We hear all the time that stress is bad—but it's not quite that simple. Stress can be a helpful tool in life, and in the gym. We need some stress to be motivated, and to reach goals. The key is to manage it, and to reduce your negative stress as you create positive stressors. It's a juggling act. To tell us about the effects of stress on fitness, and give us some tips for staying in control, we spoke to Devin Wicks, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley and creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout Program .
The Good and Bad of Stress
Your gym performance, Wicks says, can really hinge on your stress management. To him, stress is not inherently good or bad—but its effects are, depending on how you handle them. "You are a product of what you think," Wicks says. "In order to perform your best, you need to learn to manage your stress, and promote the things that help you perform, and manage those that limit you." If you have too much stress, you'll have difficulty focusing; but without enough stress you feel bored, or have trouble engaging. So, Wicks says, "If you have difficulty getting to the gym, or feel bored by it, you may need some positive stressors. You may actually need more stress to give you motivation to get to the gym and to push you through your workouts once you're there."
That means having just enough stress to keep you going, but not so much that it limits you. From a physiological point of view, Wicks says, "Your body recognizes all stress in the same way; you trigger your fight-or-flight response, which releases stress hormones–a shot of adrenaline." This has both good and bad side effects. On the one hand, Wicks says, "If you don't work off the stress hormones released in that state, they have very deleterious effects on the body. They'll suppress the immune system, raise blood pressure, increase cholesterol." That is obviously not good. On the other hand, Wicks points out, "That state of physiological arousal can be very useful in the gym. In a lifting environment, for instance, your stress response can get your body ready to do a greater amount of work. It gets you alert and mentally prepared; and it gets your body physically prepared for explosive activity." But in that same lifting environment, stress needs to be monitored: Adrenaline "inhibits judgment and interferes with fine motor control," Wicks says, "so for skill-based activities, stress is not helpful—it's best for big power and speed work." And, remember that you only want as much of a stress reaction as you can work off in the gym, so that you get the stress hormones fully out of your body. The key is to have just enough of a stress reaction that you are motivated to workout —but only as much stress as you can sweat off in the gym that day. "Not enough to drive you nuts," as Wicks puts it.
Recognizing Negative Stress
In addition to impeding judgment and motor control, Wicks says, "Negative stressors also consume unnecessary mental energy. In a competitive environment they make things seem like threats—and you'll notice this even in the gym, when you look around at others and feel bad about yourself. That's stress eating away at your positive mindset overall. It erodes self-confidence, increases negative thinking, and disrupts your 'flow', or ability to stay in the moment and connected with what you're doing." All of these effects will seriously inhibit your ability to do your best in your workouts.
Wicks identifies two situations that will raise your negative stress levels in the gym; it's worth thinking about whether either or both applies to you. The first occurs, Wicks says, "When things are beyond what you think you can do; if a task is beyond your abilities, that kind of stress will inhibit your performance." The second situation occurs, "If a task is doable, but you feel there are too many things in your way—like time, distance to the gym, membership fees, anything that makes you feel like you can't even get there to do the task."
To beat negative stress, Wicks suggests three solutions to help you re-think your gym life:
1. Set achievable goals: "Set goals that are manageable relative to who and where you are," Wicks says. "And be concrete about this—see a personal trainer who can take measurements for you so you know where you're starting from. Get hard measurements of your current body fat; a sub-maximal stress cardio test; some strength tests, like a sub-max strength test to find out your one rep max. Then you work to gradually increase your numbers, so that your goals are realistic, and you can see when you're achieving them."
2. Learn to manage and schedule time better: "Set in your calendar an hour to work out, and commit to maintaining it no matter what's going on—in fact, manage other things in your life around that commitment." Also, Wicks says, "Develop a strategy to stay mentally engaged—your time gets lost because you're bored. So think about routine with change. You've got that hour, it's blocked out, so you don't have to worry about that problem anymore—now you have room to think about changing up what you do in that hour; try not to just get in a rut."
3. Manage negative self-talk: "Often we get in environments where we feel like 'I can't do this…I don't have it….' If you can manage this kind of thinking, it will be a huge help." One practical solution: a journal. Wicks says that, "Studies show that journaling about how you feel about things, positive and negative, will help to manage your negative feelings about yourself. Journaling helps you talk through your emotions and become more conscious of your own negative thoughts and how to manage them." He likens this to the experience we've all had of receiving an unpleasant email, and writing a furious response—that we never send. "But just writing the message lets you let go of the stress hormones, and move on," Wicks says. "Use a journal in the same way."
Promoting Positive Stress
Athletes make use of positive stress in competition situations all the time. When preparing for a race, an athlete's anticipatory heart rate goes up, giving him a little extra boost. "Athletes hone this skill," Wicks says, "for getting psyched up, and for some butterflies in the stomach—because they know that those stressors are really helpful when performing at a high level in competitive environments." Even if you're not an Olympic track star, you can take advantage of the same physiological processes to enhance your performance—and experience—in the gym. Every time you workout, you want to be psyched to do your best.
Here are Wicks' three strategies for increasing your positive stress:
1. Change your focus: "Shift your workouts from being gym-focused to goal-focused," Wicks advises. "Get involved in scheduled events—like marathons, or charity events like the AIDS LifeCycle ride—so you have a large but concrete goal. That way, your training isn't just endless, but you have a positive stressor and a clear goal—and an endpoint. That gets you psyched up and provides a reason for your training, which comes to be aimed at the demands of the event."
2. Become accountable: "Enlist the help of a buddy to hold you accountable, and help them be accountable. They'll get you in the gym, and often they'll help you push yourself a little harder, because you'll have to show up and be responsible with them."
3. Shift gears: "Change your activities, so you're forced to learn a new skill." That may be something as small as a new lift, or as broad as a new sport. But try a new routine, and, Wicks says, "Get out of your comfort zone. Try something that seems just a little beyond you, so that you have a sense of accomplishment as you see yourself getting better at it."
For Wicks, the question of stress comes down to managing your mental energy. "You're trying not to lose the good mental energy, even as you get rid of the bad energy—so that you can function to your best potential. By conserving your mental energy you can conserve your physical energy—and that lets you have good technique in the gym, even when you're sore or have tired muscles. You can actually use your good mental skills to maintain good physical execution skills. And then you can use those physical skills to drive your body through the pain and fatigue barriers that, if you don't manage your stress, will inhibit your potential."
Finally, Wicks warns, "None of this will work if your body isn't prepared for work. You can't manage your stress, or push yourself, if you don't have effective rest and effective fueling. So you really must watch your nutrition, and get plenty of sleep. Those alone will help to reduce your stress levels."