If there's one thing all of us can relate to these days, it's feeling stressed. The world is full of craziness, and when you add in work, family, finances, and the everyday stressors of life, it can really start to weigh on you. As athletes, we need to be in tune with our stress levels and how we're managing them - not only for general wellbeing, but also for our athletic performance. The additional stress of exercise can place an additional burden on our bodies, fast-tracking us to burnout, injury, and poor training.
You might be thinking to yourself, "Sure, stress is bad. But running is my therapy! Exercise isn't the same as life stress." Well, I hate to break it to you, but that's not exactly true.
The body experiences stress of any kind in the same way from a physiological perspective. While the act of pounding the pavement or getting out on the trails can be cathartic from a mental perspective, it still creates a stress response inside your body, because exercise is stress! Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and injury are all things that disrupt the body's normal flow and provoke the same stress response. Same thing with worry and anxiety about a threat to your safety or your family's stability - both in terms of immediate threats, like someone breaking into your home, and ongoing threats, like a lack of job security.
At a very basic level, when we get stressed or anxious, our body activates the "Fight or Flight" response, affecting every bodily system. Your heart rate increases, your body starts breaking down its' stored glycogen for energy, blood is directed away from the digestive system to prioritize other organs like your heart and lungs. You produce stress hormones that direct these other responses, including one called cortisol. Cortisol directs the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine (which increase heart rate, blood flow, blood sugar, and reduce intestinal motility) while downregulating action of insulin, thyroid hormone, and gonadotropins (sex hormones). Cortisol also acts to preserve the body's energy by preventing storage of glucose (so it can be used immediately) and promotes storage of visceral fat.
In acute times of stress (like running a 10K), this is a helpful response. Our body directs blood and oxygen to where it's needed most - our heart, lungs, and muscles - allowing us to maintain a difficult level of activity for a long time. It keeps a supply of glucose - the preferred energy source during aerobic activity - available for immediate use. Stress can be a good thing in this context, as it promotes metabolic adaptation that helps make running faster feel easier over time. (It's obviously also a good thing when it's needed to keep you alive, like in an emergency situation, during a period of starvation, or after trauma.)
But this only works if we also take recovery seriously, so the body can return to baseline. If we don't recover, or if we find ourselves in long-term stressful circumstances where we can't get back to baseline, we can inadvertently contribute to a low-grade chronic stress in which our bodies are continuously producing these stress hormones and downregulating other systems. Chronic stress is not good. It causes a variety of issues - digestive issues, fatigue, decreased sex drive, suppression of reproductive systems, retention of body fat, high blood sugar, poor immune response, and increased likelihood of injury - to name a few!
What does that have to do with nutrition? Well, obviously it highlights the importance of recovery, in which fueling plays a key role. But more than that, this information should underline the risks of an ongoing energy deficit - because an energy deficit is a stressful situation for the body. You're asking your cells to do the same (or more) work with less fuel, potentially for a long period of time. And at the end of the day, your body doesn't know the difference between purposeful stress and the stress created by circumstances outside your control. Physiologically there is no difference between, say, energy restriction because you don't have food available and energy restriction because you feel like you'd be faster at a lighter weight. Your body is an amazing creation, and these mechanisms allow it to continue on with some semblance of normal function - but it won't be able to function as well as it could if it were properly fueled.
So what can you do to control your stress levels and benefit your training? Here's what I recommend:
Treat recovery as equally important to training. Recreational athletes (even competitive ones) often blow off rest days, fueling, sleep, and other recovery methods to squeeze in more mileage or balance training with the rest of life - this mistake is often what's preventing them from seeing improvements. Trust me - your body will benefit more from an extra rest day or a few more hours of sleep than forcing in more training when you're not recovered.
Don't train fasted. Training without fuel in your system further increases cortisol production, and stimulates muscle breakdown and fat storage. If it's been more than 4 hours since your latst meal, eat a pre-workout meal or snack with easily digestible carbs for a quick energy source that suppresses the cortisol response. I like bananas and bagels.
Reconsider your weight goal. I never encourage athletes to focus on weight as an end point, because it ultimately has little to do with your training. I know there are a lot of emotions wrapped up in weight, but the fact is that all of us could eat and train the same and we would all look different. I can't speak to whether your "goal weight" is a realistic or appropriate weight for you, but I do know that you could seriously compromise your health by attempting to lose weight during a training cycle. If you are insistent on weight loss - and I'd really recommend you let that go - you should do it during a break from training, when you have more control over the stress load you're taking on.
Reduce your stress load. Running is great, but running is not, in fact, therapy - so have stress management strategies that don't involve exercise. When it comes to training, take your easy days easy, so your body can actually recover. Don't skip meals. Be mindful about your schedule and what you have time to accomplish - try to avoid overextending yourself frequently.
Mind your nutrition. I have no problem with athletes enjoying favorite foods during training, whether it's a post-run donut or a rest day trip to Whataburger. But you should also be intentional about including a variety of nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes, which are all anti-inflammatory. Overdoing it with foods high in simple sugars, saturated fat, caffeine, and alcohol can contribute to chronic inflammation.
Nobody can control stress perfectly, and indeed, some level of stress can benefit us. But by effectively managing chronic stress in the body and taking your recovery process seriously, you're setting yourself up for success in training as well as investing in your long term health.
We're covering stress, nutrition and recovery in my upcoming self-paced course for female athletes. If you want to learn more about the body's stress response and how to maintain health and performance as an athlete, you can hop on the course waiting list here.
Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, et al. Physiology, Stress Reaction. [Updated 2020 Oct 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
Ranabir, Salam, and K Reetu. “Stress and hormones.” Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism vol. 15,1 (2011): 18-22. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.77573
Aronson, Dina. "Cortisol — Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy." Today's Dietitian, vol 11, 11 (2009): 38. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml