Take That Stress, Make it Less

We’re constantly being told that stress is bad, but it’s not that simple.  Stress has different forms.  In the sports world, physical stress plays an important role for improving performance.  Training puts stress on the body and you need this physical stress so that the body will adapt and get stronger. 

In addition to physical stress, there’s also mental stress.  The body’s response to mental stress is similar to the response to physical stress.  There is a release of molecules (such as epinephrine and cortisol) which increase blood pressure, increase heart rate, increase wakefulness, decrease immune function, and decrease muscle building. 

Balancing both physical and mental stress is important for optimal performance.  A coach is often focused primarily on the physical stress.  Training plans and rest days are both ways to manage physical stress.  But, managing mental stress is just as important.  Because of the impact mental stress has on the body, mental stress can also lead to burnout and poor health. 

Minimizing mental stress is one way to maximize the amount of physical stress the body can handle (and therefore the training adaptations you can get).  However, there are many, many mental stressors in the modern world.  So, what can be done to decrease mental stress?  There are a number of techniques…

o   Breathe.  Even when you’re stressed, you’re breathing.  When you’re stressed though, your breathing is more shallow and rapid.  To decrease stress, take three deep breaths.  Breathe in through the nose, pause, then breathe out through your mouth.  This technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system and decreases the stress response. 

Want to add in another step?  When taking your three deep breaths, imagine breathing out the bad and breathing in the good.  This will further help you relax and decrease your negative energy.  This may sound a little psycho, but works wonders for clearing your mind.

o   Wiggle out the stress. Everyone stores their stress somewhere.  To release that tension, try wiggling that area.  Personally, I find I hold my tension in my shoulders.  So performing shoulder circles helps release that tension.  Wiggling my jaw during stressful times in the peloton has also helped. 

o   Shift your focus. Pass a pen (or other object) back and forth (right hand – left hand – right hand). This simple technique takes your mind off the stressful situation and helps you reset.

o   Think of three things you are grateful for. As athletes, it’s easy to get too tied up into race day performance.  So, after a bad day on the bike, this can be especially difficult to do.  But be thankful you were healthy enough to compete.  Thankful you’re able to compete in the first place.  Thankful your parents don’t know you’re skipping piano lessons to compete…  There are a number of different options out there. 

o   Do something you love.  Think back to when you were a kid.  What made you smile or brought a sense of wonder?  Do that.  Maybe it’s doodling.  Maybe it’s coloring in a coloring book.  Maybe it’s playing an instrument.  Maybe it’s just spending some time looking at the stars.  Whatever it is, be sure to do some of it to help you relax. 

Take some time in the evening or after a ride, to practice these relaxation techniques.  These techniques can help you better manage stress and maximize your training.  Stress plays an important role in training but that doesn’t mean it’s got to ruin your training.  Thanks for reading!