Stress and Running
Running is an incredibly effective and immediate stress-reducing activity, you can often hear me saying the running cures everything. It clears the mind, stimulated the release of “happy” hormones, it can increase your energy levels, help you to lose weight, gain fitness, the list is quite long. There has been a lot of money invested over the years by England Athletics to encourage people to get moving, campaigns like “This Girl Can” “Couch to 5k” “Run and Talk” “Run Together” as running is seen as a “good” form of stress release and can help benefit people with mental health problems.
BUT what happens when running becomes unproductive, what happens when running saps your energy, disturbs your sleep, even raises your stress hormones, causes you physical aches and pains and completely zaps you of your motivation. What can you do when instead of jumping out of bed on a Sunday morning you have reached a point where you have no energy to barely make yourself a cup of tea and crawl back into bed?
Stress can be a good thing and aid you in your running performance, the increase in heart rate at the start of the race, the adrenalin pumping can help you achieve your PB’s. A few nerves when you turn up at a new training session will also help you run up that hill or enable you to run faster on another lap. Also stress is good for when we train, we are seeking this ‘optimal’ level of stress that leads to improved performance. From a physical standpoint, it’s actually quite easy to determine the appropriate amount of volume, intensity, and recovery that should result in improved performance. If we do workout X and long run Y and take a rest day, we should see improvements. While that looks good on paper, it often doesn’t translate to real life. Why not?
What we need to consider is that stress from other areas of your life can erode the body’s ability to recover from running. Worry, anxiety, pressure at work as well as feelings of being completely overwhelmed by life, all these forms of psychological stress can cause fatigue, illness, sleep problems, irritability and so much more.
The thing about stress is that it doesn’t recognise the difference between a hard hill session or whether you are worrying about paying the bills, your body responds in the same way. On a very basic level you have an increase in the stress hormone cortisol which is one of the key components in your fight or flight response and whilst these levels are increased, if we don’t rest, recover and adapt to the stress these hormones can stay in our body and may cause long term illness. Nowadays we seem to be exposed to stress constantly, these stressors can range from major life events like moving house/divorce/Christmas etc. to daily hassles like losing your house keys, job stress, social media (seeing how many pb’s people have achieved/ seeing how successful and beautiful your old school friend is/how many amazing holidays everyone is having) road rage, again the list can be quite endless.
How does all of this fit into running? The stress response we have from either major life events or daily hassles can result in an overtaxed body that finds it hard to recover from the physical stress of running. We can get caught up on just the physical side of running, for example what our weekly mileage is, what our pace is per mile and how much effort we have put into a particular training run. Sometimes when it goes wrong we tend to look at just the physical self to see the cause of the issue. What you need to do is look at other areas outside of your running, not just the physical part but also our emotional, social, intellectual, environmental and occupational part as well. All of these components effect our running, if you have had a busy, stressful day at work and are mentally and emotionally drained then you cannot expect your body not to be affected by your day, so if you put a demand on it like running later on in the evening you must be prepared for the physical component to be compromised. If you ignore your everyday stressors and continue running and training without proper rest and recovery, then over a period of time you may experience a gradual accumulation of tiredness that slows or even stops the natural adaptation response to stress. Unfortunately, this can happen slowly, it can creep up on you and it can lead to injury, illness and in some cases exhaustion.
All my training plans focus on physical factors, how many miles per week you need to run to achieve your end goal, they do not consider any other components that may affect your performance. All of your stressors in your life should be treated in the same way as physical stress in terms of how it affects the body. That doesn’t mean that you should stop training every time something stressful happens, it just means that you should be kind to yourself, listen to your body and fit the training plans around your life. You can move the workouts around to fit with you and your lifestyle, if you’ve had a busy week make the weekend run an easy enjoyable one, rest and recover so that your body can adapt.
Be realistic about what you can achieve, are you going through a tough time at the moment, is this the right time to train and put everything into achieving a new PB whether this is a 5k, 10k, half or even a marathon. What do you want to achieve in your running this year? Do you want to keep enjoying it? Or are you putting the whole of you under a great deal of pressure so that ultimately you may exhaust yourself to the point of never wanting to run again. Run without a plan or a watch and just use it as a stress release so that running becomes productive rather than unproductive?
If life is good and your stress is manageable then look at the different training plans, what plan is realistic, how busy are you, how many runs can you fit in per week, are you on your feet all day? Take one week at a time, respect the miles and be mindful of what your body needs, take a day off when you need to, be kind to yourself and don’t underestimate the impact of stress on your traini