Stress Response & Running Performance
by Jason Gootman, MS, CSCS
Stress, in relation to health, is any stimulus that affects the body's normal set point. This set point is called "homeostasis." It is reached by maintaining a constant internal environment through a complex integration of biochemical processes. Thanks to endocrinologist Hans Seyle, we know that our bodies tackle stress with one general response(1).
When encountering a new or changed stressor (lack of sleep or a new exercise), your body experiences a form of shock. During this time, it reacts with a predictable chain of events (i.e. soreness, fatigue) to stimulate rest and rejuvenation-based actions.
If the new stress is not removed, a process called "maladaption" occurs. This is what athletes know as overtraining syndrome. If the symptoms of maladaption (fatigue, frequent colds/infections, frequent or chronic injury, high levels of the biochemical markers of inflammation, etc.) are not noted and fixed, they ultimately lead to tremendous injury (i.e., destroyed cartilage in the joint of an over-achieving runner) and eventually to death.
Let's look at a typical athlete and examine how her lifestyle choices affect her internal physiology - and consequently her health and performance.
Jane Normal is a 37-year-old runner. She is married and has two young children, ages three and seven. Jane works 40-50 hours a week in a law office outside Chicago. While she has been active her whole life, she began running after the birth of her first child as a way to lose some weight. She soon made it her primary form of physical activity.
Three years ago, Jane decided to enter a race. She ran a 5K and loved it. She has been racing 5Ks and 10Ks ever since, placing well in her age group. This year, Jane decided to train for a June marathon.
It is a tough winter, and Jane is very busy with work and her family. Her preparation time minimized, she decides that the "quality over quantity" method of training is the way to go. Despite her busy schedule, Jane makes time to train six days per week, averaging 8-10 hours/week. She uses a heart rate monitor, staying at 80% of her maximum heart rate.
Although running conditions are poor most of the time, Jane hangs tough. She believes that activities like swimming or cross-country skiing will not prepare her for the demands of running a marathon.
Jane follows the Food Guide Pyramid and eats plenty of whole grains like pasta, bread and cereal bars to fuel her tough training. She steers clear of fat to avoid packing on any unnecessary weight.
At the beginning of April, Jane becomes sick and blames it on exposure to people in her job. Not wanting to miss valuable training time, Jane goes to the doctor, who prescribes an antibiotic for her upper respiratory tract infection. Jane takes the medication and keeps training. Ten days later, she is feeling okay but, about a week later, Jane is sick again. This time, it is a mild infection that leaves her feeling groggy and under the weather. Knowing that the marathon is only two months away, Jane keeps training.
As spring comes, Jane's children become involved in soccer and Little League. Jane's need to transport her children and desire to watch their games now makes her time even more limited. Jane feels pulled in many directions, but despite this she continues to build her weekly mileage in preparation for the marathon.
In early May, she feels a small twinge of pain in her left knee. There is only one month until her marathon now, and Jane knows that she must keep running in order to be ready. Jane tries taking two Advil a day for a week, which helps some. When the pain persists, she ups the dose to three Advil a day. After a few days, Jane's pain is alleviated, and she pushes ahead with her training.
The marathon comes and Jane manages to finish. The first 10 miles go pretty well, but after that it becomes a walk-a-little/run-a-little struggle. Her stomach is so upset she has trouble taking in any calories. By mile 17, she doesn't even want to drink water and she becomes very dehydrated.
Despite her disappointing time and obvious struggle, Jane's family and friends all congratulate her on working so hard, blaming her poor performance on bad luck. Jane blames it on lack of fitness and decides she needs to put in more mileage and hill work. With great enthusiasm and a strong work ethic, Jane keeps on training hard, deciding to enter a fall marathon.
Let's take a peek inside Jane's body and see what occurred physiologically during these months and what led to her disappointing performance.
Jane's training (like everyone's) created a phenomenon known as Adaptive Microtrauma (AM) - the bone/muscle/connective tissue trauma caused by normal exercising. Generally speaking, this type of "injury," if allowed to recover, stimulates positive adaptations, resulting in improved performance. If AM is not allowed to repair, a cycle of inflammation occurs that starts locally at the site of injury and eventually grows to a systemic level. This inflammation is microscopic and is started by pro-inflammatory messengers called cytokines(2). This cycle of maladaption was accelerated in Jane for a several reasons.
