Does This Sound Familiar?
Do you feel fatigued with bouts of low energy? A bit beaten up from the grind of work, training and life pressures? No longer making the physical and performance progress you’d like, or worse, feel your fitness levels are going backward in spite of the increased frequency of gym sessions? Or, that release from hitting the gym/class/road is becoming shorter and shorter lived?
On top of this, perhaps you are struggling with getting restful sleeps, your memory and learning seems impaired with foggy thoughts, your feeling older with a sense of accelerated ageing, and skin issues such as psoriasis are flaring up. And maybe, motivation and drive has taken a dive and is second to anxiety.
If you relate to some or many of these symptoms, then you may well be experiencing chronic stress, fatigue and exhaustion – coming from day-to-day life, work, fitness training… or all three.
What You’ll Read In This 3-Part Article
Physical and Mental stress are so closely linked, and impact each other on so many levels. It’s hard to talk about one without the other. That said, the intent in this article is to primarily understand stress in the context of training and exercise, and the two-way affects with mental stress. It will help you understand what is physical stress, why stress is good, how to take advantage of it, the consequences of not allowing adequate recovery, and tips on minimising chronic physical and mental stress.
It’s broken down like this:
PART 1 – What Is…
Importance Of Stress, What Are Stressors, How Our Body Responds & Intro Into G.A.S.
- Stress IS Life – Embrace acute stress & minimise chronic stress
- What Are Stressors – General kinds of stressors & types of Physical Stressors
- Understanding How Your Body Responds To Stress – Explaining Fight or Flight response, the significance of Hormone shifts & the beauty of the Adaptation Response
- General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) – An introduction
- What is it and the Three Phases
- A Sunbathing example
- The sum of all stressors dictates the response
- Forms & purpose of Adaptation
- The Reality That You Body Is Constantly Dealing With Stress
- Zooming Out – Seeing the bigger picture of overall life stress/stressors
PART 2 – Practical How-To – Build A Solid Foundation
Minimising Chronic Background Stress & Is your Fitness suffering from too much Exercise?
- Are You Helping Or Hurting Yourself With All The Extra Stress We Add?
- 8 Tools To Help Break Chronic Background Stress – Proven techniques & activities
- Exercise, But Not Layering on More Chronic Stress
- Parasympathetic Activities & Mindfulness
- Health Promoting Foods & Cold Showers
- Muscle Relaxation & Sleep
- Is Your Fitness Suffering From Too Much Exercise? – Is this even possible?
PART 3 – Practical How-To – Training Timing & Handling Exhaustion
Intro Into Supercompsation, Importance of Training Timing & Dealing With Exhaustion
- Supercompensation – The Art Of Using Stress For Gains
- Physical Progress Is All About Timing
- The Goldilocks Principle training response
- Different types of positive & negative compounding Supercompensation
- More often does not equals better
- How long to wait between different types of training sessions
- Identifying If You Are Overtrained, Fatigued Or Suffering From GAS Exhaustion
- Practical Guidance For Dealing With Fatigue & Exhaustion
- Getting Back On The Horse, But Doing Things Differently – How to approach a return to your goals in an optimal and healthy way
Stress Is Life Itself, But…
Without Stressors we would not grow, adapt or get physically/mentally stronger. It’s part of evolution. The key is to use and embrace acute good (eu)stress to your advantage, and not fall into the trap of fuelling chronic (dis)stress that weakens you through time.
But, background constant levels of distress don’t just occur instantly. You have to work at it. You may well be suffering from General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) and Negative Supercompensation, two important aspects of physical stress response that we will discuss in this 2-part article.
So What Are Stressors?
Simply put, Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. It is completely normal to be confronted with a variety of stressors in any given day.
There are five kinds of Stressors we face in Life.
- Acute time-limited – e.g. exercise, cold shower, a blood test
- Brief Naturalistic – e.g. taking a test, in traffic
- Stressful Events Sequences – e.g. involved in a natural disaster followed by the fallout
- Chronic – e.g. situations that force you to change identity such as becoming disabled or financial worries
- Distant – e.g. happened a long time ago but still affect you such as child abuse, prisoner of war or loss of loved one
Its surprising, but there are many different physical stressors we contend with almost on a daily basis that create a response in our bodies hormonally and functionally. Tangible and measurable physical stressors include: Physical Demands, Temperature Extremes, Travel, Infections/Virus, Toxins, Accident/Trauma, Injury, Surgery and Inflammation. Hey, even Sunburn is a physical stressor!
