Our bodies don’t do a very good job distinguishing between various forms of stress. Trying out for the Cross-Country Team in my first year of university really reinforced this lesson. One week I was cruising with the veterans in the front pack, the next, I was flying off the back and dejectedly making my way home. In two short weeks, I got chewed up and spat out along with many other would-be varsity runners.
Physically, I was prepared to handle the stress of training, more so than some of the rookies that made the team. But I failed to account for the cumulative stress in my life on top of running harder than ever; the stress of moving away from home, juggling seven engineering courses and hiding the apparent fact that I was the only introvert in residence. The experience dealt a blow to my confidence and set the tone for a miserable first year of university. Later on, armed with a better understanding of stress, I gave varsity running another shot with greater success.
Stress: A many-headed beast
Training-induced stress and psychological stress have overlapping and synergistic effects. Their complex interplay is particularly relevant to athletes. Among many examples, psychological stress slows recovery from workouts (1, 2) and is a risk factor for overtraining (3, 4), and mental fatigue can decrease physical endurance (5).
Many athletes have a good system in place for tracking the physical demands of their training. This has been facilitated by the proliferation of fitness-tracking applications and devices in recent years. But, as in my cross-country anecdote, many people fall short when it comes to accounting for other sources of stress—work, relationships, responsibilities—and adapting their training accordingly.
Besides self-imposed training stress and the nauseating existential angst of being 20-something, my lifestyle isn’t particularly stressful at the moment. I have a flexible desk job that I enjoy, no dependents and few responsibilities. Nevertheless, I have found that the key to effectively balancing a demanding training regime with other commitments is to account for and manage all sources of stress.
Monitoring and managing stress
The best tracking systems are simple. You can devise a super comprehensive tracking system, but if it’s too complicated or time-consuming, it will likely end up underused or abandoned.
The goal is to obtain a balanced rating of your mental and physical state that reflects how well you are coping with all the stressors in your life. This indicates your “readiness to train” at any given time. Based on this indicator, you modify your training plan as needed on a daily basis and over longer periods. By tracking this indicator over time, you learn how you respond to different stresses and the actions and lifestyle choices that maximize your “readiness to train”, and ultimately, optimize your performance.
The first piece of the puzzle is training stress. This is the part that many already do well. Whether you measure it with power, pace, distance, duration, Training Stress Score (TSS) or strain, the aim is to quantify the stress delivered through training.
Psychological stress is trickier to quantify. You can tell when you feel relatively stressed or relaxed, but it’s difficult to put into absolute terms. Psychological stress can be insidious, causing ill effects before you are even aware of its presence or sources. For these reasons, I find it useful to gauge psychological stress indirectly by monitoring proxies such as mood, sleep and fatigue. Since these factors are also related to training stress, I find that they provide a pretty good picture of how well I am managing all the stress in my life.
My simple system
First thing every morning, I rate four metrics on a subjective five point scale (5=awesome, 3=average, 1=terrible):
- Psychological stress level
- Sleep (quality and amount)
I take the average to obtain a rating of my “readiness to train”. This is how I interpret the results and take action:
- Average >3/5: Business as usual
- Average 2.5-3/5: Proceed with caution, modify plans as needed.
- Average 2-2.5/5: Modify plans for day, address the problem area.
- Average <2/5: Recovery day. Modify plans for the week, address the problem areas.
- Any metric scoring 1: Modify plans for the week, prioritize fixing the problem.
For example, if the average was 2.5 and I had a key session planned, I may consider swapping it for a lighter workout and trying again the next day. If sleep scored 1 but the other metrics were fine, I would try to nap before attempting any strenuous training. If I was in a bad mood without an obvious explanation, I would review my training load and “readiness to train” over the past few weeks looking for a disconnect or oversight.
In general, I don’t get too hung up on day-to-day values, but instead look for trends. That’s where the graphs below come in handy. They show weekly strain (a measure of short-term training stress similar to TrainingPeaks “Acute Training Load”) along with “readiness to train” (the response to all stress). If strain is trending upwards while “readiness to train” is plummeting, I’m usually headed for a meltdown if I don’t back off soon. The tracking system is set up in a spreadsheet, which I prefer to proprietary software or web-based tracking applications due to the flexibility.
As you can see, strain varies a lot based on the phase of training (e.g. building, tapering, recovering, etc.), but “readiness to train” stays within a fairly narrow band. This is because I take steps to mitigate whatever stressors happen to be disturbing the balance allowing me to train as effectively as possible.
Is this system for you?
Perhaps my system seems overly simplistic. Is it perfect? No way, but show me one that is! It could be that your stress response would be better described by a different set of metrics. Perhaps you’re already using one of the many technology or questionnaire-based systems to gauge “readiness to train”.
I would suggest that the greatest value of this approach isn’t in the data it provides, but in the act of taking a moment every day to pause and reflect on your present state. Yoga encourages the practice of “checking in with yourself” by listening to what your body and mind are telling you. Sometimes this simple act can give greater insight into your physical and mental state than any amount of data analysis. Data has its uses, but don’t let numerical noise distract you from how you really feel!