The fitness industry has become a marketplace for any pill, powder, or product bold enough to claim (no matter how illegitimate) to add additional muscle or drop unwanted fat. Thousands spend hard earned money on products that boast very little scientific backing, in an attempt to improve results and compensate for deficiencies. Yet, some of the most important and beneficial factors in an athlete’s success are the cheapest to address.
One of the largest contributors to an athlete’s success is simply better management of long-term stress levels. Take all the ashwagandha extract you want, but if you’re constantly stressed to the max without taking steps to manage it as best you can, no powder or potion can account for the impact it can have on your long-term performance and development.
Although some stress is unavoidable (and arguably an important driver for productivity), making sure we’re taking steps to better prepare ourselves to withstand all that a busy life entails can make it easier not only to progress in our fitness pursuits, but also to just flat out enjoy the process more along the way.
Stress & Fat Loss
Plenty of us are focused on adding muscle, and lots of it. Whether the pursuit is bodybuilding & powerlifting success, or simply just to look better, gaining muscle is a large priority for many of us here on BioLayne.com. That said, although chronically high stress levels can hinder our efforts in muscle growth too, perhaps of even more interest is stress and its negative effects on fat loss. Chronically elevated cortisol can hinder metabolic efficiency. In extreme circumstances, it can contribute to metabolic syndrome in otherwise sedentary individuals. In more day-to-day circumstances, that can mean reduced ability to lose body fat when dieting  and increased propensity to over consume high calorie foods. 
Anecdotally, I’ve seen its effects nearly countless times over my online coaching career. Athletes enter a dieting phase, we begin making diet and cardio adjustments to sput fat loss, and then…. nothing. Fat loss seems to stall no matter how many or what kind of adjustments we make. As we begin looking into possible causes, we find out they’re currently dealing with astronomically high stress levels. As we work together to improve their weekly scheduling, tweak the program to accommodate, and work on improved sleeping habits- seemingly overnight fat loss picks up and the dieting phase begins progressing much smoother.
Not only can stress hinder dieting success through chronically elevated cortisol levels hindering fat loss and muscle recovery, but also through increasing the likelihood of unhealthy coping behaviors that can compound the problem.  We’ve all been there. It’s not just the stress itself hindering our progress, but the mental toll it can take on us when we reach our boiling point. Too much for too long, and thoughts of dropping responsibilities altogether to assuage the problem, start to creep in more and more readily. The first of those to go on the chopping block is often adherence to our training and nutrition plan.
So, stress management is kind of a big deal. With a little proactivity we can get ahead of the problem and avoid reaching a boiling point in the first place. Below, I’ve touched on a few of the major stress management strategies I emphasize to my clients which tend to go a long way in reducing stress levels and improving the adherence and effectiveness of the programming we’re working on together.
Although we look to research-backed principles to base the foundation of our programming on, the reality of individual response and need is always present as well. The better athletes and coaches become at aligning their training with current stress levels and scheduling needs, the better we can maximize the quality of sessions and long-term results. In other words, this means using the generalized results of research and then making educated decisions on how to mold it to fit individual situations.
As much as on paper, there are certain progressions in volume and intensity which athletes are suggested to aim for. I’ve come to really appreciate the benefits of simply aligning training sequences with schedules as much as the textbook “next step.” A perfect example of how training may adapt throughout a year are the college students I’ve worked with both in the past and present.
For these athletes, periodization often entails having higher volume (often longer workouts and requiring more recovery) during less stressful stretches of time such as summer and winter breaks. Then, we often lower training volume or total sessions per week as students get closer to final exams of each semester- a period of time when sleep is often lacking, stress is at its highest, and time constraints make multi-hour training sessions all but impossible.
Even though technically longer or shorter periods of a given training volume may be “optimal” on paper, they may not be optimal for the individual athletes in their given circumstances. Instead, adjusting based on schedule and stress management keeps the athletes training consistently, recovering better, able to progressively overload, and continue avoiding the yo-yo start and stop that can come from forcing workouts that simply aren’t ideal for the given situation.
In an ideal world, I would love to only run de-load weeks on an “as needed” basis with athletes. If an athlete is in a great groove, progressing consistently, maintaining high energy levels and recovering well, I like to allow him or her the chance to keep riding that wave of momentum rather than busting up the momentum with a pre-determined deload phase. That’s actually my main issue with having pre-planned deload weeks too often in an athlete’s training. The fact is most take those scheduled deloads to heart and will often forgo staying in a great groove simply because it was “in the plan” to take the deload on X dates.
However, on the other side of the coin, once again some populations may not be best suited for this style of deload planning. By taking deload weeks on an as-needed basis, the need can sometimes sneak up on athlete and coach and the realization that it’s time to tap the brakes and allow for more recovery before pressing onward may not be recognized until the athlete is already pretty beat up.
As you probably expected, these considerations have lead me to take a sort of “middle ground” between the two thoughts. I’ve started to keep deload weeks in mind based on each athlete’s scheduling needs throughout the year.