So, for example, say you jump into a cold lake. That’s a stress on your body, and it will be forced to react. Or, you eat a food that is toxic or causes gut inflammation – that’s a physical stressor. Or, you get on a plane and travel through timezones, messing with your circadian rhythm – that’s a physical stressor. And of course, if you exert yourself physically, say in 100m sprint, that’s a physical stressor.
Now, stress is not in it’s own right a bad thing. There are lots of positive stresses (eustress) in our lives that force our bodies and minds to adapt and grow stronger. Examples of positive stressors would be exercise, getting married, having a child, job interviews and buying a house.That said, there are clearly ‘bad’ stressors that we experience, such as losing your job, illness, weather, breaking up or being presented with physical danger.
In the context of fitness, your physique and physical performance, stress is not only unavoidable but I is essential to make progress.
Understanding How Our Body Responds To Stress
Stress Causes Fight-or-Flight
You would have heard of this term. Otherwise referred to as the Sympathetic Nervous System. When our body is presented with acute stress such as danger, nerves or a situation that takes us from our default healthy baseline, it triggers the release of hormones Adrenaline and Cortisol.
Adrenaline’s role is mostly to speed things up and enable us to respond to that acute-stress such as being chased by a predatory animal. You’ll experience many differences including, heightened awareness and alertness, increased energy to fight or run, increased heart rate to increase the force of your muscle contractions, increased breathing to provide greater levels of oxygen to your muscles, glycogen mobilised to be converted to glucose (primary energy source) and increases in perspiration. It also decreases your response to pain as well as slowing down your digestive system such as bowel movements or energy expenses like digestion food.
Cortisol’s main role in an acute-stress situation is to help provide fuel to the muscles and brain, by releasing and flooding it with a supply of glucose, an immediate energy source for large muscles. It inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored as opposed to immediately used. Cortisol works hand in hand with Adrenaline – Adrenaline makes the heart beat faster and Cortisol narrows the arteries – forcing the blood to pump faster and harder.
The idea is that this change physiologically enables us to address and resolve the acute stress, which then in turn allows us to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (aka Rest & Digest System) whose role is to return our body to our normal state. As you can imagine, it is not sustainable from an energy perspective, and it is unhealthy to attempt to stay in this alert and physically demanding stressed state for too long.
Adaptation Response – It’s A Beautiful Thing
Adrenaline and Cortisol and other parts of the stress response also play a beneficial role in helping a person adapt and manage stressful episodes. As in, once the stressor is turned off, we have the opportunity to adapt and grow stronger physically and mentally, allowing to deal with similar stresses with greater ease next time round. Think muscles growing to be stronger in a fight, or less nerves in your next presentation as you have adapted to the stress environment and developed necessary skills/coping mechanisms.
However, when the response is not turned off, or when it is repeatedly triggered, then the adaptive (coping) mechanism is overloaded and may not be effective. This can lead to chronic stress and negative adaptation – i.e. getting weaker.
The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS)
It is exactly that concept – ongoing and extreme stressors, that is the basis of General Adaptation Syndrome (Gas). Researcher Hans Selye discovered there was a generalised stress response that occurs in all animals, and there are three phases:
- Alarm Reaction Phase – As explained hormonally above, the HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) initiates a cascade of hormone changes that prepare you to Fight or Flight. These changes additionally cause breakdown of body tissue (catabolism), hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), gastrointestinal ulcers and swelling of the adrenal glands.
- Resistance Phase – As per the prior section, once the stressor has been addressed the body attempts to return to homeostasis by reversing symptoms and hormones of the Alarm Reaction Phase. Additionally, adaptations are made in this phase to allow the subject to withstand higher levels of imposed stressor next time.
- Exhaustion Phase – However, if the stressor is extreme and ongoing, the bodies resources are eventually depleted, you do not enter into a parasympathetic state, leading to our bodies functioning less than normal. If chronic, the body breaks down without the ability to replenish resources, which eventually can lead to illness, or even death.
