I've decided to write this latest blog on stress and how it can affect us, because it's something that's quite pertinent to me at the moment.
When we, as coaches, talk to athletes about what factors they think may be affecting their fitness, or in fact their general well being, we get answers like poor diet, injury, not enough time to train etc etc. Rarely do we get responses that include high levels of chronic exposure to stress. Yet, in modern society, around 70% of adults are believed to be regularly exposed to prolonged high stress environments. Whether it's in the workplace, problems at home with just your normal day to day family life, or something more serious, the list is almost endless and the fact is that chronic stress has become a very common factor in most of our lives.
Waaaay back in time, when humans were still living in caves, stress was very useful for hunting and survival, because when a person is stressed the body releases a hormone called cortisol which can improve memory, increase heart rate and deliver a quick burst of energy. It can also reduce sensitivity to pain, which is no bad thing in certain situations. However, in modern society, it's pretty unlikely that we're going to be fighting off a sabre tooth tiger anytime soon. So we've gone from having an acute, short exposure to stress, to a prolonged, chronic stress exposure environment.
Chronic stress levels can be a massive influence on our health and well being, as well as being an inhibitor for fitness gains due to a prolonged overproduction of cortisol. Some of the most common side effects of stress include memory loss, a weakened immune system, weight gain, loss of muscle mass and anxiety, to name just a few. Which is why it's important to try and reduce stress as much as we can, whether through exercise, meditation or other methods.
How cortisol affects the body
Cortisol is the "fight or flight" hormone that's produced by the body's adrenal gland when we experience a situation of high stress, but one of the ways that too much cortisol can affect the body is that it can affect protein synthesis, which in turn will negatively affect the production of new muscle growth or aid muscle recovery following a tough training session or race. Overproduction of cortisol over a period of as little as 4 days can start to have a negative impact on your physiology and you may notice that you start to feel a reduced level of energy, a higher perception of fatigue and more muscle soreness.
Although not quite fully understood yet, the effects of cortisol on the retention of fat within the body can often be observed as a higher level of visceral fat within the body. Of the two types of fat (subcutaneous and visceral), it's the visceral fat that's the most dangerous as it generally collects around the major organs and is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and increased anxiety.
Cortisol is also produced during high intensity training sessions as well, so it's vitally important that we recover properly from those sessions, because this can also lead to a prolonged overproduction of cortisol, which can also have the same sort of impact on your physiology as some stressors. Things like a weakened immune system and being susceptible to constantly getting colds, or injuries can also be signs of doing too much HIIT type training and not recovering properly.
Sleep, diet and stress
Most adults don't get enough sleep as it is, nevermind with the effects of stress affecting us as well. In fact around 30% of adults admit to getting 6 hours or less of sleep per night and with chronic stress acting as a hindrance on us getting to sleep, it can become a vicious cycle.
One of the most important aspects of recovery for an athlete is sleep, yet it's often overlooked or disregarded as not being as important as some other, more tangible forms of recovery. Yet if you don't get enough sleep your cortisol levels in the body can increase by anything between 37% - 45%. Because sleep is such an important aspect of recovery, yet stress can affect it so much, you can see why it's important to try and reduce stress levels wherever possible.
As triathletes many of us are often looking at numbers on the scales to try and achieve race weight, although I believe that body composition, not body weight, is a more important measure, but that's a discussion for another day. However, studies that I've read, podcasts that I've listened to and videos I've watched all highlight how stress can lead to emotional eating, which in turn can lead to depression and obesity.
Something that I've experienced myself and this prompted me to specifically ask the question on a podcast last year, was around emotional eating and how it can affect us. When we're stressed, many people will often turn to something they enjoy eating, unfortunately this often involves high calorie, sugary and fatty foods. However, this can become a vicious circle, we eat because we feel stressed or depressed, then we feel better very briefly before feeling crappy again, so we eat some more and so it can continue. It can be hard to control and there are apps that we can download that will help us to track our calorie intake as well as look at the macro nutrients in the foods we're eating. Everyone's different, but it's important to find a strategy that suits you and that you can use to manage your diet and nutrition if you're trying to curb what may be a poor diet that's spiraling out of control due to stress.
Managing and controlling stress.
Triathlon, to many novices (and some more experienced athletes too), can seem almost overwhelming with all the acronyms, brands, training methods, rafts of information and general chat being thrown about, so you can see how even something like starting out in a new sport can be stressful. Yet, the very thing you're worrying about can actually affect your improvements. There are literally thousands of coaches around and using the services of a good coach, either by joining a local club, or by employing one will hopefully reduce a bit of the stress that you might feel.
Luckily, with the amount of information and tools available these days, there are lots of different ways that you can control stress. Making sure that you get enough sleep is probably the biggest factor and then other strategies like yoga or meditation can be employed. For some, simply getting out and doing some exercise can be a good stress relief. However, be aware that exercising too hard, too regularly will increase cortisol and can affect the very thing that you're trying to control in the first place. So try just going out and doing an easy session, no watch, no hrm etc and don't worry about uploading to Strava. Simply go out, go easy and enjoy it.
It's important that you can manage your stress levels and often doing something positive can help this, so preparing a plan of strategies that you can utilise if and when you experience stress, low mood etc is a good way of nipping it in the bud.
It's important to recognise, also, what some of the symptoms of chronic exposure to stress can be, some of these can range from being in a depressed or overly/unusually emotional state, a compromised immune system and a general feeling of lethargy.
If you'd like to speak to me about how I can help you with any aspects of your triathlon training and racing, including the topics that I cover in my blogs, please feel free to message me via my Facebook page; https://www.facebook.com/CertaCitoTriCoaching/