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Navigating the Storm of Stress


To say stress is high right now might be the understatement of 2020. We are all getting repeatedly kicked in groin by the effects of the Corona virus and it sucks. Managing that stress in a healthy way is incredibly important, and I wrote a previous post on how I use kettlebell sport training as my outlet.


Humans are remarkably adaptable which is largely responsible for our ascension to the apex of life on this planet. We can slog through famine, disease, natural disaster, drought, and war and come out the other side. Even terrible conditions become our new normal, so much so that we often don't notice the havoc being wrought on our body by those conditions. Sometimes it isn't until an outside perspective calls our attention to or catastrophe strikes that we even become aware of heightened stress levels, which can be very problematic.


The human body has only 2 systems it uses to manage stress and maintain homeostasis in the best and worst of times. The sympathetic system (flight, fight, freeze, submit) and the parasympathetic system (rest, digest, rebuild, recharge). That's it. Two levers, to push and pull. Those levers are incredibly powerful and activate some pretty impressive features, but still pretty limited choices.


Biologically speaking, our body responds the same way regardless of the source of stress. The sympathetic system is activated whether it is running from a predator, worrying about disease, fighting with your partner, or if you just crushed a 90 minute workout. It's all stress, and the body uses the same levers regardless of the source.


It is critical that we manage our workload and training intensity appropriately at times of heightened stress.


I like to use the analogy of a glass. Your body can only contain so much stress before it overflows. Under normal circumstances your job may account for 25% of the glass, family another 25%, other life stress 10%, and that leaves us 40% of the glass to work with for training and other self improvement stressors.


But now, in the midst of the pandemic there are heightened levels across the board. Perhaps work is now 40%, family is 30%, and other life stress is now 20% which leaves us only 10% stress to deal with before the cup overflows and shit gets messy! That means you can't come into your workouts and bring the same intensity or train with the same volume as under normal stress levels without causing issues elsewhere (injury risk, burnout, etc.)


If you always try to turn the dial to 11 (it's one louder), you may do more harm than good.


Instead it's important to listen to your body, and take steps to manage your stress holistically including your workouts. Here are a few places to start:


  1. Get enough sleep- Sleep is the single best intervention we have to manage stress, improve recovery, mental health, and athletic performance. Before anything else, try to get more high quality sleep.

  2. Drink more water- Again seems pretty basic, but you will be surprised how much better you feel when hydrated, and it has the added effect of helping with...

  3. Drink less caffeine- It kinda goes without saying that this relates pretty strongly to #1, but caffeine is also a stimulant that activates the sympathetic nervous system which is not helpful if you are already in a state of hyper-activation due to stress.

  4. Drink less alcohol- Buzzkill, I know. Moderate alcohol consumption can be helpful for reducing stress levels temporarily. You're sedating yourself to feel things less acutely but when the effect wear off the stress comes back, and there is growing belief among mental health providers that there may actually be a rebound effect where people with anxiety have higher levels of anxiety after the alcohol wears off. That could create a very bad perpetuating cycle of increasing alcohol consumption to manage growing anxiety.

  5. Eat a healthy diet- Food intake is a major contributor to total inflammation which is a systemic indicator of biological stress that your body is under. Eat a diet of whole foods that make your body feel good, avoid highly processed crappy foods, and when in doubt start with adding vegetables.

  6. Dial back your training workload- You can't PR every workout. It's just a fact. Nor should you try. Times of acute stress elsewhere in your life are not the time to push for your best results physically, and that translates across all levels of granularity from daily to weekly and monthly to yearly plans. Have a plan, but allow for flexibility and adjust based on the context of the rest of your life. This is what knowledgeable strength coaches refer to as auto-regulation, and if your coach can't give you guidance on how to do this you should probably find a new coach.

You likely can't quit your job right now, and hopefully you don't want to quit your family or romantic relationships but the tips above are all things that you can manage individually for yourself. Of course if you need help or guidance, please feel free to reach out to me.


Grow or die-


Coach Jordan

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