Stress and Working Out

Have you ever had a day where everything is going wrong? You’re pissed off, frustrated, and overwhelmed prior to class. Then, you manage to focus enough to have a great workout, and you feel better after. Your workout was your stress relief. I’m sure we’ve all been there.

How about the opposite result? You feel stressed and everything going into class, but instead of helping, your workout makes you feel worse about yourself. You feel weak, and you can’t hit your percentages for the day. Or, you feel lethargic and sluggish during the metcon, no matter how much you want to push. Instead of serving as stress relief, your workout becomes another source of stress. Ever have this happen?

Both results are possible. Why do they happen, and what can we do?

Stress is the key here. What is training? It is a deliberately applied stressor designed to cause the body to adapt in a certain way. But at the end of the day, it’s still stress. Our bodies can only handle so much stress, and they don’t differentiate between the cause. Job stress, family strife, pressure from school, a super intense workout – they all tax the body. When properly applied, we become stronger, or faster, or more resilient (or all of the above). Our body mobilizes resources to respond to the stressor, and we fight it off (think fight or flight response). This is illustrated below.

Courtesy of

If we’re stressed out and are still within the resistance phase, we’re likely to have a good workout. Our body is primed to move, hormones are pumping, and we can channel that fight or flight response. On the other hand, if we accumulate too much stress, or let the stress go on for too long, we end up in the exhaustion phase. This is where you’re likely to have a crappy workout that leaves you feeling worse that when you started.

So, the good news is that if you’re having a bad day, and it causes your workout to go poorly, it’s perfectly normal! What can you do in that situation? Option 1: ease up on the throttle. Tell your coach what’s going on and treat it as a lower intensity/recovery day. Scale the weight/reps/range of motion in your workout, and just move. Option 2: go home and live to fight another day. Which option is better? That depends on you. For some of us, calling it a day makes us feel like a quitter, and it adds to the stress. I still advise you to talk to your coach – sometimes getting permission, or even being told to go home, makes all the difference in the world.

So, to recap – training is stress, and we can only handle so much. Depending on how much you have and how long you’ve had it, it may help your workout, or hurt it. If it hurts, you can go light, or go home. Either way, talk to your coach, and come up with a plan from there. See you in the gym.

by Erik Castiglione

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