The Effect of Stress on Your Training

By Brian MacKenzie

Stress affects everything.

When we train for endurance events, we tax our systems, causing muscle damage and physiological changes. While your brain knows the difference between 400 meter repeats and that overdue project you need to finish at work, your body doesn’t. Work stress, relationship stress, stress about the unending tragedies in this world all contribute to keeping you in a heightened sympathetic state – the anxious mindset of fight or flight.

The problem is that most of us, myself included, live constant sympathetic lives. We’re stressed all day long and then we train with intensity to buffer off the stress. This is problematic. Not immediately so, but over time as the chemical reactions from training and the stress in our lives compile, we may not be aware of the damage we’re inflicting until our bodies completely lose the ability to recover.

Lucky for us, nature provides inherent balance. Let’s take a lion and gazelle for example. For the lion hunting the gazelle, both animals are in a sympathetic state. The difference is that the lion wants to be in that stressful situation. The gazelle does not.

And once that race is over, nature restores balance as both the lion and gazelle (assuming she escaped) down-regulate and become parasympathetic almost immediately. We see the same abilities in the animals in our lives. Dogs bark at the sight of a possible intruder and then relax. A dog that barks all day will have behavioral problems, largely due to existing in a constant heightened state.

We human animals are no different. If we’re paying attention, nature in her infinite wisdom tells us when to downshift to parasympathetic responses. The question is whether we can hear her call. My guess is that boredom and swapping technology for experiences our environment are severely limiting our ability to remove ourselves from stressful situations. In fact, there’s a small but growing movement that believes avoidance with the surface of the Earth may be a major contributor to physiological dysfunction and chronic stress. One study, for example, found that contact with the Earth’s surface electrons may be an untapped health resource, one that can be accessed simply by being outside and barefoot.

As author of Sapiens Yuval Harari so finely put it, there is nothing “more dangerous than an intelligent, bored animal.” When we’re bored, when we have to live vicariously through celebrity culture or what the media has dredged up about presidential candidates, we become emotionally involved in events for which we have no attachment. We have no daily interaction with natural sympathetic and parasympathetic shifts, so we manifest tragedy and refuse to release ourselves.

Children, though, are almost never bored. As a child, if I was bored I went outside and explored. The rule in my house was I had to be home when the streetlights first shone. I was fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood with a forest, with friends I could explore with and skateboard with. When I wasn’t outside in nature – when I was confined indoors and bored – I become very destructive.

If we are in nature and more in tune with our environment, we can find balance. After vacation, everyone returns revived and refreshed – the parasympathetic state. When I arrive in Hawaii, for example, it takes me three days to down regulate from what can feel like my standard 800 miles per hour, when I’m trying to solve all my issues at once and commit to more than I can manage. Hawaii gives me a reality check every time; a reminder to spend time on myself, to explore, to sleep. It’s natural law that we return to those patterns.

And speaking of busy, reframe your thoughts. Busy is unorganized. You have to enjoy your life, what you’re doing. Living is not plowing unheeded through life’s list of unpleasant tasks. Look at the process and understand. Being busy just to be busy, working at a job you don’t like to buy things you don’t need to live a life you’re not living – what’s the point? Find your balance.