There are some sessions where you’ve been making progress week-on-week, like a freight train through wet paper towels, then suddenly you get flattened by a workout.
What gives? You felt like a total stud and, psychologically, you were ready to rock. But you didn’t turn up on the day and, despite all your progress on this program, you’d simply lost your mojo.
Did you ever think it could be that long work week, that argument you had about where to put the lamp, or your in-laws chewing you out? Because that’s a realistic, scientifically-valid factor in a crap workout.
Today’s blog is all about how life sucks, and how to roll with it and keep progressing when it’s all going to hell.
Big Science for Common Sense
Your body is a finely-tuned adaptation machine It’s built to deal with extreme changes in environment, pretty much any diet you can scrape together, and it helped you be the smartest animal that ever lived (humans — not you, specifically).
The problem with this is that, as a stress-adaptation machine, your body deals with psychological stress (like the existence of your in-laws) and physiological problems (such as a sick high-volume training session). These both add stress to your system and your body isn’t great at separating different sources of stress.
This ‘allostatic’ model points out that your body has to adapt to stressors of both kinds, and they have a cumulative effect on your psychological and physical “resources”. You can lump these together, roughly, and consider them all as contributing factors in your performance and muscle gain/fat loss/exercise performance.
This is all simplified — the science is pretty hardcore. All you need to know is that your chronic stresses from work, studies or relationships have a key part to play in your long-term development and how much of a bad-ass you are (or not) in training.
Understanding Recovery: A Quick Analogy
Here’s a quick and easy way of dealing with the allostatic model that makes it easy to understand. Your stress capacity is a sink and you have a blue liquid and a red liquid. One of them is life stress, the other is training stress, and you’re pouring them both into the sink.
There’s a certain amount that drains out of the plughole, and you can make progress as long as the combined total of your liquids in (stresses) are less than your liquids out (recovery ability).
This is an analogy for stress and recovery: you’re not actually this fancy.
However, if you keep pouring the same amount of one and double the amount of the other, you’ll quickly overflow. In this metaphor, that’s over-training and its how you ruin your gains and end up feeling like crap/getting injured.
Simply put, they both matter.
How Much Stress Can You Take?
This one is a bit of a weird one, though, because everyone has a different tolerance for stress — both physical and mental.
Your physical stress tolerance is volume capacity or workload. This comes with time and training, and you can actively boost it. Focus on cardio and high-rep muscular endurance for a while and you’ll find that you can handle a little more volume as a result.
There’s a big genetic component, and the amount of sport you did as a kid will also make a difference, but you can adjust it.
On the psychological side, it’s a bit trickier. Neuroticism is the psychological trait that’s all about how much stress you can handle before you go absolutely nuts and shave your head. We’ve all been there.
It’s no coincidence that stress and sit-ups look the same. It’s because they’re both awful.
Your neuroticism increases as you age, but it’s far less variable than your physical stress tolerance. You don’t get that much choice in your psychological stress limit, so you’re going to have to pay attention to it and be careful.
How Does Psychological Stress Show up in Your Training?
Both types of stress overlap in one key area: your hormones. Whether it’s all in your head or your muscles, stress plays a key role in suppressing anabolic hormones — the ones involved with building muscle and recovery between training sessions.
Chronic stress can have even further-reaching problems in metabolism, mental health and power output. Simply put, if you’re racking up more stress than you can get rid of, you’re going to be much worse for wear.
It also indirectly affects your recovery in a number of ways, which is a vicious circle since these contribute to worse clearance rates for both types of stress:
· Reduced sleep quality/restfulness
· Reduced appetite
· Decreased motivation and general sense of wellbeing
· Negative self-concept/esteem
· Increased pro-neurotic behaviours (possibly as a result of how your view of yourself changes)
· Less able to relax — a key restorative process
So, in short, being stressed reduces your performance and makes you more stressed. It should be obvious why this stuff needs discussing: it’s a down-ward spiral that can ruin your motivation and lead to a real rough patch with training.
You may not like it, but this is what peak stress looks like.
Stress is a risk to your overall performance and you need to protect yourself. Sometimes this means bending with it, and some times it means facing it head-on.
