Find Your Stress “Sweet Spot” With These Science-Backed Tips
Stress is necessary for growth, but too much stress can impede your progress. Here’s how to find (and stay in) your stress sweet spot for optimal performance.
Stress is necessary for growth. Too little of it, and there isn’t enough pressure to move the needle and affect change. But too much of it can easily impair our performance. When it comes to stress, each one of us has a Goldilocks amount and—perhaps unsurprisingly—that sweet spot is unique to the individual athlete.
So how do we find it? More importantly, how do we stay in the sweet spot when the stresses of life, work, and training become overwhelming? It boils down to awareness and management.
The stress experienced by triathletes comes in different forms:
- There’s training stress associated with maintaining high volumes of conditioning in all three sports, plus cross-training.
- Competition stress often rears its head during taper and can last until the starting gun goes off.
- You’re likely also juggling work, relationships, and family.
While stress manifests in various ways (e.g. cognitively, emotionally, physically), it is all the same to the brain and the body. Stress is stress. Therefore, the tools you use to manage one source of stress can be applied across the board. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, use a few of these science-backed tips for mitigating the effects of stress.
Sleep deficits affect athletes across all sports, but they have the greatest impact on endurance athletes versus those whose performance is based on short bursts of energy. Unfortunately, the relationship between stress and sleep is bidirectional: stress leads to sleep disturbances, but lack of sleep also contributes to stress. In fact, one sleepless night increases emotional stress levels by 30%.
It makes biological sense why you don’t sleep well when you’re stressed: your body is trying to protect itself from “danger,” or whatever it is that is stressing you out. The body essentially speeds up when you’re in “fight-or-flight,” releasing adrenaline, cortisol, and glucose into the bloodstream, which increases blood pressure. This leads to a faster heart rate, a racing mind, and a physically tense body, which all contribute to keeping you awake.
So, how do you combat this? You can increase your chances of getting a solid night’s sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene. Avoid blue light at least 60 minutes before bed and make sure your room is devoid of any light (or use an eye mask). Gentle stretching can also help. We just determined that stress tightens muscles, causes a restless mind, and increases heart rate. Well, gentle stretching has the exact opposite effect, by cueing the mind to slow down, releasing muscle tension, and slowing the heart. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which ultimately activates the sleep response. Other beneficial sleep hygiene practices include keeping your room cool and having a journal by your bed to download thoughts that may wake you up (or keep you awake). The other stress-reducing tips below can also help with sleep.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a quick and effective way to release tension in the body. It involves alternating between tensing and releasing each major muscle group. This sequence is repeated throughout the entire body several times until a deep level of relaxation is achieved. The repetitive movements in triathlon create a significant amount of tension in the body, so this method may be particularly effective for the multi-sport athlete. PMR is a powerful technique because it uses both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Top-down refers to higher-order cognition controlling the tensing and relaxing of muscles. Bottom-up refers to signals traveling from the proprioceptive muscle cells up to the brain. This bi-directional signaling has a profound effect on inducing a relaxation response.
To practice PMR, gradually tense each area of the body for 15 seconds and then relax it slowly for 30 seconds. Move through the following areas in this order, before repeating from the top: forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms and hands, glutes, legs, and feet.
Our breath is tightly associated with our psychology and physiology, so learning to control it can greatly reduce the stress response. One breathing technique that has been widely studied is diaphragmatic breathing. This is best achieved by placing your hands on your belly and actively moving it out (pressing it into your hands) with each slow inhale, then drawing it in with each slow exhale. In a study of athletes, post-exhaustion diaphragmatic breathing (i.e. after a workout) reduced cortisol and oxidative stress, both of which, when elevated, contribute to the psychological and physiological consequences of chronic stress.
Another effective breathing technique is alternate nostril breathing. This is performed by breathing in through one nostril (say, right) and out through the other (say, left), then in through the same nostril (left) and out through the first one (right). The thumb and ring finger work well to close alternating nostrils. Alternate nostril breathing reduces mental fatigue. This is significant because mental fatigue has a negative effect on endurance performance, which can contribute to stress. Lastly, many breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing and alternate nostril breathing, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is critical for shifting us away from the high-stress, fight-or-flight state.
Exercise is enthusiastically promoted as a stress-reliever, and rightfully so. But most of these messages are intended for the average human who struggles to move 30 minutes per day. Just because exercise is good doesn’t mean that more is better. One of the benefits of triathlon is that there is built-in cross training, but even that doesn’t entirely prevent the body from becoming overly taxed.
If you start noticing stress symptoms, such as changes in your mood, difficulty sleeping, or gastrointestinal (GI) issues, turn down the dial on your training intensity and volume. It’s important to be aware of any maladaptive coping strategies you may be using. You may be pouring yourself into training in an effort to avoid dealing with stressors in your life. Unfortunately, this obsessive training can block any signals our body may be sending, such that it’s fatigued or not fully recovered.
Even with a good balance of high- to low-intensity training sessions, you need to incorporate regular rest days. Choose to pause before you’re forced to pause, due to injury or illness. When we exercise, our body releases testosterone, and other anabolic hormones, that promote muscle growth. The body also produces cortisol, though, which breaks muscles down. The goal is to maintain an optimal level of exercise so that the growth-producing hormones outweigh the muscle-degenerating ones. Without adequate recovery, cortisol increases and stays high, which has the opposite effect of what we’re trying to achieve through training. This hormonal imbalance can also lead to a taxed immune system and reductions in mental health. So, it’s critical to incorporate regular rest days (1 day per week is generally optimal) to give your brain and body the chance to rebuild. Remember, stress + rest = growth.
Slowing down to deal with stress can be challenging for triathletes. We’re programmed to push well beyond our comfort zones and fight until the end. We thrive in pressure situations and have a high tolerance for discomfort. So, we don’t always pay attention to the warning signs signaling to us that stress is reaching a breaking point. But, in an effort to perform at our highest level and continue in this sport for as long as possible, we owe it to ourselves, and those around us, to implement stress management techniques, particularly when they’re backed by science.
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Daya Grant, Ph.D. is a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC), neuroscientist, and yoga teacher who empowers athletes to get out of their own way and tap into their greatness. She swims, bikes, and runs in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and their young son.