Do Anxiety and Stress Impact Your Running Performance?
You may have a robust training plan, a sound nutrition strategy, and the motivation to ace your next run. While these are all very vital points, it is also important that you pay attention to your stress levels. Regardless of all the preparations you may have done, it may just take a stressor to derail your training. Whether you are dealing with a tough situation in your personal life or having a rough time at work, the stress caused by such events can take a toll on your running performance.
What is stress?
Stress is the method by which the body and brain respond to any challenges or demands of a situation, which may range from life changes and dealing with trauma to demands at school or work. Stress is a normal reaction of the body to such events and challenges to adjust and adapt to new situations. When you experience stressors, your body responds by producing several physiological responses, which are responsible for the symptoms you experience under stress.
Stress is no longer a phenomenon brought on only by adverse life events. In today’s society, it is a common issue faced regularly by many. It can be acute; for instance, it may be caused by fleeting events like getting into an altercation with someone.
Your body responds to all kinds of stress through similar mechanisms. Generally, acute and chronic stressors cause the body to go into the flight-or-fight mode, which is a quick response of the body, where several physiological processes, such as rapidly increased heart rate, increased blood flow, and higher alertness are triggered. In this scenario, all mechanisms help you to either fight the stressor or run away from it.
How does stress affect your body?
While it may not be apparent initially, stress affects several systems of the body like the cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, and endocrine system, to name a few. As previously stated, being under stress triggers certain physiological processes, which help assess the situation, and the physical resources aid in responding to the stressor.
When the body is confronted by demand or threat, it sets off a series of physiological reactions to equip you to respond to the stressor. There is a release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline elevates your heart rate, increases blood pressure, and raises the energy supply. Cortisol increases blood glucose levels and improves the utilization of glucose. Your senses become sharper, you become more focused, your reaction time gets better, and you get the strength to either fight the threat or flee from it.
Unfortunately, stress is a common feature of any individual’s day-to-day life. As your body is constantly in an increased state of stress, it may result in various health issues. Chronic stress, ie, stress that lasts over time, disturbs the various systems in the body and you may feel frequently overwhelmed, leading to mental and physical fatigue.
Common symptoms of stress
The signs of stress may not always be evident at first. These indications are commonly recognized when you feel affected by a stressor or a situation, making it difficult for you to focus, work, or respond effectively. Stress can have negative effects on your mind and body. It may impact your thought process, emotions, and behavior.
While dealing with a challenging circumstance, you may feel irritable, anxious, or worried by repeatedly going over the details of the challenge, and be unsure about the right way to react. You may be quick to lose your temper and unable to be productive.
You may find it difficult to breathe normally. Moreover, you may experience rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, headaches, lower energy levels, insomnia, or dizziness. You may feel your muscles tense up and pain, and experience frequent bouts of influenza or infections, loss of appetite, and digestive troubles.
While these are a few usual signs of stress, it is important to remember that these may differ among people.
How does chronic stress affect your running?
Here are a few ways in which chronic stress can impact your running:
1. Effects on recovery
Like any other workout, running is a kind of stressor for the body. Every training run causes your body to break down, resulting in tissue damage. This is when recovery plays a key role by repairing these damages, helping your body adapt to the stress induced by running to get stronger. This allows you to come back week after week to improve your performance. The inflammatory response required to repair the damage induced by exercise involves the action of a variety of chemicals such as cytokines, macrophages, growth factors, and hormones like cortisol. Stress can affect the levels of these chemicals and hormones in the body, which when coupled with its other effects like disturbed sleep patterns, may contribute to delayed recovery.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise by researchers at the Yale Stress Center and the University of Texas assessed the effect of psychological stress in muscle strength recovery post-exercise. They concluded that stress has a negative effect on post-exercise recovery, indicating that people dealing with high levels of stress tend to have slower recovery compared to individuals not going through chronic stress.
2. Effects on the musculoskeletal system
Stress can affect the musculoskeletal system. The presence of excess amounts of cortisol can reduce bone density. It can also cause the muscles to tense up, which can be perceived as the body’s reaction to stress in order to protect itself from injury. Running with stiff muscles can affect your gait, leading to poor running form. Additionally, tense muscles may cause difficulty in finding proper footing. All these factors increase your likelihood of straining your muscles.
The tension in the muscles may start to ease as the stress resolves. However, the presence of chronic stress can lead to the muscles being tense for long periods, which results in other stress-related mechanisms of the body being activated and trigger stress-associated health conditions.
3. Effects on running performance
It is thought that unfavorable/tragic life events or major life changes that are perceived as negative can impact an individual’s psychosocial stress and recovery. A study assessed the impact of negative life events on runners’ performance. The results showed that major life events can have a negative effect on how they perceive stress. Such events may also impact their recovery during the week when the negative life event occurred and in the week following it.
It also showed a drop in performance by indicating a reduced running economy three weeks after the negative life event, indicating a link between stress and running performance. The reduction in the running economy following a negative life event can be attributed to the stress response by the brain.
