is stress affecting my ability to recover from my workouts?
For many of us, the journey of self-improvement is a daily pursuit, one that requires us to stay consistent and accountable. If you’re like me, a huge piece of the puzzle when it comes to bettering myself is my fitness routine. It’s something I’ve come to value more and more as I grow older for a multitude of reasons. Not only is it appropriate to want to stay strong and fit for whatever life may throw my way, but it has become what I might consider a secondary meditative practice. My workouts are moments in time that allow me to tune out what’s happening externally and focus all of my energy inward. The ability to have an uninterrupted block of devoted time to better myself both physically and mentally is never something I take for granted. Something else I don’t take for granted? Recovery. The only way I will continue to have the ability, joy, and freedom to continue to better myself is to implement recovery practices daily. This made choosing recovery as my personal pursuit in 2022 an easy choice. Why then, when I include recovery as part of my routine, (think mobility work, active recovery workouts, proper nutrition, rest days etc.), do I often find myself feeling like I haven’t fully recovered from my workouts for multiple days in a row? The answer? Stress.
I’m not talking about the physical stress your body is put under during any type of physical activity – not entirely. I’m talking about the everyday stressors that you may not consciously acknowledge. That big presentation you’re preparing for, planning Q1 goals for your personal life and career, the traffic you find yourself sitting in on your daily commute to work, all that’s required to keep a family and household running, etc. Even during those times when you feel physically recovered and ready to take on your next workout, external stressors and their physiological effects may be telling a very different story.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Stress – really, what is it? Elizabeth Scott, PhD defines stress as, “Any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. Stress is your body's response to anything that requires attention or action.” What’s important to understand here is both how you react to stress, as well as how stress impacts you individually from a mental and physical perspective. When we’re talking about the stress your body endures during a workout, for some, an indicator that they’re recovered and ready to take on their next session may be that their once sore muscles are no longer sore. Or maybe it’s wearable technology giving you the “green light” based on a variety of different data points. Yet, it’s important to be able to recognize other signs of stress to really look at the big picture holistically. Some indicators that you may be experiencing stress outside of that workout include feelings of irritability or moodiness, difficulty concentrating, a heightened sense of anxiety, lower libido, and feeling consistently lower in energy to name a few. While the daily stressors that we all experience may start out as acute stress, however; overtime if not addressed this stress has the ability to turn into chronic stress which has a higher probability of turning into a serious health condition.
Let’s dive a little bit deeper into the science of things.
We’ve all heard of the body's “fight or flight” response which can be described as a message between the brain and the autonomic nervous system in which your body is told to either stay and face the stress, “fight”, or run in the other direction, “flight”. The sympathetic nervous system produces the boost of energy we need in the case that we chose to “fight” the stress, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect, sending signals to help the body calm when the stress is no longer a threat. The kicker? If we’re constantly facing acute stress outside of our regular workouts (more stress), then our bodies are going to stay in that “fight or flight” mode and the cortisol hormone will remain high.
I know – sometimes, the best way to work through stress related to work, family, or things outside of your control, is through a sweaty HIIT session or a long run. Endorphins are the happy hormone after all, right? But what if that type of workout was actually causing more harm than good? What if your autonomic nervous system was put into overdrive, dealing with layers and layers of stress and never entering, “rest and digest?” According to an article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research summarizing the effects of psychological stress on one’s physiological state in relation to recovery, a greater level of psychological stress has been identified as a mode in which to predict recovery speeds (read: recovery time) and those who are under more stress, recover to a lesser degree.
Let’s shift this chat over to focusing on some metrics. At this point, let’s say we’re all in agreement that our psychological stress does in fact have an effect on us physiologically, specifically in regards to our ability to recover after workouts. Our RPE (rate of perceived exertion), which can be defined as “A subjective physical measurement designed to help track the intensity of your physical and mental capabilities during strenuous activity,” can also be thought about in terms of recovery. As I noted before, when we consider how recovered we are after workouts, oftentimes we go straight to what I’ll call, for a lack of a better term, RPR or rate of perceived recovery, meaning, how sore am I after that workout? However, if you’re into fitness, you’re likely aware that “sore” doesn’t necessarily define a good or bad workout, or even good or poor recovery. There are two specific metrics you should consider when taking a holistic approach to viewing recovery.
Heart Rate Variability
What is heart rate variability? Heart rate variability or HRV is the measurement of the variation in time between heartbeats. To keep it simple, a higher HRV indicates a balance between your parasympathetic nervous system and your sympathetic nervous system, informing you that your body is responding appropriately to both stress and rest. When you’re seeing the opposite, a low HRV, understand that one system is working in overdrive (oftentimes it's the sympathetic) and your body is not responding to or handling stress in a beneficial way. Simply put, if you’re not undergoing physical activity but you’re seeing a low HRV, your body is in overdrive for other reasons (stress!). This data can be beneficial when applied specifically to your training as well. After strenuous exercise, you’ll likely notice a drop in your HRV. The indication that your body is well recovered would be to see that rise in HRV. Consider wearing a WHOOP or Oura Ring to better understand your own HRV (as it’s extremely individualized). Thich will allow you to get a glimpse into your true recovery versus your perceived recovery levels.
