Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sweat Don't Fret; or Don't let stress destroy your fitness

"The contents of this [blog] are personal and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps."

I'm reading Robert Sapolsky's Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and it has a lot of interesting information on how long-term and repeated stress can impact our lives. He uses a lot of references to animals throughout the book some of which is pretty interesting(for example, did you know that a female hyena's clitoris is larger than her counterpart's penis? Well, for better or worse, now you know;) ). Anyway the book does a great job of presented some pretty research and data density studies in a funny and insightful manner making it easy to read and apply.

So today's application is that of stress on the endurance athlete. I've already written about the sustainability of an endurance athlete, but this book does a nice job talking about how our bodies' desire to maintain homeostasis can start putting stress on the body that actually is detrimental. Decalcified bones, loss of bone mass and increased risk of stress fractures all come with increased training loads(this however needs to be taken, somewhat with a grain of salt because oftentimes it is the runner who increases total running mileage rather than the one who is consistently maintaining it who actually gets the stress fractures). It's not just your skeletal that takes a beating though.

As exercise becomes excessive you have less luteinizing hormone release hormone(LHRH) which through a series of cascading events results in decreased testosterone. Also, due to the increased time training there is higher time spent with your sympathetic nervous system(the 4 F's-fright, fight, flight, and sex) running on high which results in higher levels of glucocorticosteroids running around which actually diminishes your immune system's efficacy as well as a can contribute to vasoconstriction of your heart's vessels and lead to cardiac issues.

What can be done? 

Well before you throw away your running sneakers and buy all 30 seasons of the Simpsons, take note that most of us aren't getting anywhere near the mileage needed to actually have negative impact on our bodies. Even in my highest mileage weeks I was barely hitting the low range(50 miles) that he discusses as when the problem can start.

But if you are in that range, I would definitely make these few suggestions:

  • Try to elimination stress from other areas of your life- It's all about total amount of time spent in that fight or flight mode so if you can diminish some of it elsewhere, you may be better off. 
  • Engage the parasympathetic system. Mindfulness meditation, self-talk, yoga can all be ways to help engage that other nervous system(rest and digest).
  • Allow for sufficient recovery from workouts. This is probably the biggest one. Sorry to bury the lead but what's the difference between professional athletes and amateurs? After a pro finishes her workout, she puts her feet up on the couch and takes a nap (After eating a 4:1 carb:protein recovery snack of course). The exception to this is Amber who as far as I know is the only successful triathlete who works a full-time job. Meanwhile the harried amateur rushes off to work where there is probably even more stress thrown his way. If you can take even just a few minutes of calming time to yourself after your big workouts, you probably will be helping yourself out.

In general, while acute stress, like when a Zebra is running away from a lion is good because it mobilizing energy stores and preps your heart, long-term high levels of stress is not. Find out those areas of your life that are highly stressful and do what you can to help reduce or eliminate them. Easier said than done. Although a big part of stress is your reaction to it. Made to wait in line for two hours(which is typical of anytime you need to go to the ATM in Guyana)? Bring a book. Now you're not waiting but reading. Remember it's all about mindset and management of your expectations. Well, almost all that.

Anyway, you don't have to take my word for it, find out for yourself! It's worth the read.

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