As a life-long runner, I thought it natural to keep training and racing after getting married and starting a family. But after a couple of years of balancing family with the demands of a career in marketing and communications, running was becoming harder, race performances declined and I frequently became ill or injured.
Yet I kept running and signing up for races I couldn’t train for, believing that running would eventually reduce my stress and make me healthy again. Only it didn’t. Instead, I reached a point at which I could barely get out of bed on the weekends. I had no energy to play with my young son let alone complete a 10-mile training run.
What had happened?
Running is an incredibly effective and immediate stress-reducing activity. It clears the mind, stimulates the release of “happy” hormones, raises energy levels and improves fitness, as well as helps you maintain a healthy weight and body composition.
For this reason, running is a form of “good” stress because it stimulates physiological adaptations that make you fitter, stronger and faster. I call this type of stress PRODUCTIVE STRESS because of the positive results it creates. The problem I—along with a shockingly high number of runners of all ability levels—was experiencing was that my running was no longer productive. It had become UNPRODUCTIVE.
It turns out that the stress from other life areas can gradually and imperceptibly erode the body’s ability to recover from running. Worry, anxiety, pressure at work and feelings of overwhelm are just a few forms of psychological stress that I call unproductive because they cause fatigue, illness, sleep problems, irritability and many other problems.
Whether you’re experiencing stress from worry about how to pay the bills or a really hard hill workout, your body responds the same way. In both cases, you have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, along with testosterone and adrenaline, which are key components of the endocrine system’s response to stress designed to help you fight or flee from danger. The problem is that modern lifestyle exposes us to stress constantly.
The result is an overtaxed body that is no longer able to recover from the stress of running. Instead, you experience a gradual accumulation of fatigue that slows or stops the natural adaptive processes that would otherwise make you fitter. In this depleted state, injury, illness and exhaustion are imminent.
When unproductive stress is chronically high, you’re not able to assimilate the physiological changes that make you fitter and faster. Instead of recovering from running, you just get more tired, ill and injured.
What Runners Must Do About Stress
Understandably, runners view illness, injury, lack of motivation, exhaustion or burnout as running roadblocks. However, I offer an alternate view; one in which these symptoms are helpful feedback mechanisms about the quality of your training. Cultivating this type of self-knowledge is an art in that requires continuous refinement. Life stress—and our ability to process its effects—are constantly in flux.
But with practice, viewing your stress response as a feedback mechanism and adjusting your training accordingly eventually becomes second nature. A training log that lets you track your total stress load is an effective tool for cultivating self-awareness. Use it to identify your unique stress patterns and what lifestyle and training changes get your health and running back on track.
A New Approach to Running
Once you’ve sufficiently reduced your unproductive stress load, you can reintroduce running as a form of productive stress (one that creates fitness gains). To avoid falling back into a the burnout/injury/illness cycle again, organize your training around these principles:
The effects of unproductive stress can accumulate gradually and start to impact your health and training before you’re aware of it. A training log like this one is a useful tool in cultivating this awareness, which is the first step in making informed adjustments to your training.
A sustainable training approach takes a holistic view of your running and how life events influence its quality. A key aspect of sustainability is consistency, which is necessary to improving fitness. This doesn’t mean training at the same level all year round, rather, it means doing what’s necessary to keep all your training productive, even if that means taking an extended break.
While a training plan can serve as a helpful guideline, you must overlay it with the self-knowledge of how your body responds to your total stress load. These two things together allow you to manage your training effectively.
Sticking with a training plan no matter what does not make you a committed runner. Rather, flexibility in training demonstrates respect for your body’s feedback mechanisms. Plan your training volume and intensity around your current stress load by constantly asking yourself, “how much can I handle right now?” Life is constantly in flux, and so should your training should, too.
The result will be a smarter training approach that allows you to get more from every run. Whether your goal is to manage life stress, run a half marathon PR, lose 25 pounds or complete an ultramarathon, this training approach will ensure that you get more from every run while preserving your health, happiness and sanity.