The effects of stress on athletic performance

Alissa TaylorMental HealthLeave a Comment

The effects of stress on athletic performance

Have you experienced an impact on your athletic performance due to stress? In the last year, if you have found it more challenging to retain the same motivation that you had prior to quarantine, you’re not alone. 67% of individuals who are sheltering in place are experiencing a considerable increase in stress and 47% of individuals have reported experiencing worsened mental health since March of 2020. While there may be a number of reasons that your at-home workout feels more limiting than when you were able to freely hit the gym, stress has been proven to have a significant impact on all pillars of athletic performance such as endurance, agility, strength, and recovery. 

By definition, stress is a physiological response from the brain and body as a reaction to mental, physical or emotional pressure. We often associate stress with a negative connotation, but there are many positive external stressors that can motivate you to achieve goals or function at your fullest potential. The difference between good stress and bad stress is often how the individual perceives the mental, physical or emotional pressure. If it feels like something that is within their control, it is finite or there is a reward that makes the extra pressure feel worth it, the stress is perceived as ‘good’. On the other hand, stress that is ongoing or feels like there is very little control from the person experiencing it is categorized as ‘bad’ or negative stress. Negative stress is responsible for impacting performance and pouring into virtually every facet of life if techniques are not developed to better address it, or if the stressor itself does not go away. The reason why it’s important to figure out ways to manage this stress effectively is every person will experience a period of time where there are external obstacles out of their control, and there may not always be an immediate solution for repairing it. 

Positive Stress: 

Some may hear the term stress and assume that it is always better to avoid it. The opposite is actually true. Positive stress can help you overcome obstacles, challenge yourself and build self confidence. It is associated with feelings of fulfillment, accomplishment and happiness, because situations allow you to prove your capability to yourself and those around you. Positive stress is usually acute and is directly associated with achieving a goal. Examples of positive stress are training for a competition, getting ready to give a speech or meeting a deadline on a project.

It’s important to remember that the act of working out is also a stressor on your body, and that the process of being active is actually breaking down muscle tissues to repair and rebuild stronger than before. When you increase resistance, intensity or weight this process is known as hypertrophy and leads to building stronger skeletal muscles. We often don’t think about this process as ‘stress’ because the benefits are positive. Another way to think about this is if you never challenged your body, your body would degenerate over time. The same can be said with mental challenges which is why it’s important to set goals that cause some positive stress so you can enjoy rewards from success and build resilience and strength from failures. 

The dark side of positive stress can be when you are consistently in a state of trying to achieve and never give yourself an opportunity to rest and recover. While it can feel almost addictive to consistently one-up yourself, it’s important to check in at every milestone to evaluate what you need to recover so you can continue to perform at a high-level. 

Negative Stress 

Negative stress is often referred to as the “fight or flight” reaction, which throws your body into an extremely sensitive state in order to escape a specific danger and to ensure survival. From a biological standpoint, this kind of stress is useful because it can ensure you have the ability to get to safety in emergency situations. The problem can be when someone remains in a state of chronic negative stress for long periods of time. This can lead to burn out, and also can severely impact mental and physical processes.

One of the more prominent negative stress hormones, cortisol, has the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and interfere with cognition. When your ability to think clearly has been impaired, you are more vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed by other situations and continuing a cycle of greater stress and burnout. High levels of negative stress over time can impact attention, memory, decision making and overall tolerance to new stressors and situations. Negative stress can also be responsible for weight gain, performance anxiety, reproductive challenges and heart disease. Negative stress can also contribute to or exacerbate mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. 

Since workouts themselves can boost mood and productivity, it may feel unintuitive to relate your mental state and stress levels to your workouts. The problem is that if high levels of stress are unchecked for long periods of time, you will find that it drains your energy and spills over into other areas of your life. Stress can impact your sleep, your relationships, your movement, and your ability to recover. It can become a vicious cycle because as soon as you are unable to recover your workouts will also suffer.

If you are constantly stressed, when you are active you aren’t providing your brain and body a break from feelings of overwhelm you may find that you also aren’t maximizing the benefits of the healthy activities you do engage in. When you exercise, if you are putting all of your energy and focus on your performance it helps drive each movement with purpose, prevent injury and stimulates brain activity as you visualize the contraction and relaxation of each muscle. This ability to focus completely on your movements is known as the mind-body connection and can be meditative in and of itself. 

Tips to overcome negative stress and improve athletic performance:

  • Be present – When you exercise, make an effort to unplug and give yourself time to focus on truly being in the moment to enjoy the maximum benefits of movement. If you need to, keep a checklist outside of your workout space so you can write down everything you need to remember to do before you even start working out. This will allow you the peace of mind that you won’t forget the things you need to accomplish, but will also help you focus on staying in the moment and enjoying the full benefits of movement and being in tune with your body. 
  • Learn to say no – You may not be in control of everything that is currently causing you stress, but there are decisions in your life that you are able to make. If you are already burnt out, it’s okay to say no to new projects or obligations with friends or family. Think of it as taking a hiatus now so you have more to give later.  
  • Prioritize sleep and recovery – This may sound counterintuitive, but if you are struggling to workout consistently or effectively, you may need to take a break from your normal workouts. Schedule a week where you make your priority rest and recovery. Workout and move at a lower intensity instead of a strict schedule. Listen to your intuition and do what feels right instead of holding yourself to an expectation that may not be reasonable if you are overstressed. 
  • Positive self talk – We tend to be our own worst critic. If you have found that your workout performance has taken a dive, try to reframe your narrative instead of focussing on the negative. For example if you feel like your strength has plateaued during a busy season at work instead of focussing on a lack of progress (which can lead to more stress), try to think something like “I am proud of myself for maintaining a workout routine!” “I did everything on my to do list today!” Set achievable goals and make sure not to compare yourself to someone else or something you used to be able to do. Focus on where you are now and work towards something that is motivating for you.
  • You don’t have to do it alone – If stress is an ongoing issue for you and it has been more than 3 months, it is important to talk to an expert or loved ones to get support. Chronic stress can lead to a myriad of mental and physical health issues and if you find yourself overwhelmed or feel unable to make changes, don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Have you noticed a change in your performance in the last year? What do you do to stay on track?

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Alissa Taylor

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