Let’s return to our college athlete example. Just as programming lower training volumes around finals could be helpful, so too would be planning de-load weeks for the week of finals itself. The most stressful period of time for a college student can be at least in part countered by a low stress, lower time-intensive training block that can help him or her to recover better and tend to exams without overall training progression being disrupted.
For those not in colleges anymore, the same approach can be translated into the workforce. In particular, if an athlete’s job is often busiest in certain seasons of the year, planning ahead of time to allow for lower training volumes in the busy season, and tentative deload weeks during what’s expected to the busiest weeks of the year can help make training feel like less of a chore, keep recovery higher, and make it easier to maintain the proper intensity during the more intensive training blocks in other parts of the year.
In short, thinking of training volume/intensity and life stress as two ends of a seesaw can be great for long-term training programming. When life and work are at their peak of stress, countering that with lower training stress can help balance recovery and mental wellbeing. As stress management and scheduling needs allow, shifting into higher training volumes and potentially spacing planned deload weeks father apart to ride the wave of progression can help better take advantage of sweet spots while hedging our bets when things get crazy. 
This is easier said than done, and equally obvious of a suggestion, but the more self aware we are of our stress levels, the more we need to identify tasks that help us relax and find time to do them. Each person is different, but finding activities that can be easily enjoyed during the week that we can sneak into our busy schedule periodically can go a long way in helping us get a mental break and recharge along the way.
For a lot of athletes, something as simple as taking brief walks outside on their lunch break can help with clearing their heads during hectic workweeks. Others find sneaking in 15-20 minutes of reading in the evening to help get their minds off current stressors and wind down. In contrast, I can say from personal experience during weeks or months I don’t force myself to do some sort of “wind down task,” I can easily get stuck focusing only on the things stressing me out, compounding the toll the stress ultimately takes on me.
While anything but an all-inclusive list, below are just a few ideas of relaxing hobbies we can use to get away from the hustle and bustle of our weeks and help maintain a better stress/relaxation balance.
- Naps and Baths
- Nature walks
- Non-Fitness Hobbies (fishing, reading, chess)
- Professional Massage
- Family Movie Nights, etc.
- Learn a New Skill (for fun, not profit)
Sleep More – Stress Less
It doesn’t take a PubMed citation for us all to agree it’s a lot easier to manage life’s stresses when we’ve been getting enough sleep. As simple of a tool as it can be to enhance our daily lives, it’s equally as easy to neglect. One of the very first things I do for athletes struggling with stress management is just helping to develop a plan to improve sleep.
Even in situations where more sleep isn’t necessarily possible due to schedule constraints, even just improving the quality of sleep can pay dividends for improving fat loss, training performance, and just overall better peace of mind. Especially for those in contest prep, making a point to maximize whatever sleep athletes can get has helped facilitate progress for countless athletes I’ve teamed up with.
Athletes start taking more control of their sleep and quickly notice improved hunger regulation,  lower stress (and thus cortisol levels), and better energy to go toward their training and personal lives, making seemingly everything go that much smoother.
Easy Tips for Improving Sleep Quality:
- Avoid bright lights/electronics (or use blue light filters) at least 1 hour prior to bed.
- Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours prior to bed.
- Sleep in as dark of an environment as possible.
- Sleep in a cool environment.
- Read or do other relaxing activities just prior to bed.
Find Your Sweet Spot
Throughout any discussion on the topic, it’s important to keep in mind that “stressed” is very, very relative. What one person considers overwhelming could be nothing short of exciting and productive to another. Even the same person should arguably adapt and better handle higher levels of stress throughout a lifetime. It would be impossible to say, “at this point in your schedule you should do X or reduce Y.”
What we can do is work to become better at assessing our own stress levels at any given point in time, then implementing strategies like those above to help us find a sweet spot that allows us to function as effectively as possible along the way. Moving forward some, every day, is much better than moving forward hot and heavy only to then have a long lay off after burning ourselves out. Being honest with what we can handle, then molding our programming and commitments to fit that can go a long way in helping us make the most of any situation rather than letting it deter us from getting where we want to go.
- Anagnostis, P., Athyros, V. G., Tziomalos, K., Karagiannis, A., & Mikhailidis, D. P. (2009). The Pathogenetic Role of Cortisol in the Metabolic Syndrome: A Hypothesis. Endocrinology, 150(7), 3433-3433. doi:10.1210/endo.150.7.9998
- Dallman, M. F., Fleur, S. E., Pecoraro, N. C., Gomez, F., Houshyar, H., & Akana, S. F. (2004). Minireview: Glucocorticoids—Food Intake, Abdominal Obesity, and Wealthy Nations in 2004. Endocrinology, 145(6), 2633-2638. doi:10.1210/en.2004-0037
- Ng, D. M., & Jeffery, R. W. (2003). Relationships Between Perceived Stress and Health Behaviors in a Sample of Working Adults. Health Psychology,22(6), 638-642. doi:10.1037/0278-6188.8.131.528
- Morselli, L., Leproult, R., Balbo, M., & Spiegel, K. (2010). Role of sleep duration in the regulation of glucose metabolism and appetite. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 24(5), 687-702. doi:10.1016/j.beem.2010.07.005
- Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, 95-102. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01192.x