The Rate of Perceived Exhaustion (RPE) scale, ranging from 1-10, is a subjective tool that is often used to assess the intensity or the ease/difficulty of your workout or to analyze how mentally and physically exhausting a workout session is. Runners often use this to understand the effort of their runs.
A study conducted on 20 runners demonstrated that cognitive fatigue increased the perception of effort, resulting in higher RPE, which affected their running performance as determined by their slower completion times. The subjects perceived a higher effort on their runs due to the fatigue, suggesting that they perceived their run to be more difficult, resulting in them slowing down in order to complete the distance. Moreover, no significant changes were observed in physiological parameters like blood lactate level and heart rate levels between the fatigued runners and the control group, which indicates that although all the subjects invested similar resources into their running, cognitive fatigue led to poorer performance by the fatigued runners.
4. Effects on training
Common effects of stress like mood swings and changes in sleep patterns and appetite can lead you to have low motivation, which may impact your training.
Chronic stress can result in you being mentally fatigued, distracted, and less attentive. It can also affect your decision-making ability. Distraction can cause you to be less observant of the signs shown by the body. This can significantly affect your training. For example, not paying attention to the cues of overtraining can result in you going overboard with your training, which is a common cause of running injuries. Moreover, the effects of stress on your mental well-being can influence your illness and post-injury treatment outcome and rehabilitation.
How can you deal with stress?
An individual’s response to chronic stress may vary. The appropriate methods to deal with stress differ, depending on several factors such as the person, the nature of the stressor, and symptoms. Here are some productive ways for athletes to deal with chronic life event-induced stress:
1. Identify the reasons
Everyone experiences stress differently; so, being able to identify and having awareness of how to respond to chronic stress is the key to effectively managing it. Analyze if the stress is due to training, lifestyle, or any other reason. A way through which you can keep a track of the impact of stress on your running performance is by maintaining a training log. You can inculcate this as a habit in your daily routine where you log and make a note of details about your training, including how you felt following the training session. Having a note of these details can help you identify any patterns in your training, which can aid you in adjusting your training to ensure that you do not overtrain and avoid any potential injury or burnout.
2. Do not stop exercising
It may be fine to take a short break or have a longer recovery time. However, it is not recommended to stop working out completely. While it may seem counterintuitive, regular exercise can help you manage stress. Consider following a flexible training plan. It is ideal to stick to the plan as much as possible, but it may not always be conducive to your health. Instead, lower your training intensity or volume. This can help you alleviate stress while not losing the benefits of exercise that you have gained over a period.
3. Indulge in alternate ways of relaxation
While running can act as a stressbuster, it may not serve your health well in some cases. It is important that you devote enough time for rest and recovery. Here, recovery also includes mental recovery. Pursuing hobbies or activities like participating in social gatherings, spending quality time with friends and family, and being involved in self-care practices may help in managing stress.
4. Talk to a professional if needed
Many individuals may not be aware of the way to cope with stress or may lack the suitable resources to deal with it. In such cases, having an open conversation with someone, especially a professional, can help you handle stress and give you adequate support to maintain your mental health.
5. Get enough sleep
Stress and sleep have an inverse association; increased stress makes it difficult to sleep well, while not sleeping enough can result in more stress.
During sleep, a series of physiological changes take place in your body, allowing your brain and body to slow down, which enables rest, promotes recovery, and improves performance. Moreover, the circadian rhythm, which is the body’s internal clock, plays a vital role in regulating various biological processes associated with sleep, hormones, and appetite. All of these can be influenced and disrupted by chronic stress.
Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting sufficient sleep can go a long way in helping you reset your body’s internal clock and promoting better health and well-being. It is recommended that adults must get at least seven-nine hours of sleep every night. Here are some strategies you can follow to get a good night’s sleep:
- Avoid working out too close to bedtime
- Take a warm shower an hour before you sleep
- Turn off your screens and electronic devices at least an hour before your bedtime
- Set up a favorable sleep environment by keeping the area dark and cool
- Try reading a book or meditating if you are unable to fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes of getting into bed
6. Join a running community or group
Running is a versatile sport. You may pursue it almost anywhere with just a pair of good running shoes. Moreover, you can perform this activity alone or in a group. Group running or training offers many advantages, such as maintaining consistency, having accountability, and feeling motivated. Joining a running group with people of similar caliber as yours may help you stay motivated and consistent in your training. Running together, cheering for your fellow runners, and engaging with like-minded people can help you relate to each other and give you a sense of community.
With the pandemic, virtual running clubs are becoming more popular, as they help you stay regular and maintain your fitness despite not being able to meet fellow runners in person. Research suggests that working out in a group may help lower levels of stress by 26% compared to those who exercise individually, but do not see significant changes in their stress levels.
The importance of having a stress-free performance cannot be understated. While stressors may arise in various places and events for different individuals, a key takeaway is the necessity of having a good training plan and being prepared for your runs and race day. Practice stress management techniques to make sure you are well-equipped to deal with any untoward situations that may come your way.
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