stress relief

The Role of Stress Relief in Training and Recovery

By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

One of the challenges to writing about training is that every subject could legitimately expand into a book unto itself. My shelves are full them; entire books on physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, periodization, performance assessment and analysis, sports psychology, stress relief, and yes, recovery. Arguably, what you do between individual efforts, between workouts, and during the many hours you are not exercising is more important than what you’re doing when you are.

There are 168 hours in a week, and even at the high end of the training spectrum, it is rare for any endurance athlete to exercise more than 35 hours in a big week or more than 25 hours on an ongoing basis. Exercising–inclusive of running, strength training, yoga, pilates, or other complementary activities like cycling, swimming, soccer, etc.–between 25-35 hours per week is still only 15-20% of the total time available in a week. It is far more common for ultrarunners to exercise for a total of 10-15 hours per week, some even fewer, which represents only 6-9% of the week. That means for most ultrarunners, you are basically sedentary for 91-94% of your time.

When I lay this scenario out for some runners–particularly Type A personalities–their instinct is to view it as a challenge: “How can I increase the percentage of time I spend exercising?” They get standing desks, do lunges for no reason, and a calf raise or two every time they encounter a set of stairs. But that’s not the challenge. The time you spend running is rarely the limiting factor for performance, and just spending more time running is rarely the most effective or time-efficient way to improve performance. The challenge is how to use all that time you’re not running to maximize the quality and effectiveness of the time you are.

One aspect that touches almost all of the time between runs is how we deal with stress. As we head into winter with fewer daily hours of daylight, colder temperatures, an unfortunate resurgence in COVID cases, and even uncertainty about 2021 running events, stress relief is a major issue for athletes.

Stress Relief and Recovery

Goal-oriented athletes sometimes view recovery as the absence of physical activity, but there’s a difference between sitting at peace and sitting still while stressed out or anxious. Psychological stress from the pressures of your life, career, relationships, and finances have to be taken into account when adding up the total stress that needs to be balanced through rest and recovery. This includes anxiety or runaway thoughts about your training, an upcoming workout, judgement about a previous workout, or the event you’re preparing for. Feelings of stress can lead to frequent or continuous stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)–the ‘fight or flight’ one–which then leads to chronically elevated levels of hormones like cortisol.

Your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) regulates the ‘rest and digest’ functions and unwinds the sympathetic nervous system’s responses to stressful conditions. You call upon the SNS for the ‘get up and go’ necessary to complete effective workouts. When athletes track Heart Rate Variability (HRV), the desired outcome is higher variability in the intervals between heartbeats. This is a sign that the SNS and PSNS are effectively modulating minute changes in excitability. When HRV is low, it is a sign an athlete is not recovering well because the SNS is overactive and dominating control over the intervals between heartbeats.

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Recovery modalities seek to re-establish homeostasis by activating the PSNS to dial back SNS activity. For instance, part of the process for falling asleep is a drop in cortisol level, and the steps recommended for promoting sleep include a cool, dark, uncluttered, and quiet environment. These calming steps tune down the SNS and tune up the PSNS so you can get a good night of restorative sleep. The plausible mechanisms of action for active recovery, yoga, massage, compression, and cold therapies all include some level of PSNS activation.

Your brain is the ultimate modulator of long-term balance between the SNS and PSNS, so it is critical to address the brain’s role in stress relief. Mental skills training, meditation, breathing exercises, counseling, spending time with a pet, or floating in a sensory deprivation tank can all be effective for dialing down the stress response, restoring balance, and hence improving your ability to recover from training and make positive adaptations. No two brains or sets of life experiences are the same, so the stress relief strategies that work best for specific athletes are also highly individual. The biggest takeaway is that non-exercise stress is inescapable, but when you are better prepared to cope with non-exercise stress you create a greater capacity to recover from exercise stress, which allows you to increase training workload and achieve greater physiological adaptations.

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