Is Stress Inhibiting Your Training and Performance?

by on April 30, 2014

Is Stress Inhibiting Your Training and Performance?

“I’m tired. I feel overtrained. I have no energy. I ate like crap the other day. I had a long day at work. I feel fat. My genetics suck.”

We remember our last year of College taking 15 Units per semester, doing an internship, working 32 hours a week, homework, projects, and training. We were extremely busy and evidently this lead to mental stress, elevated cortisol levels, and a host of other issues. We started to continuously say things like the above statements and the mental stress started to affect our training and that was a huge problem.

We’re writing this because we feel too many people overlook the component of life stressors when it comes to getting optimal results. These days, everyone wants to know the magical programming design to build muscle, hidden gems to fat loss, the gold standard macronutrients ratio for their nutrition program, perfect supplementation stack, and then some. What we tend to forget are life stressors that we all deal with on a day-to-day basis. These life stressors lead to mental stress, which have been proven in studies to lead to performance decrements in training.

You can have the quote-on-quote perfect training and nutrition program but what if your sleep is always lacking? Your cortisol levels are chronically elevated through the roof from stress? Your blood pressure is constantly sky rocketing? Or your energy levels are sinking like a ship? The quote-on-quote perfect program will suffer because of these life stressors and so will your results.

Now, before we get started with our 6 life stressors that could be inhibiting your training and performance and how to fix them; we don’t want you to look at this in a superficial way or a black and white answer type of thing. We’re asking you to think critically here and come up with your own opinions. We want you to look at these life stressors more as they could become a big problem if they become chronic in your life and you don’t find a way to cope with them. Truth is we all have life stressors and some we can’t get rid of, but we sure can manage them so our training and performance doesn’t suffer. Allow us to elaborate…

Stressor #1 – Occupational Stress

Corporate world, 9-5’s, commuting, being micro managed, meeting project deadlines, driving in revenue, working your ass off to get promoted, wanting to tell your boss off because they’re always nagging at you…Does all of this sound familiar and stressful?

While stress can have detrimental effects, evidence suggests that stress plays an essential role in developing a healthy body that is able to cope with the various demands thrown our way on a daily basis. It is very likely that you’re getting off work, going straight to the gym, and have experienced some kind of occupational stress which could affect your performance when you’re training.

The Fix – While going through your warm up phase, put on your “GET FIRED UP” playlist, think positive about your upcoming workout, and use mental imagery on how you’re going to man handle that squat or deadlift. If you shift your mindset away from work mode, you will be more immersed into your workout and thus you will have a more effective training session.

Mental Imagery can be used as a way of improving strength training performance. Correct use of mental imagery is to visualize successful outcomes and avoid considering or imagining unsuccessful outcomes. Just think about it, if you are constantly thinking about work while you are training, it’s evidently going to hinder your training session. Also, using mental imagery as a way of improving strength training performance can be taken advantage of by using mental scripts before, during and after a lift. There’s nothing wrong with some self-pep talk to get you fired up!

Stressor #2 – Social Stress

Social stress can be as tough as occupational stress, if not tougher. The reason being, you can have the best job in the world, fanciest car, and a huge house on the block, but if you don’t have a social life or aren’t socially accepted then everything else means Jack. Everyone wants to be socially accepted whether they admit it or not. Social stress can also be family issues or changes, relationship issues, and sexuality issues. Social stress can lead to mental stress, anxiety, depression, decrease cognitive function, among other decrements. So it’s imperative that you exercise at a high performance level so these stressors won’t affect your training.

The Fix – If you’re dealing with a lot of social stress try the following:

  • Joining a team
  • Switching gyms where the environment is more positive and encouraging
  • Taking a group class such as: Boot camp, TRX, Pilates, yoga, cross fit, etc.

The environments in these group classes are very supportive and encouraging. There’s a lot of comradery built and this could be a sure way to help you cope with and improve your social stress. One way to look at this issue is “what do you have to lose by trying?” Worst case scenario, you quit, go back to your old ways, and never do it again.

Stressor #3 – The Mind Body Connection

A quote that really sticks with us is by Dr. Layne Norton, he said “your mentality becomes your reality.” If you’re inherently negative and constantly think negative outcomes, then you’re most likely going to face negative results. Same thing goes for being inherently positive. (1) There are hundreds of studies showing again and again that decrements to health due to the mind body connection are real problems.

(2) Mental stress is related to an increase in various potentially harmful chemicals substances such as:

  • Cortisol which degrades proteins
  • Including white blood cells
  • Antibodies, resulting in a decrease in immune function, and consequently, elevated rates of sickness

This also leads to cerebration (thoughts), which is one reason why people that are stressed often have sleeping disorders and it’s because they’re up worrying all night. And we can’t even begin to list all the negative impacts lack of sleep causes on the human body as well as your training performance, more on this topic in the next life stressor.

