Stress and Stressors

We all know stress!  Life without stress is not a vibrant life.  While there is a great deal of attention on reducing stress, the real need is to manage and channel it in productive ways.

Stress can be either a noun or verb.  As a noun, it describes something.  For example, the pressure placed on our joints or muscles from physical activity is stress.  Emotionally, something that bothers us causes stress, with research showing this impacts us mentally and physically in various ways.  In physiologic terms, stress is defined as the damage caused by “adverse” circumstances.  Of course, that is an important element of training: breaking down and then building back stronger.  As a verb, stress describes an action or effect: e.g., an exercise that stresses our quads (presumably with the aim of strengthening it.)  For sure, we have all experienced the feeling of being “stressed out”.

Hans Selye, an endocrinologist who lived from 1907-1982, is known as the founder of stress theory, described by the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  Selye suggested the initial response to stress is alarm, followed by resistance, and if continued exhaustion.  In running, the alarm phase alerts the body to fatigue, soreness, stiffness, and a reduction in the ability to perform (1).  We’ve all known this in the latter stages of a race!  Resistance is the body’s attempt to either return to normal or when properly managed to enhance capacity.  The latter is called supercompensation.  This is of course the undergirding for training — we push it with the aim of getting faster.  Selye suggests exhaustion is what happens when we don’t allow for recovery.  Fatigued tissues give way, often leading to injury and time off from running.  Few runners have avoided this stage!

Current-day exercise scientists promote periodization, a concept attributed to Leonid Matveyev and others and which promotes systematic, sequential, and integrative training (1).   The key point is our fitness is not static – it is either increasing or decreasing.  This is often hard to accept by the year-round runner who thinks they can run their best times over the entire year.  The research suggests peak performance can only be maintained for up to 14 days and after that efforts to achieve further gains can lead to overtraining with a breakdown of tissues (1).  What is needed, then, is a time of less intense activity followed by a new cycle of training.  Younger athletes aim to increase performance with each cycle, topping out in preparation for an ultimate effort. The epitome of this was Finland’s Lasse Viren, who managed to peak for the Olympic 5K and 10K in 1972 and 1976.   

All that is well and good and worth paying attention to as we map out our training.  It’s somewhat straightforward to look at how we’ve been running, what our race goals are, and develop a plan to meet those goals with a progressive, incremental approach, allowing for adequate recovery.  But what about the other stressors we face in life?  How might those factor into our training and racing?  We each face unique circumstances and stresses in life.  I will reference mine for this blog but perhaps the essence will transfer to others’ situations.

To begin, I had seen June as a month to begin ramping up training, post-pandemic, in preparation for the various races coming back online.  I had run my first race in 14 months in April, a half marathon, and then a hilly 5 miler on May 1.  They went OK, but I felt ready for a strong bounce-back in subsequent races.  Yet, I have been constantly tired and “pop” in my runs was lacking.  I understand the hard truth: we can’t will ourselves to fast racing without vigorous training. I suppose that is a stressor in its own right!  

But this blog is concerned with three other non-running stresses and how they might be contributing to my fatigue.  First, I graduated in late-May from a two-year program in clinical research at UVM and am spending considerable time hashing through options for how I might use this learning to develop and promote strategies to mitigate the effects of aging on the performance of older runners.  I took space in the HULA Lakeside Innovation Center and moved my base of operations from home to HULA.  Considering the scope of this field and the myriad options, it’s not surprising this feels overwhelming, in addition to setting up shop in a new place.  Second, I am hosting a summer outdoor concert series at ECHO, a science museum in downtown Burlington.  Planning began last fall in hopes of the pandemic easing, which it has.  The first of six concerts was June 23rd, which was my group.  Thus, we had to prepare for a two-hour program on top of testing the site logistics and promotion effectiveness.  Third, my long-time partner Liz sold her condo in Boston and moved in with me in Burlington, bringing many years of accumulated belongings with her.  The physical move was completed three days after the first ECHO concert.  And the sorting and space allocation will likely continue for some time. 

So, with these stressors in mind, I had to reassess June and July training ambitions.  Would it not be better to establish a respectable base with four or five runs a week at varying distances from five to eight miles at a moderate intensity than to aim for longer runs and intense track and tempo work?  And filling in the gaps with alternative workouts (primarily water running) on non-running days?  The obvious answer to these questions is “Yes!”  So, I’ve looked at the race schedule and decided to shoot for a respectable effort at the New Hampshire 10 Miler on August 28, a USATF-NE Grand Prix race, then the Lone Gull 10K (another GP race) on September 19, followed by the Green Mountain Half Marathon on Oct 17.  After that, maybe a couple other races to close out the year.

Standing back, this was a pretty easy decision and released some pressure I was feeling about gaining back speed sooner.  These are wonderful days for running — it’s light and warm at 5 a.m.!  And we made it through the long Vermont winter and early spring.  But pushing despite other stressors is an invitation for injury.  As we look at tradeoffs in our training and lives, it’s always worth considering the long view.

(1) Haff & Triplett, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2016, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Ill.    

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