An Example – Sun Bathing
Think about an example of tanning. Sun exposure is a form of stress, especially to the uninitiated). If you sunbath in short bursts, you will notice a non-dramatic and eventual tanning of the skin. The body has undergone some stress, adapted to be more resistant in the future, and returned to homeostasis. The adaptation is the darkening of the skin, which makes your skin more robust to further bouts of sunlight.
If you tan for longer periods however, without sufficient suncream, you will burn. The stressor was continued beyond which the body was adapted. Taking it a step further, you can experience extreme sunburn, sunstroke, sun blisters and come down with flu if you keep pushing beyond your bodies resources to defend itself. In the most extreme cases, if you sit out in the blistering sun for too long, you will die.
Your Stress Response Is Dependant on The Sum Of All Stressors
You bodies ability to respond to an individual stressor is dependant on the sum of all stressors the body is dealing with at that time. Sounds a bit science-y, but it’s a really important point as it relates to our day to day lives and our deliberate layering of extra stresses in attempt to get fitter or healthier.
Hans Selye found in his rodent experiments that a “stressful” environment reduced the mice’s ability to overcome the imposed stressor in the form of a toxin. By environment, think living conditions, ability to exercise, diet and many other factors. This reduced ability makes the duration of their resistance phase shorter, and reduces their capacity to adapt.
So, in effect, we have a finite amount of “adaptation energy” that can be dedicated to resisting and overcoming all imposed stressors. When other stressors are low, we can enjoy a very long resistance phase. However, in a stressful environment, any additional stressor can quickly push us into the exhaustion phase.
Forms & Purpose Of Adaptation
From a physical perspective, think about greater resistance to cold, increased antibodies to resist pathogens or growth of muscles as most common forms of adaptation. But as we take a broader view of Stress in our lives, both physical and emotional, we can come back stronger mentally and functioning. The intent here is that we adapt to the stressor/stress, so we can withstand a larger dose of the same stressor in the future.
So My Body Is Constantly Dealing with Stress?
Yes! As you can see, most things that are either new or at higher doses to what you’ve experienced before are stressors on your body, or your mind. Holding your breath longer than last time. Running another 1km further than you are used to. Delivering that presentation previously given to only five people now to 200 people. That first day in a new job. Or giving CrossFit a go. All are stressors.
Now, even when you become adapted to this new activity (stress), you will still undergo a stress response when you repeat it with the same intensity/duration. However, the swings in the GAS phases will reduce as you get more and more accustomed. Think about the first time you tried to run 30mins on a treadmill, and how after constant treadmill running it is still a challenge but much much easier. Hey, you’ll probably speed it up and add incline to create a greater stress response.
Zoom Out & See The Bigger Picture
If we ran one task at a time – physical, mental, bodily, life would feel pretty manageable, even with stressful events. But life doesn’t work like that. There are a million things happening all at once, and then you have all the stuff that happens that you don’t have the capacity to think about!
Consider This – An “Average” Stressy Day
You ate something that caused inflammation of you gut, so your body is attempting to respond to that stress. Your body is sore from last nights workout. The morning shower runs cold as the hot runs out. You find yourself running late for work. The kids are acting up. You get to work and the schedule and demands are intense. At lunch you come in contact with a germ that has you body secretly trying to fight it off. Someone winds you up at work.
Finally, work is done. You need to sprint to grab the train as you are running late to get home. You get hot and sweaty as you body attempts to cool you down. All the time you forgot to drink enough water so you are also dehydrated. You get home, handle some trolling on facebook, balance some bills and stress about that big presentation tomorrow, whilst hearing about the tough day your partner had. Oh, and you’re planning to move house over the next 12 months!
Ugh, I’m sorry. That was stressing me out just writing it! Whilst that may seem extreme, for many people that is just an average day. Some people pride themselves on how much sh1t they can get done, like a badge of honour. They crush it every day, get too little restorative sleep and layer on top of that intense daily workouts to get ‘balance’ and release.
Continue reading 👉 PART 2 of Chronic Exercise & Life Fatigue – Are You GAS’d Out, Not Making Progress Or Stressed?
Follow this and other topic areas in our longer-form Articles series as they unfold. Comment if you have questions or ideas.