1. Don’t Guilt Trip Yourself — Adapt.
The first place to start is to realise when it’s happening. Try to be gentle with yourself and remember how much is going on in your life.
If you know that you’re getting buffeted from every angle by stress, it’s totally reasonable to back off of training. If you’re on 200% of your usual life-stress (or even more), then it’s going to be much easier to over-train (or, rather, under-recover).
During these periods, if your main priority in life isn’t training, it’s good to take a step back. Deloading isn’t about doing lighter weights — it’s about doing less volume. Try and dial back 25–50% and just make sure you get something from these sessions.
For example, if you’re doing a big squat session and you’re just sandbagging the top sets then drop some reps. Move down from sets of 6 to sets of 4 but keep the weight consistent. You can also cut out some of the sets and replace them with work on weaknesses — such as Bulgarian split squats.
We both know you don’t do enough single-leg work — it’s a good chance to pull up some weak links!
2. Can Periodisation Help?
If you’re going to try and improve your overall stress tolerance, you can do this by increasing physical stress tolerance.
As mentioned above, work capacity can be trained. At the start of any program, dedicate 3–6 weeks to accumulating some work volume. This doesn’t mean staying light and just doing cardio, but it does mean intentionally pushing rep-maxes, improving your cardio-respiratory system and making those health gains.
This isn’t going to seem much use at the time but adding it in will help you improve your long-term results. Building this work capacity is a great way of supporting your hard training while you’re resting, recovering, and getting ready to crush new goals.
3. Drop the Bad Habits
If you’re prone to a drink or a smoke here and there, you’re going to be adding some extra nonsense to your sink.
While we all know these are bad for you, you’re going to see them playing an even bigger part when you’re dealing with pre-existing stress. You might think that your cigarette break is helping you de-stress, but the contribution to your whole system is a NET loss.
In simple terms, smoking is a crap-chute of awful neuro-physiological problems that aren’t out-weighed by a brief feeling of relief. Smoking sucks and you already know it, so remember that every cigarette avoided is a health- and performance-triumph!
The same goes for alcohol, which increases your physical stress-load and directly suppresses the growth- and recovery-hormones that chronic stress brings. A night out isn’t going to help — it’s just going to add another form of long-term stress.
4. Mindset: More than Just a Motivational IG Post?
If you’re sick of the term mindset in fitness, you’re not alone — it’s been used and abused by every Instagram page that wants your follows.
However, in dealing with allostatic load and stress in general, the mindset with which you approach life and its problems is a serious factor in your overall stress-load.
Things like a more challenge-oriented personality and certain cognitive behaviours have been suggested to improve your actual physical and psychological response to stress.
Basically, if you’re the type of person who treats a figurative smack in the face from life as a challenge (rather than the immutable will of a universe out to get you), you’re going to do better.
This is probably more complicated than simply trying to be tougher — and CBT and other methods might be the way to go — but it does put you right in the middle of your problems and give you some way to deal with them.
5. Improve your “Drainage Rate”
Back to our sink analogy, everything we’ve mentioned so far is about making your sink bigger (with work capacity) or reducing the amount of stress you’re pouring on.
How about improving the amount of stress that you can deal with by improving recovery? This is one way of improving the training and response in elite athletes. They use a wide variety of pro-recovery methods:
· Optimum nutrition (not the supplement brand)
· Better sleep quality/quantity
· Massage and other forms of mobility/pliability/soft tissue work
· Contrast and heat therapies (though their actual effectiveness is hit and miss)
· Active relaxation stuff (from yoga to meditation to just sitting down and chilling out, it matters!)
If you want the absolute best results, or you don’t get a choice in your life stresses, this approach is a great way to deal with the problem. Remember, though, that it’s more of a band-aid solution and reducing your overall stress-load is the healthier choice in the long-run.
(Disclaimer: When chronically stressed, avoid long runs)
Adjusting training to deal with life, and life to deal with training, is just part-and-parcel for progressing. You’re not going to be performing at your best if you’re under a ton of pressure and you feel like you’re drowning in life’s difficulties.
You have to learn to roll with the punches when it comes to training. Your plan has to assume consistency, but your actual training has to adjust for the uncertainty of life. This handful of tips is far from all of the advice out there, but they’re easy to implement and they’ll make a real difference.