When Kristina King started her first job out of college at a major Manhattan PR agency this year, she knew that regular exercise would be the key to staying sane. The only problem: By the time she makes it to the gym, she can’t always shut off her mind to focus on her workouts. “When I’m preoccupied with a big project, it’s hard for me to push my body if I’m mentally still at the office,” says King, 22. “I get overwhelmed, and if I’m stressed, it skews my motivation.”
Ruminating on her workday drains her energy — and her muscles ache if she begins a workout feeling angry. Not to mention how stress-induced poor sleep takes a toll on her endurance. “For someone who needs a good workout to manage her stress, it’s a vicious cycle,” she says.
We all know that a good run or ride is a great way to alleviate the tension, mind fog and fatigue of a stressful day. Once you get those endorphins flowing, you feel more confident and the world can seem less daunting. Research shows that, over time, athletes even become more resilient to the negative effects of stress, which is one more reason to keep moving.
Yet, stress can also have a sneaky way of sabotaging your workouts before you’ve even laced up your sneakers. Perhaps you find yourself obsessing about work or relationship problems instead of focusing on your speed or technique. Or, maybe feeling worked up makes it hard to settle into a good run. Here’s what happens to your body when you’re stressed, and how to prevent it from sapping your strength.
How Chronic Stress Screws with Your Workouts
Those late nights at the office can have a far-reaching impact on your health. Chronic stress hurts your ability to regulate the hormone cortisol, which influences metabolism, immunity, sleep rhythms and blood pressure. As a result, you’ll feel run-down and tired — and may be more subject to gaining weight. Not to mention it might be harder to manage those treadmill intervals when you’re feeling blah.
“It fatigues muscles, hurts endurance and puts you in a jagged mental state.”
Although the slight increase in cortisol from moderate stress can have a positive impact on performance, one Italian study of young adults engaged in a workout competition found that acute stress before and during the event hurt their scores. But it’s more complicated than suffering from pre-competition nerves.
If you’re stressed out, you’re probably not sleeping well, which makes your cortisol out of whack. This can cause you to overeat and feel sluggish. “By affecting your body’s ability to regulate cortisol, you might be putting yourself at risk for weight gain and not being as productive with exercise,” explains Domenica Rubino, MD, an endocrinologist at the Washington Center for Weight Management in Arlington, Virginia. Her advice: Protect your performance by not going to bed or eating too late, both of which can wreak further havoc with your sleep.
Bill Cole, a sports psychologist based in Cupertino, California, and founder of the Mental Game Coaching Association, advises athletes not to mistake the frenetic energy that can accompany stress for helpful motivation. “It fatigues muscles, hurts endurance and puts you in a jagged mental state,” says Cole, who specializes in stress management. In other words, it can throw you off balance psychologically and make it hard to achieve proper momentum during a workout.
It’s easy to feel like your workout is going nowhere fast if stress prevents you from getting a good start. “How do people get off track…They’re not hitting their targets, and they feel like they’re going backwards. Or, they jump ahead and assume that if the opening minutes were crummy, then the rest of the workout will be.”
Here are some strategies for getting back in the zone.
5 Ways to Sideline Your Stress
1. Remember your success stories.
Next time stress is weighing you down, remind yourself that you’ve pulled through before. “Remember three times you started [a workout] badly and finished well,” advises Cole. “People who are inexperienced at handling stress have [these] data points, but they don’t retrieve them. They’re too caught up in their emotions.” Instead of wallowing, relive your previous strong finishes.
2. Stop time traveling.
The best workouts happen when you’re fully present and focused. Resist the urge to think, “Another bad workout?” or, “What if I can’t keep up with the team?” According to Cole, “You want to refocus back to the now by regulating your inner state.” Let go of distractions or external irritations, like a humid gym environment or annoying people in the weight room. If you’re upset and breathing shallow, take three deep breaths, exhaling twice as slowly as you inhale.
3. Compartmentalize your thoughts.
If relationship troubles are gnawing at you, reassure yourself you’ll return to your ruminating after your workout. The problem will still be there (for better or for worse). “You’re giving you mind permission to rest,” says Cole. “A workout is a moving meditation.”
4. Pick the right workout.
Sue Rodgers split with her partner of five years a few months ago. When she feels wound up, she plans her Ironman training accordingly. “On the high stress days, I do certain activities that ground me and clear my head [and] force me to stay focused. So skiing, mountain biking, open water swimming or trail running are good,” says Rodgers, 41, a school health educator from Eastern Canada. “My toughest workouts when stressed are pool swimming because my head spins too much.” Pick a workout that will force you to put your attention elsewhere.
RELATED: 10 Yoga Poses to Beat Stress
5. Know when to take a break.
For King, sometimes the best strategy is ditching the gym altogether and finding other ways to take care of herself, such as a healthy dinner out, bubble bath or early bedtime. How does she know she needs a rest day? “I get to the gym and the idea of changing into workout clothes seems like the hardest thing I’ve done all day, or I can barely lift my normal weights,” says King, who’s competing in the Miss New York Pageant this June. “That’s when I know I need to focus on getting my stress down to protect my ability to work out for rest of the week.”