It’s beginning to be that time of year where the summer is coming to a close and the new school term is about to start. Gone are the carefree hours of relaxing in the sun and taking their place are hours of unending to-do lists, chores, organisation and planning.
September is a month full of school and house-moves, lessons, new jobs, clear-outs and new pencil-cases. You’re getting up earlier and falling asleep in front of the television, only to wake up and remember that you haven’t even made up your lunch for the next day.
For some reason, even if there’s not much actual difference in your routine, September just seems so much more hectic than August.
With this crazy month and all its obligations, comes the unavoidable increase of stress levels. When there is so much to do, and just such little time to do it in, it’s easy to become anxious, short-tempered and over-emotional; all go-to signs of significant psychological stress.
Whilst it’s no secret that stress isn’t exactly good for your psychological well-being, people don’t often think about the actual, physical consequences of stress on your body.
Why Stress can Affect Your Gym Routine
There’s a certain extent to which a little bit of anxiety-induced adrenaline can be beneficial to your exercise regime, as this will trigger your fight/flight response to give you a boost of energy, productivity and focus.
However, suffering from sustained periods of significant stress will, before long, begin to take its toll on your body and on your training.
Have you ever had a really good gym session, but afterwards you’re so hungry that you feel like you need to eat right away or you’ll collapse? This is because the body needs food in order for the muscles to recover, and hunger is your body’s way of telling you to fix it.
Stress works in much the same way. If you’re feeling super stressed all of the time, then your body will struggle to balance and distribute the energy that it needs to exercise, and it also won’t be able to repair itself efficiently after a training session either.
The Science- Simplified
Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted through the adrenal glands in the body. Known as the primary “stress hormone” it is released in response to the body’s exposure to stress.
The body is put under a certain amount of physical ‘stress’ when exercising, which is different to the colloquial ‘stress’ we refer to when we say “I’m feeling stressed today”.
Nonetheless both these forms of stress are responsible for a release of Cortisol, which means that if you exercise (placing physical stress on the body) whilst you are also in a state of psychological ‘stress’ then the amount of Cortisol in your body will be exceptionally high.
Cortisol is responsible for providing the body with energy when there limited stores of glucose available, but it does so by using the amino acids found in the muscles. This causes a breakdown of muscle tissue and inhibits the transformation of amino acids into protein (protein synthesis).
The result of high levels of cortisol is such that the muscles do not have the protein that they need to repair themselves, and instead are being further destroyed by Cortisol for energy.
If your muscles are unable to repair themselves, then what you thought was a productive and efficient workout will actually result in you becoming weaker, instead of stronger.
How it takes its toll
No-one tends to walk about in their day to day life being aware of how high their Cortisol levels are – but there are certain pointers that will indicate whether your daily stresses are starting to take their toll on your training.
1) You’ll fatigue too easily
Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue to create glucose for energy production. It’s the way the body has evolved to respond to panic, using every ounce of energy to react fast to an “emergency” (fight or flight). This form of energy, whilst giving you a big boost of adrenaline at first, isn’t designed to last very long. If you’re getting your energy from stores of cortisol-induced glucose, you’ll find that the initial rush wears off quickly, and you’ll be even more exhausted than before.
2) You’ll feel unusually weak after a workout
It’s normal to feel some muscle pain after exercising, but excess Cortisol breaks down muscle tissue and increasing the body’s susceptibility to pain. Chances are, if you’re too stressed then you’ll really feel it after your workout. Post-exercise pain should be good, satisfying, “I’ve worked hard” pain. Not “I’m about to collapse” pain. Make sure you get a lot of protein, either through your food or through supplements, to stop the muscles from wasting away.
3) You’ll feel run down
It’s not just the muscles that Cortisol breaks down – it also takes a big hit at the immune system. If you’re constantly falling ill with little colds and sniffles, or you’re just not feeling yourself, that’s when you know that your stress levels are taking over. Regain some control and make sure you’re getting lots of vitamin C to stop those nasty colds.
4) You’ll feel it in your bones
After a prolonged amount of time, Cortisol will start wearing away at your bones, as well as at your muscles. The breaking down of bone formation encourages a long-term risk of osteoporosis (brittle bones). This makes you be much more susceptible to injury, so when you’re feeling stressed maybe take it easy on the high impact training, and make sure that you’re practising good, safe technique.
5) You can’t sleep
Cortisol levels drop whilst you sleep, but if you are overly stressed then high amounts of cortisol in your body may result in difficulty sleeping, and an overall restless night. This will have a drastic effect on your training, as most of the body’s “repairing” occurs whilst we sleep. Try a chamomile tea or a nice relaxing bath to destress before bedtime. Limit your contact with phones, televisions and other devices to help you switch off from the stresses of the outside world.
Don’t feel guilty if you need to take a break from training to de-stress for a while. In the end, it may be more productive than forcing yourself to workout in periods of high stress, and then suffering the consequences.
Although “not being stressed” is much more easily said than done, it’s important to look after your well-being and make sure that, even in the crazy months, you’re not getting overly worked up.
Take the time you need to relax and always, always, always make sure that your exercise regime is relieving your stress- not adding to it.