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Commonwealth Powerlifting Champion. Twitter – @TheDomWTF
It may not be the greatest leap of logic since we confirmed that inhaling burning tobacco is bad for us, but researchers have now confirmed that psychological stress can play havoc with your physical recovery from training or competition.
The latest study, which will be published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning in early 2014, subjected a group to heavy resistance training then examined their life event and perceived stress in relation to muscular function, fatigue and soreness at regular intervals in the four days after the session. In all analyses, higher stress was associated with worse recovery.
This followed a study by the same team at the Yale Stress Center, where they examined the recovery of leg strength one hour after an exhausting workout with heavy leg weights. The subjects with the lowest stress had regained 60 per cent of their lost leg strength, while the high-stress students had regained only 38 per cent.
An earlier study again from researchers at Ohio – who had obviously watched too many Saw movies – looked directly at the effects of psychological stress on healing and repair. A group of students agreed to have two 3.5mm wounds punched into the roof of their mouth, one during a vacation period and the other three days before their first exam. The wounds took eight days on average to heal during vacation and 11 days during exams – not a single student healed more quickly during the exam period.
Stress can create a chronic over activation of the stress hormone response – mainly cortisol, in addition to many other chemicals in the body that all play a part in the inflammatory response that repairs damage in the body. Add to this a bunch of other negative physiological effects such as irregular muscular activation, altered breathing, low blood pH, altered neural firing patterns and you can see why the stressed mind can slow the body’s recovery to physical stress. An even more holistic view, especially when we look at the students subjected to the scientists from Saw, is that stressed out athletes will be less likely to get enough sleep or have quality sleep, plus they’ll be less likely to eat well and generally take care of themselves in other ways that will affect their recovery.
Even the top athletes can’t put their minders between themselves and all the life stress situations that might come up, but we can all try to influence the way we react to them and actively relax ourselves at times that are most important to our recovery.
After training, do you rush straight off to the stresses of your work or daily life? Or beat up on yourself about whether your training is where you need it to be to meet your goals?
Like other aspects of recovery – nutrition, stretching, compression – what you do in the first 30 minutes after training or competition may well be a vital time to addressing psychological stress.
As athletes, we flog our bodies, dragging ourselves through training sessions, so it’s easy to forget that so much of the important work in developing our skills and physical attributes occurs while we’re lying in bed doing nothing. When sleep suffers – even when it’s just quality, not quantity – our physical recovery and ability to cope with stress (which in turn affects our recovery) also suffers.
A report on sleep from the Scottish Institute of Sport points to ‘overdreaming’ as a cause of poor recovery and is often indicated by a feeling of exhaustion when you wake up. This is common in people with depression, and it’s a reason why they are often better off training later in the day –first thing in the morning tends to be the worst time of day for people with depression. Overdreaming and/or recurring dreams come about when you continually have thoughts about the same problems going through your head, and they don’t stop at the onset of sleep, so the loop continues in your dreams. Too much time in dream sleep means you miss out on the physically rejuvenating slow wave sleep, plus you flood your system with adrenaline and other stress hormones. The solution sounds simpler than it often is to actually do – cut down on emotional arousal and too much thinking in the hour before you go to sleep. These things can help:
We can’t avoid all stress in our life, but what we can do is learn how to deal with it and face up to the reality of how it effects our recovery. Here’s some points to keep in mind:
When you’re under a lot of stress and much of it is beyond your control, then you may need to back off the physical and mental intensity of training and/or allow yourself more time to recover.