First, she used only running in her training program. Running causes a great degree of AM, resulting from strong eccentric contractions upon every foot strike. Jane's high-stress lifestyle (resulting in chronically high levels of adrenalin), her poor diet (high in refined grains/sugar and very low fat) and anaerobic-based training without a well-developed aerobic system all contributed to accelerating the process of systemic inflammation as well.
One serious consequence of this is a weakened immune system. Jane became sick easily, and was given antibiotics. Antibiotics target many types of microorganisms - not just the bad ones! As a result, Jane's gut was stripped of the normal flora that help digestion. Since yeast is the first flora to reestablish, they infest Jane's gut before the other microorganisms can regenerate(3). Since Jane was eating plenty of pasta and other refined grains like cereal bars, the yeast in her gut were flourishing and Jane's body was being poisoned by toxins released through the yeast's metabolism, including acetaldehyde and alcohol. The alcohol decreases the availability of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, which are already at low levels because of Jane's low-fat diet3. These fatty acids are essential for the formation of a chemical called prostaglandin. Prostaglandin stimulates the production of T-Lymphocytes, the body's first line of defense from infection. Since T-lymphocyte production has been reduced, the body becomes easily invaded by new pathogens, causing Jane's second low-grade infection. Now Jane has had two infections and a chronic level of alcohol affecting her brain by inhibiting the development and growth of nerve nets that allow optimal neural function(3).
At this point, Jane is unable to produce high quality movement patterns and begins to experience knee pain, a symptom of a biomechanical dysfunction of some sort (muscle imbalance).
Rather than correct the imbalance, Jane attempts to cover up the pain with Advil, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). NSAIDs temporarily promote balance between your body's natural pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemicals. In addition to providing only temporary relief, NSAIDs have serious side effects if taken for an extended period of time, including gastrointestinal bleeding and disruption of healthy digestion(4).
Jane kept training hard, increasing the microtrauma to her musculoskeletal system and this, in concert with the infections she suffered and the yeast proliferation in her gut, created an even greater degree of systemic inflammation. The result was a steady decline in Jane's level of homeostasis (health). As health decreases, so does performance, so Jane's poor race was not surprising.
Five Tips to Manage Stress While Training
Here is a list of things Jane could have done and you can do to promote the positive management of stressors and continually grow healthier and stronger:
By applying these tips to your training and controlling the stressors in your life, you will go a long way towards improving your health and, ultimately, to reaching YOUR peak performance!
- Build your aerobic metabolism to very high levels before incorporating anaerobic exercise. This means relying primarily on comfortable efforts at moderate heart rates (i.e. Less than 70% max heart rate). Use anaerobic exercise carefully. A little goes a long way!
- Cross-train. Besides giving your body a break from the eccentric demands of running, cross training can help create balance between locomotion and stabilization musculature. Resistance training, swimming, cycling, basketball, racquetball, tennis, soccer are all great forms of cross training for runners.
- Avoid processed and refined foods. Instead, choose real, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, nuts, seeds and truly whole grains. Avoid low-fat diets. Fats provide essential nutrients. Drink water copiously throughout the day.
- Avoid medication unless you have consulted with your doctor first. When you are ill or fatigued, rest is the answer. Period. That does not mean you should not seek medical treatment. It means that "training through" or "being a trooper" is naive. Train smart! Treat your body well, and make rest a priority.
- Make efforts to control the hectic nature of your life. Make sure to set some time each day for relaxation, even if it is a very short time. Make sure to get a good night's sleep each night. You are worth it!
1. Selye, Hans. The Stress Of Life. McGraw Hill Book Co. USA 1976.
2. Smith, Lucille Lakier. Cytokine hypothesis of overtraining: a physiological adaptation to excessive stress? Med Sci Sports Exerc. Feb 2000.
3. Hannaford, Carla. Smart Moves, Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head. Great Ocean Publishers, Arlington VA, USA 1995.
4. Maffetone, Phillip; Eating for Endurance. David Barmore Productions. Stamford, NY USA 1999.
Jason Gootman, MS, CSCS and Will Kirousis, BS, CSCS own and operate Tri-Hard Sports Conditioning Systems, a coaching and educational company dedicated to the improvement of physical and mental performance through the optimization of health. Highly trained in exercise science, including neuromuscular function, metabolism, biomechanics, sport nutrition, exercise prescription and fitness evaluation, they have created a system of conditioning that works for groups and individual athletes competing in a variety of sports. They are highly competitive multi-sport athletes themselves. You can reach them at email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org.