[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
On New Year's Day of 2022, I began an ultra race called Tuscobia in Northern Wisconsin. I was "only" signed up for the 80 mile distance, but the full race is a 160 mile out and back event. Temperatures were projected to be low all day, with a high temperature of only 2 degrees Fahrenheit. I wasn't totally prepared for the cold conditions, and I wasn't mentally ready to take on such an event. I was tired from a year of training and racing. I was in the middle of starting a new job for a poorly-run, chaotic tech company. I was mentally stressed and physically exhausted. Twenty miles in, my shirt was frozen to my wrists and my neck. I started shivering, and I didn't have the emotionally bandwidth to problem solve. I was on the precipice of crying when my parents picked me up, turning up the heat in their SUV to thaw my frozen limbs.
I didn't feel bad that I dropped out, but I did feel a bit regretful of starting. I had over-subscribed myself that fall/winter, and even into spring. I was racing too much, not sleeping enough, and living with constant job-related stress. I was burnt out, even if I didn't like to admit it. But training for and running ultra marathons requires a great deal of physical and mental endurance, and the stress I was under was limiting my ability to endure.
Trying to engage in physically stressful activities while also grappling with mental stress is not only difficult, but harmful. A study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that mental fatigue negatively affects physical performance. Cognition and muscles are both controlled by the anterior cingulate cortex, so if your brain is already tired before you start exercising, there’s a good chance your muscles may be, too. And if you're beginning a difficult workout or a hard physical task already stressed, you increase your risk of injury, lose motivation, and you might notice stalled progress. Here are six important things to know about stress and exercise:
Stress increases muscle tension. Because muscle tension has a negative affect on motor control, our risk of injury increases. Stress also slows down how quickly our tissues repair themselves leading to longer recovery times.
Stress hinders concentration. If you're stressed and trying to complete a complicated task (like a compound lift), your performance will suffer. Lack of focus can also lead to more injuries if you're distracted from the task at hand. Most injuries occur quickly and in moments of lapsed concentration.
Stress can affect vision. Chronic, high levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can cause blurry vision and disrupt hand-eye coordination. In sports that require a high degree of coordination, performance falls precipitously alongside stress.
Stress hinders progress. A study in a Huffington Post article showed that out of regular exercisers, those who reported the highest stress levels showed significantly less improvement over a two-week period than those who were not. Stress also hinders recovery, making it harder to log more quality workouts. If stress is affecting your sleep, recovery is doubly hard.
Stress makes it harder to lose weight. Our primary stress hormone, cortisol, can lead to packing on extra (and stubborn) pounds. Stress has also been shown to increase food cravings and the risk of depression. In one study, 500 participants were monitored to see if sleep, depression, and stress have a direct effect on weight loss. Each person ate a regulated diet and performed the same amount of exercise. They kept track of their food, weight, stress, and sleep and the results quickly showed that stress and sleep were the two strongest indicators of weight loss or gain. Those with more stress slept less and lost less weight (some participants even gained weight).
Stress steals your motivation. People living high-stress lives tend to be more sedentary and, according to multiple studies, over 30% less likely to workout regularly. While some people exercise as a way to relieve stress, just as many people find stress paralyzing and a major reason why they don't exercise.
The way that I got past feeling burnt out was simple: I rested, but not until I had to. Less than two months after Tuscobia, I ran Black Canyon 100k, irritating a tendon in my right foot that took weeks to calm down. I ran past the point of burn-out, with work and life related stress making me feel even more tired than I already was. It's not surprising that my body forced me to slow down. And my performance at Black Canyon wasn't nearly as good as it could have been.
I'll write about how women can train in sync with their hormone cycles another day, but a huge part of staying healthy is listening to your body, tuning into how much you can push, and resting when you need to rest. On days when you might feel highly stressed, consider dialing back the exercise intensity. And if you'd rather find better ways to manage stress, there are a million resources out there. The lesson I have (slowly) learned about exercise is that it does no good to push it too hard too often, especially when doing so is compounding already existing stress.