For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering five questions about stress. First, how can someone handle the stress from training five days a week, assuming they don’t want to cut back on gym days? Second, what are the negative effects of chronic stress on athletic performance? Third, what do I do when I’m stressed out and Primal Calm isn’t cutting it? Do I have any practices? And fourth, how can a working mom with three little kids deal with non-negotiable stress? Fifth, can distractions like TV or movies help us deal with stress, or are they just ways to ignore the problem?


Let’s go:

I’d like to know more about how to best combat stress from HIIT other than just don’t work out 5 times a week. Don’t know that I’m willing to sacrifice days at the gym. Thanks!!

My first suggestion—and the best one—is to sacrifice days at the gym. Five days is excessive for most people, and since you’re complaining about too much stress, you appear to be most people. Drop a day or two and you’ll get better results and experience less stress.

My second suggestion is to keep going training five days a week but make your workouts longer and easier and shorter and more intense. If you’re doing 5 days at that moderate-high intensity, moderate-high volume setting so many assume is the path to fitness, you will crash without physiological enhancement. Do 2-3 days of intense strength training—quick, dense, hard workouts using full-body movements—and sprints. Do 1-2 days of really long, really easy aerobic work. That could be a hike, a long bike ride, or even time on the elliptical, exercise bike, or treadmill.

Third, you can start playing around with supplements and foods and practices to speed recovery.

Beets are probably best here. Beet juice has been shown to reduce muscle pain after training, speed up recovery after hard training, and improve muscle phosphocreatine depletion rates during intense efforts.  Beets even reduce sympathetic over-activation of muscles, promoting more resting and relaxing.

Take tart cherry. Tart cherry juice/powder/concentrate can  speed up recovery after intense, prolonged training. Tastes good, too.

Cold water immersion can improve short term muscle recovery, especially in the heat where tissue cooling is a big impediment to getting back at it, but it may hamper hypertrophy and long term strength development.

This is a big topic. I should probably cover it more in depth.

How does chronic stress impact athletic performance?

In many ways.

Chronic stress increases the chance of injury. During intense “life events”—deaths, illnesses, divorces—an athlete’s risk of getting injured goes up. You can’t perform if you’re injured.

Chronic stress increases the risk of burnout. You’re adding stress to stress, and something’s going to give.

Chronic stress decreases performance. Consider how the stress of a game coming down to the wire with everything on the line affects athletes differently. Some rise to the occasion, sink the free throws, make the catch, complete the final push. Others shrink against pressure, miss the free throw, drop the catch, fall back at the end. Those for whom pressure increases performance simply haven’t reached their stress tolerance threshold. Those who buckle have reached it. If an athlete is suffering from chronic stress, they have reached their stress tolerance threshold.

Other than primal calm(used before and love it!) what physical practices do you use to help reduce the affects of stress?

I’ve tried meditation. Doesn’t work for me. Or rather, I don’t work for it. At this point in my life, I’ve pretty much accepted that it’s not going to happen.

Moving meditations work. My absolute favorite is to get out on the open water and go standup paddling. Some of my most awe-inspiring moments have happened on the board, like coming upon a pod of dolphins who proceed to frolic under, around, and with me, or having an up-close experience with a mama gray whale and her two calves.

Good fiction helps. You temporarily inhabit another world, live another narrative. It’s a reset. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll make a point to carve out an hour or two for time with a good book.

Exercise usually works. It never hurts. Let’s put it this way: I’ve never regretted deciding to hit the gym, run some hill sprints, or go for a hike when I’m feeling the effects of stress coming on.

Going outside wearing as little clothing as you can bear is another. This is the advantage of working from home. I can slip outside in shorts and no shoes, make contact with the earth and sun, and almost immediately feel better. I don’t know if it’s the vitamin D or nitric oxide from the sun, or if “grounding” is doing anything on a physiological level, but it sure does work. Things are a little different now that I’ve moved to Miami, so I’m still figuring all that out.

what can we do with stressors that absolutely cannot be eliminated from our lives while maintaining a high level of energy for our life’s demands?… coming from a mom of 3 under 3, breadwinner, full time working outside the home, special needs parent.

Find the wiggle room. There’s always some lurking around. Go home a little early one day a week. Did your world crumble around you? Did the business fail?  Probably not. What probably happened was people didn’t even notice and got on with their work normally. Try that. See how it goes. See if it affects your status at work or ability to get the job done. I suspect it won’t.

There may be some wiggle room with the kids, too. Three under three with special needs is intense. I won’t discount that. I only ever had two at the most to deal with, so I can imagine. But see what you can do. Set up a cordoned off play-area or playroom that you can dump them in for a few minutes here and there for some alone time. Be willing to let them work things out themselves from time to time instead of immediately rushing in to mediate, as long as the screams aren’t too bloodcurdling. Be tolerant of a bit of discord.

How much do distractions (playing games, watching movies) help against stress? Ignoring issues is not a long-term solution, but do they help in delaying the negative effects of stress?

Great question.

We can do great things with these complex brains, like plan years in advance, make predictions, solve complicated problems. We can also do bad things with them, like ruminate. We can fall into recursive thought loops. Take the uniquely human affliction of stressing about stress, or even worse, stressing about stressing about stress. You won’t ever see a dog doing that.

Sometimes, a distraction is exactly what you need to break out of the cycle, disrupt the thought loops, and cut through the stress.

It’s not ignoring it, actually. It’s dealing with the stressful thought loop the only way you truly can—by arresting its progress.

Now, should you engage in an endless series of distractions to avoid thinking about the bills you should be paying, the life you should be leading, the marriage you should be saving? Definitely not. But certain types of mental stress definitely benefit from the occasional injection of distraction.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading and thanks for asking such great questions. Take care!

Be sure to chime in down below if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions.

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