Running can both add stress and relieve it. Here’s how life stress affects your runs and how to balance it to support your fitness and life.
In 2020 and 2021, there was no such thing as a normal life. The pandemic affected everything we did and you could almost see a visible coating of stress draped over us all.
If you were running back then, I know you felt extra-grateful to have running to help cope.
While a good run can help relieve stress, exercise itself is a stressor. It’s usually a good form of stress if it’s not too long or intense, but a stressor nonetheless.
And that might just be too much sometimes.
Running Is A Form of Stress
When we run, whether it’s long or hard or long AND hard, our body is pushed out of its comfort zone and any time that happens it is a stressor. Running creates tiny micro tears in the muscle fibers which, when repaired, grow the muscle stronger. But when you think about tearing and repairing a muscle, that’s clearly something that is stressful, but when done in the right balance, it’s a good thing.
A good metaphor comes from the plant world. Let’s say you grow a seed inside your house under florescent lights. And then you grow the same seed outside in the elements in a similar temperature. The seedling growing indoors is happy at first because it’s protected from the weather so it reaches and stretches toward the light as it grows. But if it’s allowed to grow too long inside, it becomes weak and spindly and floppy. This happens because of the lack of good stressors like gentle wind and bright sun which means the plant will never reach its full potential.
Now, the one growing outdoors gets a bit battered around by the wind and the rain, but in the end grows stronger. Each time the plant sways in the wind, the plant reacts by toughening up its cells to resist greater damage. The bright sun causes the plant to grow a healthy, rich green. The right amount of stress from the elements build a stronger plant. But if it’s exposed to too much sun, too much wind, or too much rain, the plant will burn, break, or drown.
Exercise works the exact same way. If you don’t expose yourself to enough good stress, you will never improve or change or get faster. But if you overdo it, you’ll end up breaking something.
And we could end the story right there if our lives were only about running. You know, if we didn’t have work or relationships or illnesses or taxes or mortgages or, say, a global pandemic.
The Neuroscience of Stress
The key to training in a healthy and effective way is to look at the whole picture of your life which is your running stress plus your life stress.
The problem with the word “stress” is that it encompasses the good stress, like being excited to go out for a fun run as well as the bad stress, like being anxious, nervous, worried, and upset. So to solve that issue neuroscientists have come up with a fancy word to separate the two and it’s “allostasis.”
The concept of allostasis is how we adapt to change and bring ourselves into balance. Allostasis is different from the term “homeostasis” because it distinguishes between the systems that are essential for life (that’s homeostasis) and those that maintain these systems in balance (that’s allostasis).
If you are in an allostatic state, there is a drive for our body to adapt and bring the imbalanced hormones back into balance. For example, if you stay up all night, your body is in an allostatic state, producing different levels of important hormones like cortisol than when rested. In the short term, your body can cope with this. But, if you stay in a sleep deprived state too long, eventually, it causes damage.
That’s called an allostatic overload which by definition means that it’s chronic stress that’s beyond your body’s ability to adapt to. It causes wear and tear on your body and brain’s regulatory system and too much of this makes you vulnerable to injury and illness.
Both Good and Bad Stress Affect Your Runs
So let’s say that you go for a hard run after you fought with your wife about the bills and have a project over due at work and you only got 3 hours of sleep. How do you think that run will turn out?
Do it once, and it’s probably not a huge deal. The body can handle being allostatically overloaded in the short term as long as you give it time to recover.
And how well do you think you’ll recover from a day like this? You guessed it, you’ll need more time to get back into balance.
But on the other hand, let’s say you landed the promotion, your kid nailed her online project, your spouse surprised you with your favorite breakfast, and the weather was absolutely perfect.
How’s your run going to go on this kind of day? Most likely a bit better.
Of course, I’m not guaranteeing that you’ll always have a bad run when you are having a bad day. Running can help clear the mind and replenish the soul. Often times running on a bad day can turn things around for you and make that argument with your loved one feel a lot less intense and stressful.
That’s one of the many ways that running is awesome.
But if you exercise intensely and/or too often, when your life is stressful, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed out.
This increases the physical demand of your workout. In other words, life stress or a high allostatic load will make your workout harder to do and harder to recover from.
The Holistic Approach
It’s essential to take this into account when planning your workouts and recovery time. We want to be like the seedling that starts out nice and protected indoors, but eventually graduates to gentle outdoor breezes that strengthen our cells, and warm sunshine that builds and nourishes us to grow strong and healthy.
But of course we can’t control the weather and we certainly can’t always control the stress in our lives. But we can learn how to adjust our running and our expectations to get the best training and the best recovery by taking into account everything that’s going on in our lives right now.
So if you are feeling more stressed this time of year (I know I am!), it is really important to ease up on the intensity of your running. Not only is it okay to take it down a level or two, it’s important.
Because the right amount of stress with the right amount of recovery will help us become better and stronger runners. And maybe even more resilient in the rest of our lives as well.