Regardless of why you are in this sport, whether for personal glory, a podium spot, or just to take on something that scares the crap out of you, you are facing a stress. Any physical load applied on the body is stress. Even just sitting in a chair, your body is under stress.
And because you have that personal goal – that thing you are willing to sacrifice other things for, that stress becomes a good stress. We know that physical exertion, in any form, but in ‘reasonable doses’ places ‘healthy’ stress on the body. And the body being the amazing machine that is, learns to tolerate this stress and responds to it by adapting and becoming stronger.
That is how we have learned to respond to 100’s of thousands of years of many different kinds of stress.
We also know that stress is cumulative. We can tolerate little bits, even moderate sized bits, but stress doesn’t just go away. As stress builds and builds it begins to affect your body in a fairly distinct way. We are all built with a system of networks that provide immediate feedback when we are reaching a critical point in stress load.
With every exposure to stress, there is a response from our body. For the most part this autonomous and we don’t really notice. But as the cumulative effect gains momentum, the responses from the body begins to become more prevalent, more obvious, until we reach that point that we have to stop and start paying attention.
We generally leave this until the last minute – when ours attention has really been grabbed. It is human behaviour to only respond to something when we have no other choice. How many times have you backed off the training or taken a rest day, not because you wanted to, but because your body had been forced to from injury or illness?
Every training session you put your body through creates stress demands on the body. If the training loads are adequate – i.e. enough that you can tolerate – then your body will learn to respond by gaining strength and forging pathways that enable you to take more. You build resilience.
But there is a point at which the body can not take anymore and it begins to break. Whilst we all believe we are invincible, we are not – we all have a point of absolute tolerance and when we are pushed beyond that point, then we begin to collapse from the pressure of stress.
People who can learn to tolerate these super high stress loads generally tend to do well in their field.
Take a look at Mirinda Carfrae’s efforts last Saturday at Kona:
World Championship race, competing against the fastest women in the sport – all of whom are there to beat her. That is a fairly stressful environment in itself. But if you add in a 15 minute deficit coming out of T2, then the stress levels get turned way up.
That is a lot of pressure to take on, in a very stressful and intense environment. These situations tend to either bring out the best or the worst in people. Some push back against the stress, relishing it. Others turn in and let it overwhelm. There is an enormous amount of mental fortitude that separates the two.
Stress can make champions (as in the picture above), or it can break champions.
I won’t pretend to personally know Rinny, but I would imagine, being the professional that she is, that she has dedicated a large portion of her time to learn how to tolerate that kind of pressure. That comes not only from the daily exposure to training stress, but also dedication to allowing time to recover from those loads.
In terms of physical stress, that is the absolute key. You cannot ignore the importance of recovery. I like how James Clear puts it:
“Recovery is not negotiable. You can either make time to rest and rejuvenate now or make time to be sick and injured later.”
This means that recovering from stress must always be a priority. If it isn’t, then you have to make it one. It is a a discipline that athletes love to test in favour of doing “just that little bit more”, instead of understanding that the body does not respond to more as well as it responds to rest.
Obviously the elephant in the room here is the fact that you have more to think about then just the stress of training and racing; the load it places on the body and the mental fatigue that it creates. There is more going on in your world then just triathlon.
Most likely you have more than your fair share of stressors – things that take up space in your conscious and sub-conscious that you can either address or ignore. Generally the last thing you think about before you fall asleep, and the first thing when you wake. Or, the thoughts that buzz around your head when you are staring blankly at the wall.
Right now you might be going through a stress that seems so gargantuan, so intense, so real, that it fills you with absolute overwhelm and you cannot see anything else but that stress.
When we get to this point – regardless of the stress; training, fatigue, or the thoughts in your head, you have to deal with it.
There is no ignoring stress, there is no way around it but to confront it.
When your body succumbs to excessive training stress, you have to stop and either ease back or take time to let the body replenish. When your mind is rattled by incessant thoughts of all the other things that are stressing you out, you have to start taking care of them. When you combine the two, then you really need to start listening.
Sometimes this means addressing things you don’t really want to (like easing back in training). But the short-term pain of that sure beats the long-term effects of ignorance. You can’t simply shut the door on stress. Whatever it is, you have to acknowledge (this is awareness) and then create an effective plan to deal with it so that it no longer negatively impacts your life.
If your stress is (too much) training you have to stop listening to the head and start listening to the body. Ego needs to be negated here (this can be hard for some), you have to start paying attention.
If your stress is anything else – work, family, finances, deadlines, moronic colleagues, anything, then you need to plan out how you are going to take it on. If it something that you can control, then you can do something about it. If it is something that is beyond your control, then stop wasting your energy on it and move on.
I know this seems like too simple a strategy for handling stress and I am not trying to simplify whatever stress you might be facing. But you have to organise your stress into categories of what you can control and what you cannot before you begin to sift through.
You have to have a strategy.
Regardless of how invincible we might feel, or how great we are at handling stress, we all have a critical point at which our body simply cannot tolerate any more. We are at our most vulnerable when under stress.
The more self-aware you are as an athlete, the more in-tune you are with yourself, and therefore you are able to identify stress – recognising it’s purpose (good or bad) and the managing it effectively. Simply sitting there and doing nothing, will achieve exactly that. Nothing.
If your stress is at the point of tipping you over the edge, then you need to stop, breathe, assess.
That goal you are chasing, keep doing it. Keep pushing forward, but do not ignore the relevance of stress.
– Oh and FULL credit to Phil Wronka (firstoffthebike.com) for the pic. I don’t know if Seb was stressed or not when he snapped this, but it is a great shot nonetheless.