The Fix – The minute you step foot into the gym, make sure to get your mind right. Do this by playing some good-up beat music that’s going to fire you up, get a good warm up in, use mental imagery as we explained earlier, and get pumped up for your workout. Who knows, you could have had a hell of a day at work, with the spouse, the kids, clients, ect. Play it safe and set the positive mood for a more productive workout. Don’t bring that energy draining negative vibe into the gym and definitely don’t be that person in the gym walking around giving everyone dirty looks.

Stressor #4 – Lack of Quality Sleep

Tossing and turning, sweating while sleeping, constantly waking up for no apparent reason, too much on your mind, too much stress, insomnia, etc. All of these occurrences happen to many of us while sleeping, it’s very frustrating and we don’t know why they occur. Research shows that anything under 6 hours of sleep can have the following negative impacts:

  • Poor sleep habits lead to obesity & type 2 diabetes
  • Lower insulin sensitivity and higher cortisol levels
  • Chronic lack of sleep could inhibits fat loss
  • Less sleep affects fluid balance. You feel heavier when you wake up when you don’t sleep as much. Less sleep means less of a metabolic boost.
  • Chronic lack of sleep could lead to increased mood and depression disorders
  • Those that sleep less than 6 hours a night end up eating more throughout the day

The Fix – Get into a consistent sleep pattern every night so your body becomes used to this pattern and thus you can get quality sleep. Try some static stretching, a warm shower before bed, reading a book, and darken the room as much as possible to ensure you get adequate and undisturbed sleep.

If lack of sleep becomes a chronic problem you will see a good majority of the above negative adaptations occur. Cumulatively these will all inhibit your training and performance and thus your gains will suffer.

Stressor #5 – Stress Disorders

Stress is not always a bad thing. In fact, stress is absolutely needed for growth. However, the real problems occur with abnormal and chronic stress responses. For instance, some people might typically operate in a persistently hectic environment. (3) These environments contribute to alarming numbers of mental ailments including 16 and 32 million cases of depression and anxiety. These same people will often make excuses to avoid physical activity. This is when stress can cause serious ailments and diseases.

If you don’t utilize the nutrients and energy being supplied by your bodies during the high stress responses, several diseases can occur such as: Diabetes, obesity, immune suppression, cancer, asthma, allergies, indigestion, and cardiovascular disease. Now of course these are extreme cased diseases, but we still want to inform you on them as small issues you that you do not presently address might become bigger issues in the future. Also, fat loss, performance, strength gains, and hypertrophy could be hampered by high and chronic stress responses.

The Fix – If you typically operate in a persistently hectic-daily environment and are always under high stress. Consider hiring a trainer or a coach. A qualified trainer or coach can take a lot of the guess work out of your training and nutrition program and make your fitness life a lot easier.

Stressor #6 – Nutritional Factors

Nutritional factors can be closely related to stress disorders and can become serious problems if you don’t monitor them correctly. If you feel lost with your nutrition program, then you could find yourself overwhelmed with information online or those non-qualified local gurus giving you poor dietary advice. This could lead to frustration and depression and could cause the following to occur:

  • Malnutrition
  • Poor eating habits
  • Disordered Eating
  • Bulimia or anorexia
  • Or just flat out quitting overall

Again, these are extreme cases, but these are all serious matters which will lead to high mental stress and eventually performance decrements when you train.

The Fix – Hire a sports nutritionist, a reputable coach, or a trainer that has a nutrition background. These professionals will take care of the nutrition side for you and hopefully educate you as well. You could even take a basic nutrition class or self-educate yourself with the right resources. The key is to minimize as much extra stress as you possibly can in your life.

Wrapping All This Up

As you can see even if you have the most optimal training and nutrition programs, your bodies will say “Not so fast!” This is because stressors in life can affect how you feel with training. Lots of studies show mental stress can cause decrements in performance and even hinder adaptation than physiological stress. Sometimes you can’t remove these mental stressors in life. But you can cope with them, psychologically to where they don’t become stressors. Take life stressors serious as you would with your training and nutrition programs. If you totally ignore it, these stressors could eventually lead to further and more serious health and mental issues. At the end of the day, isn’t our overall objective to make progress in the gym? Not hinder it or regress? Bottom line here is try to manage the things you can control in life and minimize the rest of the other bullshit.

About The Authors:

Chris and Eric Martinez, CISSN, CSCS, BA, also known as the “Dynamic Duo” who operate a world class Training and Nutrition consulting business “Dynamic Duo Training,” They’re also Training and Nutrition Coaches and Active Writers that love helping people reach their goals. Their philosophy is “No excuses, only solutions.”

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  1. Simmons, J (2006). Exercise and stress lecture. California State East Bay.
  2. Haddy, Richard I. Clover, Richard D. (2001). Biological processes in psychological stress. Families, systems & health.
  3. McCullagh, Penny. (2005) Sports and exercise psychology lecture. Cal State East Bay.
  4. Wilson, Gabriel. Wilson, Jacob. Exercise and Stress-An in-depth Analysis.