Why has life become so stressful? You can’t understand why you have become so stuck in the rat race of life. It has taken over your entire being and now your training is suffering too. How are stress and sports performance linked?
What it’s doing to your training goals plays a huge role in why you’re not progressing as well as you’d hoped.
Stress and Athletic Performance Decline
As humans, we are wired to cope with stress on a chemical and hormonal level. You can call it what you want — “stress,” “anxiety,” “worry.” Or, for the tough type, you’ll probably go on telling yourself that you’re fine.
In the meantime, your heart rate has increased and won’t slow down, and your stomach has a nauseous feeling that won’t go away. You may think your stress is insignificant and a normal feeling, but this chronic state elevates a hormone called cortisol.
Prolonged exposure to this hormone makes it harder to lose weight. It can also reduce your rate of recovery by inhibiting normal immune system function.
Additionally, it may put the body into a catabolic state (meaning it may become difficult to build muscle). It’s impossible for our bodies to stay in this state for long periods of time — and chronic exposure can negatively affect your training goals.
Why Can’t I Lose Weight?
I Can’t Lose Weight
Before you blame cortisol, ask yourself if you’re training hard enough and eating the right foods. It’s easy to place blame elsewhere. But — first things first — are you doing everything right?
I Can’t Get to Where I Once Was
Stop living in the past. Life today is different to what it once was, so you shouldn’t keep comparing yourself now to your younger self.
I Have Plateaued
So what if your weight loss journey has come to a standstill? Focus on the positive — you have already lost weight! If you stress over losing the last few pounds, this may be what is inhibiting your ability to lose more.
When we are stressed, our brain sends a signal to our adrenal glands to release adrenaline. Back in the Palaeolithic era when man perceived threat, adrenalin was released by the adrenal glands. Known as the “fight or flight response,” it helped our ancestors to survive in life or death situations. This chemical was secreted as a physiological response to the danger.
Although today’s stressors are much more insignificant to those thousands of years ago, the same mechanisms are still ingrained within our brains. That feeling of your heart racing and shortness of breath are both symptoms of this reaction.
Your body cannot stay in this condition for long, so what it does next is release cortisol. This shuts down all other bodily functions so more energy can be devoted to the threat at hand.
But, what does all this mean for your metabolism?
Maybe this is why you suffer from the “Yo-Yo” effect, or feel stagnant in your weight loss. If you constantly produce cortisol and you continue to subject your body to these hormones, eventually your adrenal glands will become tired.
The adrenal glands will cease to function as they should — and here is where your weight loss difficulties can begin. Over time, it will become harder to lose that weight and your frustrations will only make you more stressed.
Remember, anxiety and sports performance diminishing are connected. So, just keep your nutrition and training on track — and try to stop stressing, right? Easier said than done I know, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just keep at it, control the controllable and don’t give up.
Why Do I Always Get Injured?
Now we understand the function of cortisol, it’s safe to say that chronic exposure to this hormone can also play a part in sickness and recovery. Obviously, this is omitting any other, more serious, health conditions.
If you are the sort of person who experiences high levels of stress, you’re probably someone who gets sick a lot and doesn’t understand why. But how can you expect your immune system to function at its best, with cortisol lingering in your system, telling it to shut down in response to your stress?
This is when problems such as anxiety can lead you to regular visits to the doctor. Or worse, it could become your silent killer.
For you injury prone individuals who cannot recover from old and new injuries, it’s very simple. When the anti-inflammatory components within your system decrease, pro-inflammatory cytokines increase.
This is a neurochemical cost, associated with prolonged exposure to cortisol and leading to a reduction in the healing process. You should stop asking yourself the old “Why does this always happen to me?” question, because this will just make things worse.
My advice for those of you struggling with recovery is to re-shift your focus. Work on something else and set realistic — and achievable — goals for your recovery. The more you worry, the longer it will take you to recover.
Before I continue on with the next topic on how stress affects muscle gain and strength, for you women out there who are ready to stop reading — DON’T.
I’d like to remind you that the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism will become and the more fat you can burn.
Muscle and Strength Gains
I have spoken briefly about the role of cortisol. But for you brawny humans out there who want more strength and better body composition, it’s important to know this fact:
Cortisol is a hormone that is extremely catabolic in nature and will down regulate your protein synthesis, inhibiting your ability to build muscle. The more cortisol there is in your body, the less testosterone you will have. So, when the ratio in your system favours cortisol, you can potentially plateau, or become “stuck.” In the worst case scenario, you will decrease muscle.
Testosterone is an extremely anabolic hormone, present in both males and females, just as estrogen is. If the expectation of your training is to get stronger, bigger, or leaner, but your lifestyle is exhausting and stressful, physiologically your hormone ratio (cortisol: testosterone) is out of whack. The balance is off and the constant exposure to cortisol will slow your progress.
When endeavouring to pursue strength and muscle gains, you need to ask yourself what you are willing to sacrifice more of in your life, to gain more of in the gym. Don’t be disappointed if the answer is nothing.
As time goes on, priorities shift. Work hours can become longer, you may not sleep enough and you may find it difficult to consume enough calories. By this point, you are exhausted, yet you may still expect your body to produce these gains.
In order to avoid disappointment, my advice is this. If your training goals sit anything less than first, don’t get upset if you don’t hit your targets. Life’s stressors will affect you on a hormonal level, and will eventually impact your progress — stress and sports performance problems are linked.
If it was so easy to be big, strong, and lean, everyone would do it. A whole lot of sacrifice is necessary when pursuing strength goals, and this goes beyond just your nutrition and training regimen.