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Stressed? Focus on What You Can Control

Struggling to find motivation to string workouts together? Not feeling like yourself in training? You're not alone.

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While some stress is beneficial in training, prolonged periods of stress is more of a hindrance than a help. Gearing up for the Triathlete Challenge? Take a moment to think through if there are stressors currently plaguing you and affecting your training: if so, here’s how to take action.

With so much uncertainty and fear surrounding the intricacies of daily life, it’s understandable that athletes may be experiencing unprecedented levels of worry right now.

Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a Manhattan-based psychologist who specializes in stress management, explained that at the best of times, some stress can boost adrenaline and give athletes the extra energy and focus they need. 

But on the other hand, pervasive stress can cause training performance to suffer. A 2017 study found that psychological stress makes triathletes more sensitive to the effects of pain. A 2018 study involving elite male swimmers also found that acute psychological stress exposure had a negative impact on athletic performance. 

Further complicating things, it’s not always immediately obvious that stress is at the root of an issue either. 

“Many of us tend to use denial around stressors,” Dr. Carmichael agreed, using the term which refers to the strain or tension causing an issue. “To a certain degree, learning to focus on the goal (rather than the stressor) can be helpful so that we can overcome stressors rather than focus on them.”

Dr. Carmicheal added that many athletes may also pride themselves on their ability to overcome stressors and be resilient. However, simply ignoring persistent stressors isn’t going to get you anywhere.

“If you find yourself having sudden emotional outbursts that you don’t understand, or feeling a numbness or lack of motivation that seems to come out of nowhere, it might be possible that you are sitting on some stressors in the back of your mind and this is manifesting as a lack of energy or drive.”

Dr. Carmichael said that right now—and always—the best tactic for managing stress is to “focus on what we can control.” 

“Obviously, we cannot control whether the races will happen or not, but we can absolutely control whether we keep our bodies trained so that we are ready, willing, and able to participate when the opportunity arises,” she said. 

To combat the self-destructive pattern of falling victim to stress in and out of training, Dr. Carmichael recommended taking time to reflect on what stress-busting measures have previously worked.

“It can often be helpful to review past stressors that you have overcome, which seemed insurmountable at the time. This can rev up your sense of self-efficacy and a healthy sense of ego or pride,” she said. 

“It is also important to periodically [take] inventory of what your stressors are and how you are managing them. Not that you even have to do that with the goal of necessarily changing the way that you are navigating them; in fact, sometimes it’s good to notice what you’re doing in a positive sense so that you can make sure to keep it up.”

Dr. Carmichael warned that during the stay-at-home guidelines, some athletes may be experiencing what feels like a “mini identity crisis” if so much of their identity has always been centered on taking part in races and events. 

To counteract this, she recommends reconnecting with other triathletes by starting a virtual training club and organizing some friendly competitions.

If you’re feeling inspired to channel your energy into something productive, check out our Triathlete Challenge (May 29-31) and some of the other virtual options available to endurance athletes.