Dear Coach: How Can I Use My Training to Better Cope with Stress?

Knowing how best to use exercise and training to lower your stress levels can reap huge rewards.

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Training is a way to build resilience, and resilience is the capacity to bounce back when dealing with challenging and stressful times. When we practice this over and over, we start to build resilience, and once we develop some resilience this carries over into all we do by making us able to better cope with disorientation and disorder, facing it head-on, and then efficiently terminating it once it’s no longer needed—that is, being able to turn stress “on” and “off.” 

Athletes are often very good at being able to extract meaning from struggle. It’s the ability to reinterpret or reframe what you’re going through and what’s happened (e.g. a really hard workout that you struggled through, but remained focused and determined because you know that through the struggle you’ll be stronger and better for it). You then use this same reasoning when life becomes a struggle. You develop the ability to mentally be more willing to accept what you can’t change and work through it, knowing that you’ll be better off in the end, than falling victim to the stress and anxiety. 

As athletes, we know that struggles often rear their ugly head, whether it be from hard workouts, accumulated fatigue, injury setbacks, or bad training days. But there are often ways to mitigate that stress, such as getting to bed at a decent hour before our early morning workout or making sure we stay hydrated and properly fueled to keep the workout from being tougher than it needs to be. This trains us to also be able to be more proactive about our life if and when tough situations come our way. We learn to schedule and organize our days to help mitigate the amount of stress we are already prepared for.  

Training also gives us social support. Being connected with like-minded individuals allows us an outlet for working through whatever we are feeling, helping to relieve stress and potentially set us up better for the next time stress rears its head.  

Training allows us to separate the physical response from the emotional response that comes with stress. We “allow” the body to hurt a bit, but can separate the negative feelings that come with that because we know it’s good for us. This helps us to be able to negate overwhelming negative and repetitive thoughts that come during stressful times outside of training: We can be more rational and are able to let go of the downward spiral of negativity, doubt, and fear that can be drawn up during times of uncertainty.  

For many athletes, training routines help us feel grounded and can be a source of stability and predictability in times of chaos. It’s something that you know will be there and that you can come back to—day in and day out. Indeed, for many triathletes during the height of the pandemic, focusing on the structure and routine of workouts was a hugely stabilizing factor. And it’s not just the routine—it has been proven that moving your body regularly helps with reducing both psychological and physical stress. 

And just like with hard training intervals or workouts, or during tough times in a race, you understand that the feelings will not last forever. By staying focused on what you can do and not what you can’t—and doing your best to stay present—you can really help drive down stress. Be patient, do the best you can, be kind to yourself, and keep doing the work.  

Tristen Rogers is a USAT Level 2 Coach, Head Coach of the HAT Altitude Team, and owner of HAT House Endurance Camps

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