threat, the “fear center” part of your brain, also known as the amygdala, jumps into action. It tells your adrenal glands to pump cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream, and lowers your immune and digestive systems so you can prepare to “fight or flight”.
The problem with this active amygdala dealing with prolonged stress is that it massively affects your mental, emotional, and physical health. It starts by affecting your prefrontal cortex - the home of your attention, memory, focus, visual perception, and decision-making capabilities.
Think about it: when you’re feeling stressed, are you able to make rational decisions or focus with precise attention? No way! – During this process your mind and body are fatigued, and your main objective is to get out of this stressful situation and return to equilibrium.
Cognitive skills play an important role to excel in your sport - you can imagine how stress would reduce your competitive edge.
Now let’s look at the physical effects of stress. Stress increases muscle tension and interferes with sleep quality - both of which contribute to a massive sense of fatigue in a stressed individual.
It also lowers the immune function, which makes athletes far more susceptible to illness, and slows tissue recovery time. An athlete dealing with stress is going to feel exhausted, overwhelmed, unfocused, and most likely not perform even close to their peak potential.
Clearly, stress is an issue that as an athlete, one must learn how to manage in order to excel in your sport and stay mentally, emotionally, and physically strong!
Stress and marathon training
As runners, we’re not strangers to the stress that comes with pushing our bodies to the max and setting high expectations for our performance. If you’re a competitive runner, know that it’s completely normal to feel some stress - the adrenaline that you feel on or before race day can push you to high performance if you manage it correctly.
But it’s all too easy to allow stress to build up so it leaves runners feeling burned out, exhausted, and even risking injury.
So how exactly does marathon training lead to stress? Let’s look at several types of stress experienced by runners: physical stress and mental stress.
Generally speaking, runners know when they are experiencing physical stress, leading to burnout. They may lose weight, sleep poorly, lose their appetite, have increased soreness and fatigue, and get sick more easily. Physical stress and burnout can be caused by several factors:
- Anemia - Stress can cause runners to experience an iron deficiency, which causes fatigue, along with shortness of breath and decreased performance.
- Fatigue - When runners push their bodies harder and faster than they should be, this physical stress along with any other mental or emotional stress can lead to feeling fatigued.
- Overtraining - Simple but true, overtraining can bring on too much physical stress, leading runners to experience physical burnout.
Mental and emotional stress
As a competitor, it’s normal for runners to feel some nerves around upcoming races and events. But if fearful thoughts about upcoming marathons or competitions are consuming you, then this mental stress may be negatively impacting your body, mind, and performance.
Marathon runners also feel mental and emotional stress around the various other commitments in their life. Since training for a marathon takes such a large portion of mental and physical energy, it can reduce the bandwidth available for work, family, relationships, and other obligations. If not managed properly, this stress can lead to breakdowns in mental and physical health.
How to cope with stress as an athlete
The high-pressure and high-performance life of an athlete is never going to be free of stress - but there are plenty of ways to manage it and actually use stress to fuel your performance and focus. Fortunately, these methods are completely natural and will benefit your health and training in many ways!
Acupressure and massage therapy for stress reduction
Acupressure is a self-care technique that you can practice on yourself to reduce stress brought on by training. Applying pressure to various points on your body with your fingers releases endorphins that balance the energy flow throughout your body, and relieve effects brought on by the stress response.
A few great points to apply acupressure for stress relief are:
- The webbing between the big and second toe
- Inside the foot, 3 fingers behind the base of the big toe
- The webbing between the thumb and index finger
- Inside the shoulder, 2 finger widths above the point where your arm meets your chest
Meditation for stress reduction
A regular meditation practice is shown by studies to be one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and improve happiness, health, focus, and cognitive and physical functioning. The effects of meditation, deep breathing, and focused relaxation activate the relaxation response in the body - which is a key element in combating stress.
Basically, the relaxation response is the polar opposite of the stress response. This is absolutely key to master for athletes who experience stress. When the relaxation response is activated, the muscles relax, heart rate decreases, breathing slows and deepens, blood pressure drops, and you just feel much more relaxed!
Setting aside just 10-20 minutes per day to practice meditation and activate the relaxation response can mean all the difference for an athlete who’s experiencing stress. One great tool to use is the HeadSpace app - it helps keep you accountable to your meditation practice and motivate you to keep going!
Use stress to fuel you - not drain you!
When you understand how stress works and how to manage it properly, it can be a powerful driving force for you to perform at your peak potential. The adrenaline released in your bloodstream when you’re feeling pumped up about a race can push you past where you thought your edge previously was.
Stress can be cumulative, building up over time. If you want to be a healthy runner year after year, take the time to practice the self-care techniques that lower stress and its effects on the body and mind. Rather than allowing stress to seep into your day-to-day, understand the importance of meditation, massage, and other practices that balance and relax your body. That way - when race day comes, all that adrenaline and energy can be put straight where it’s needed most - into the best race of your life.