Stress, Training & Our Inner Teeter-Totter

At the end of a stressful day, there’s nothing like a good hard run or an intense workout to let off some steam. I know it can help turn me from a raging grizzly bear into the teddy bear my children need me to be.

There’s a good reason that some of our best workouts come after stressful days. For all their complexity and remarkable capacity, our brains don’t know the difference between the stress of a bad day at work versus the stress of a life-threatening situation. Stress equals threat so our brains prime our bodies for movement, increasing our heart rate and flow of blood to our muscles. (This is called an increased sympathetic state.) Simply, our brains have spent all day getting our body ready for our workout.

Your internal teeter-totter

Our bodies are designed to be able to handle day-to-day stress easily. It’s when we’re under elevated stress levels for prolonged periods of time that problems often occur.

To understand how stress affects our bodies, it’s helpful to learn more about the autonomic nervous system. You might have heard about it in high school anatomy class. It rarely gets the press it deserves when it comes to stress management or athletic performance.

I like to describe the autonomic nervous system (ANS) as a teeter-totter. On one side is the sympathetics. It’s stimulated during times of high stress and puts you in a state scientists often refer to as fight, flight or freeze. This part of your ANS prepares you to take life-preserving action.

Sympathetic nervous system effects:

  • Increased cardiac output (elevated blood pressure and heart rate)
  • Increased blood flow to the muscles
  • Heightened alertness/awareness of surroundings
  • Increased sweating to dissipate heat
  • Increased lung capacity via bronchial dilation

On the other end of the teeter-totter, we have parasympathetics. Scientists often refer to this state as “rest and digest” or “feed and breed.”

Parasympathetic nervous system effects:

  • Increased blood flow and stimulation of the digestive organs and sexual organs
  • Decreased heart rate and blood pressure

Throughout the day, these two work together to help you adapt to your environment. When one is stimulated the other is relatively inhibited. Here’s an example. You’re sitting at home relaxing and enjoying your favorite book. You’re in a highly parasympathetic state. All of a sudden, you hear a crash in the next room, followed by your 4-year-old crying. Your sympathetics kicks in as you rush to the next room (blood rushes to your muscles, your heart rate increases). When you find your crying child, unharmed, in front of a pile of Lego, your heart rate and breathing rate decrease (your parasympathetic response increases and your sympathetic response decreases).

Our bodies are made to handle this teeter-totter quite well. That is unless we end up in a state of chronic, prolonged increased sympathetic stimulation. This is often referred to as increased sympathetic tone that occurs because of prolonged exposure to moderate to high levels of stress. Think of this like your teeter-totter getting stuck. The fight or flight portion of your autonomic nervous system dominates. This might not seem so bad as an athlete. I mean, who wouldn’t want increased muscle strength all the time, right? But it comes with some negative effects: elevated blood pressure, difficulty sleeping and poor digestion. Suddenly this state doesn’t seem so great.

Our bodies’ stress reaction evolved because our ancestors needed to deal with immediate life-threatening situations. I like to use the example of walking along minding our own business (parasympathetic state). All of a sudden, we see a hairy-scary animal out of the corner of our eye (highly sympathetic state). When the encounter is over, and if we survive, we’ll return to minding our own business (parasympathetic state). Until we see the next hairy-scary animal.

Stress today is rarely life-threatening. Or at least not immediately. While we don’t often encounter hairy-scary animals, we do have stresses like constant emails, work, financial difficulties, relationship challenges, etc. In fact, intense training and physical pain are also stresses on the body. Chronic postural problems also contribute to our stress.

The takeaway

So what do we do? Quit our jobs, cut off our close relationships and move to Hawaii and live a life of perpetual bliss on the beach in order to be healthy and maximize training games? The short answer is no (although you can ignore this last sentence and do it if you are really looking for excuse).

What we can do is consider our stress exposure and do our best to put in recovery methods throughout the day, week, month and year to help offset it.

Start paying attention to when you’re most stressed. In future posts, I’m going to cover coping/management strategies. In the meantime, pay attention. The first step in managing what stresses you is to notice it. What are your hairy-scary animals?

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