On the other hand, if you have low heart rate variability, one branch is dominating (usually the sympathetic) and sending stronger signals to your heart than the other. There are times when this is a good thing – like if you’re running a race you want your body to focus on allocating resources to your legs (sympathetic activity) as opposed to digesting food (parasympathetic activity).
Breathing and Sleeping
Another important piece to the puzzle when it comes to combating stress and giving your body a better chance at properly recovering is sleep. Simply getting quality sleep. How do you even approach getting better sleep? According to Functional Breath Practitioner Ari Greenburg, our breath, “has a direct correlation to the quality of our sleep.” Lucky for you, he’s got a few tips that you can implement to fix the way you breathe and enhance your quality of sleep.
Aim for nasal breathing only
Ari notes that the function of our nose, while of course filters the air we take in by way of antiviral cavities, also, “activates neural pathways which promote cognitive function and nitric oxide production.” The takeaway here is to become more attuned with how you’re breathing throughout the day. To try and adjust your breathing pattern to be slower, less tight, and yes, through the nose.
Start your day screen free
We’ve heard it before but we’re telling you again: instead of starting your day with artificial blue light, aim to start it with real sunlight. What does this do? Waking up and heading directly for some Vitamin D aligns your circadian rhythm, which, if you’ve heard, directly impacts your sleep cycle. Combine your morning sun with some nasal breathing and you’ll be off to the races!
Utilize breathing techniques before catching those Z’s
It’s simple. Be more intentional when it comes to your breath as you’re falling asleep (and let’s try going to bed sans phone shall we?). Ari says, “Breathing before bed to relax and fall asleep can be as simple as inhaling through the nose for 5 and exhaling through the nose for 5 until you fall asleep. One of the more popular cadences for sleep is 4-7-8 (inhale for 4 nasal, hold for 7, and exhale through the nose for 8). Typically extending the exhale to double the length of your inhale is a good rule of thumb to calm down and slow down.”
You may start to feel like the various tactics I’m offering up when it comes to lowering your stress levels are all related – you’re not wrong. Think of your workouts, recovery, and lowering your stress levels as a pie chart: everything works together holistically, if one piece is missing, the other pieces have to fill in the gaps in whatever manner they can.
To help you slow down physically and become more in tune with your body (and mind), I suggest adding a yoga practice into your routine. And no, I’m not saying that you need to become a full-blown “yogi” but there’s no denying that the benefits of yoga are, well, endless. Lucky for us, our resident yoga expert, Dean Pohlman of Man Flow Yoga, has a quick, restorative flow that can be done before bed, to give your body some R&R and enhance your sleep which in turn sets your body up for success in the recovery department.
While there are any number of added ways you can lower your stress levels, I’ll leave you with one more: the world of supplements. Trying to find a new protein that not only provides the nutrients you need while avoiding the additives and chalky texture you don’t need is one thing, but searching for the specific supplements to support recovery, that’s a whole separate ball game. Here are some foundational supplements to help enhance your recovery.
According to the International Sports Sciences Association, magnesium can be effective in enhancing muscle recovery due to its ability to block calcium uptake which, “helps the muscles better relax after contracting during a tough workout.” This effect of muscle relaxation can also improve your sleep, which we know, can help your body better fight stress. In an article published by U.S. News and World Report, author David Levine noted a handful of food sources that offer up sufficient levels of magnesium:
Green leafy vegetables such as chard, collard greens and spinach
And of course, you can also look into taking a magnesium supplement. Talk to your doctor about supplements that could be right for you.
In a study done by Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness, it was deduced that, “Oral glutamine supplementation improved the time course of strength recovery, and diminished muscle soreness more rapidly” when compared to a placebo. So, how do you get more glutamine? A few natural sources include everything from beef, chicken, and fish, to dairy products, eggs, beans, beets, cabbage, and carrots. If you’re looking to supplement glutamine, you can find it in powders and capsules, in a slightly different chemical makeup known as L-glutamine.
As we continue to move forward, not just into a new year, but into every day, my hope is that you’re feeling equipped with the tools you need to not only lower your stress levels but counteract daily acute stressors that may be unavoidable. All in the name of better health and better recovery to continue to pursue movement however you see fit.
Elizabeth Scott, PhD. “How Is Stress Affecting My Health?” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 3 Aug. 2020, https://www.verywellmind.com/stress-and-health-3145086.
Stults-Kolehmainen, Matthew A., et al. “Chronic Psychological Stress Impairs Recovery of Muscular Function and Somatic Sensations over a 96-Hour Period.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 28, no. 7, July 2014, pp. 2007–2017., https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000335.
Brennan, Dan. “What Is RPE?” WebMD, WebMD, 27 Nov. 2021, https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/what-is-rpe#1.
International Sports Sciences Association. “Magnesium for Muscle Recovery: How It Works & How to Use It.” ISSA, https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2021/magnesium-for-muscle-recovery-how-it-works-how-to-use-it.
Levine, David. “Vitamins for Stress: Do They Work?” U.S News & World Report, 22 Apr. 2021, https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/vitamins-for-stress-do-they-work. Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.
Street, Brian, et al. “Glutamine Supplementation in Recovery From Eccentric Exercise Attenuates Strength Loss and Muscle Soreness.” Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness, vol. 9, no. 2, 2011, pp. 116–122., https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1728869X12600070. Accessed 23 Dec. 2021.
This information is not to be consulted as professional medical advice. Contact your healthcare professional before implementing new physical habits into your routine.