running and stress fatigue

Jayne Perkins, 42, of Alexandria, Louisiana, never had a major setback. Then, while training for her 10th trail marathon, she felt she was running poorly, despite being sure she wasn’t overtraining. Then came a persistent case of plantar fasciitis. And then it was taking her longer and longer to recover from long runs and interval workouts.

Each day of persistent pain and missed workouts eroded her hope of being ready for the marathon in time.

She didn’t believe her issues were symptoms of overtraining because she wasn’t running much more than she had for previous marathons.

What was different was her stress levels at work. Longer hours, greater demands and more projects had been taking their toll. She’d been eating lunch at her desk and waking in the middle of the night, head spinning with deadlines and details.

Jayne recalled an article she’d read about the impact stress can have on the body and suddenly it clicked: her mounting job pressure, combined with her marathon training, was overloading her system, creating overtraining-like symptoms.

Processing Stress

The body is designed to respond to all types of stress the same way–an increase in stress hormones like cortisol, along with testosterone and adrenaline, tissue inflammation, increasing heart rate and other physiological shifts—all designed to help us fight or flee from danger.

These changes are meant to be a short-term response. But the problem is that for many people, the typical modern American lifestyle, obsessed with busy-ness and achievement, tends to trigger peoples’ stress response on a regular basis.

“These stressors don’t provide much, if any, muscoskeletal or cardiovascular stress, but they certainly accumulate and inflict a great deal of hormonal stress on your body,” says sports psychologist and coach Matt Dixon, MSc. “This is why it is so important to develop a recovery awareness relative to your global stress load and to understand what life events can disturb healthy hormone ratios.”

For Jayne, the added life pressure was effectively doubling her stress load. As a result, Jayne’s training had become unproductive, meaning it was no longer making her fitter. She took longer to recover, she was becoming increasingly exhausted and her muscles and tissues lacked the energy to heal properly.

Her experience is consistent with findings from a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examining the impact of perceived stress on post-exercise recovery. The authors, Stults-Kolehmainen et. al., reported that those in the high-perceived stress group recovered several days more slowly from their workouts than those with lower stress.

It’s important to remember that not all stress is bad. Running is a productive stress when it is combined with good-quality recovery that allows stressed muscles, joints, tissues and bones to heal stronger and more resilient. This is how you build fitness.

“By mildly stressing your body, over time and through adaptation, your body adapts to perform betters,” says researcher Dr. Phil Maffetone, founder of the Maffetone Method. “But that same stressor—your workout—can become negative if you go too far beyond the body’s ability to recover from it.”

Make Running More Productive

Throughout your training, pay close to attention to how your body is responding. Do you look forward to your long runs or dread them? Do key workouts leave you sore and aching or loose and limber? How long does it take to bounce back from an interval session?

These qualitative signs are all part of your body’s natural feedback system that indicate how well it is responding to the training load.

Here are three ways to make your running more productive:

1.Account for your total stress load.

Use a training log or journal to write down not only metrics like mileage and pace, but also whether running feels fun and playful or like a chore. The degree to which you enjoy training is a key indicator of how well it’s working for you. Also make note of other life stressors that take up your valuable time and energy, and how these may be impacting the quality of your training and recovery. If you have more life stress than usual, you may need to train less.

2.Invest in high-quality recovery.

Are you truly resting on your recovery days? In order to effectively heal and build fitness, you need to de-activate the stress response and activate the relaxation response. Sitting on the couch and watching TV may not be enough. What non-running, relaxing activities let you forget your worries, problems and fears while building confidence, trust and ease? Schedule these activities into your week; they are equally as important as your training runs.

3. View your training plan as a guideline, not a prescription.

Measure the success of your training by how well it fits into your life and supports your health. The best training plans are never fixed, but are fluid in response to your fluctuating energy, available time, stress levels and other factors. This type of self-knowledge is an art that requires continuous refinement because life stress—and our ability to process its effects—are constantly in flux.

But with practice, noticing how productive or unproductive your running is ultimately creates the best training outcomes while protecting you from burnout and injury.