Should you train through stress?

Should you train through stress?

We often hear conflicting evidence about whether we should train through an illness with suggestions made from various people to either butch up and fight through it, using preworkout supplements to drive your training performance, or to avoid any activity unless 100% fit and healthy.

Rather than go into too much detail on this, as every individual case will be different with a unique set of circumstances to guide an athlete’s decision in whether to suit up, I want to explore the much more general topic of training under stress and using the information presented to guide you on a suitable decision.

In a word, any time your body’s functions are under attack from illness or injury you are in a situation of elevated physical stress. Rather than think of stress as a mundane fact of life to be tolerated lets see what happens when we undergo any stressful period.
 

During stress, the body will reorganise its activities to deal with the stressor at hand. Whether that is a short term injury or illness or being confronted with a gang of knife wielding thugs in a dark alleyway, a similar physiological response will take place. The body will start to pump blood faster with your heart rate rising rapidly as adrenaline is released while, at the same time nutrients will be delivered to working muscles at a vastly increased rate. At the same time, other bodily processes linked to longer term needs such as reproduction and growth will be inhibited. 

What does this mean for us?

In the short term, when facing a physical threat or body will prioritise dealing with the stressor and getting back to homeostasis as a priority. In the case of illness or injury this means dealing with that at the expense of more optimistic functions such as building muscle mass. The end result can be an environment where testosterone levels drop and cortisol levels rise. While this can be useful in the short term, the long term consequences for your training with an elevated cortisol to testosterone ratio can be catastrophic with a loss of muscle mass, and performance observed.

Mental Stress

So far we have discussed the effects on endocrine function of physical stressors but what about mental ones such as relationship difficulties, job pressures, and exams? Should we use training as a means to alleviate the stress these cause, to get it out of our system so to speak?

The effects of mental stress in the body are very similar to that seen during physiological stress. There is  research(2) to show that physical exercise can alleviate stress, something which should come as no surprise to anyone who trains regularly but is it as simple as training as normal regardless of the stress felt or should you adapt to the circumstances? 

An interesting recent study(1) examined the effects on markers of stress caused by the importance of the contest among elite volleyball players. The study tracked rating of perceived exertion (RPE), salivary cortisol (C) and immunoglobulin A levels (I) after a regular season versus championship final match between the same teams. The results showed that both before and after the final cortisol and RPE was much higher while immunoglobulin A levels were lower indicating decreased immunity. Combining decreased immunity with increased level of the stress hormone cortisol produces an environment which can increase the potential of catching an illness as well as being one where recovery and performance would be impeded. While we might expect a final to be more physically arduous, thereby accounting for the difference in values, the fact that even before the match players showed signs of elevated cortisol and decreased immunity shows that they were under significant stress before the game. 

Conclusion

To recap things elevated stress produces a catabolic environment and increased susceptibility t illness in athletes. This is the case regardless of whether we are dealing with a physical stressor or mental stressor such as anxiety before an important date. Training can help to alleviate stress in people even though recovery and performance during such periods will be compromised.


Practical Guidelines

While everyone will be different in their ability to manage stress meaning individuals should tailor advice according to their needs, some general recommendations can be made:

Training Program – First and foremost remember that training itself is a cause of physical stress and whenever you make any changes to your training regime do so by making gradual increases in volume, intensity or frequency. Deciding you want to try a higher volume program and adding sets to every exercise immediately is a surefire way to going nowhere.

Read our article on How to Increase Muscle Mass for specific guidance on this area.

Additional Exercise – On a related note don’t think that you can somehow add cardio or sport sessions into your program and expect the body to be able to handle the same workload as before. If you are adding something do so very slowly and adjust your weight workout to accommodate the increased training stress.

Outside Stress – If you are going through a difficult time away from the gym then you need to know that your ability to train will be compromised and, if you aren’t ill already, your susceptibility to an infection will increase. This applies whether you are sleeping poorly, chronically anxious, or mentally stressed from outside pressures. In this case, while training can help to alleviate stress you need to be sensible and listen to your body as well as your mind. Plowing through the workout with reduced motivation and performance is not going to be good for anything other than ensuring your results are compromised and your body learns how to stay in a rut. This would be a good time to incorporate adaptogens as discussed earlier in our posts on Rhodiola Rosea and Ginseng. It would probably be better to use these than stimulants which could exacerbate symptoms in the long run even if they do provide a short term boost. In addition the use of BCAA supplements or Glutamine will help to minimise catabolic processes. A cortisol lowering supplement such as Lean Xtreme or one which can also raise testosterone such as Erase Pro will help to resolve some of the issues related to stress lowering testosterone and raising cortisol.

While supplements can offset to some degree the effects of stress they cannot eliminate the causes of stress or override the negative consequences. As such, whenever you are deliberately inducing stress via a heavier workload in the gym it is essential you focus at least as hard on recovery and rest as you do on your lifting. 

The one thing few people would want to consider is cutting back on the gym but in cases of chronic stress caused by outside issues you should look to cut back training volume first and foremost as the body struggles the most with high volume workouts when stress is high. During these time periods a focus on brief and intense workouts will help to at least maintain your gains or minimise your losses. As briefer workouts are invariably less stressful in themselves they are ideal for times such as these. At the same time, cutting back on isolation exercises and focusing on just 2-3 major compound movements per workout is optimal and ensures you get in and out of the gym quickly.

Major Upcoming Event – Noting the results of the study on volleyball players, it would be wise to cut back on training volume ahead of any major sporting or social event likely to cause stress (exams, job change etc) as the results from that study show that you will be faced with a catabolic environment making the chance of getting ill much higher. Most athletes already taper off from hard training in the run up to a major contest so this advice applies particularly to bodybuilders who are most insistent on hard training year round.

References

1. Moreira, Alexandre; Freitas, Camila G; Nakamura, Fábio Yuzo; Drago, Gustavo; Drago, Murilo; Aoki, Marcelo S (2012): Effect of match importance on salivary cortisol and immunoglobulin A responses in elite young volleyball players
2. P.Salmon (2000): Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: A unifying theory

© 2012, Reggie Johal. All rights reserved.