From not enough sleep to not hydrating properly before a long run, I can typically pinpoint what's caused a bad workout. But, as of late, I've been feeling more fatigued than normal with my mind wandering to work during my favorite online classes. And my runs? Let's just say my last 5K felt more like a marathon and any slight turn of the street a giant hill. And yet, none of the usual suspects could be to blame: I was sleeping enough, eating enough, wearing supportive road-ready gear, and certainly I was still working out several times a week. That's when it occurred to me that another culprit could be to blame: stress.
With all of us under more stress than normal, it's safe to assume that stress would present itself in various ways — I just didn't realize my workout would be one of them.
According to Bonnie Marks, PsyD and staff psychologist at NYU Langone's Sports Performance Center, stress and athletic performance are closely related — for better and for worse.
"Stress can be good, to a degree," Dr. Marks said. "However, uncontrolled stress can have a strong negative impact. She explained the Zone of Optimal Functioning (ZOF) is the "individual differences in optimal level of arousal for peak performance" and that some athletes perform better when relaxed, while others perform better when pumped up with a little stress or pressure. "If your arousal level is too high, you may experience anxiety or the stress response, which will negatively affect your performance," she added.
She pointed out a 2010 study indicating that distraction caused by mental stressors caused elite golfers (the participants) to choke during performance. The study noted "self-confidence, preparation, and perfectionism were identified as key influencing variables of the choking episodes." Dr. Marks then explained that distractions can be both internal or external. To no surprise, external distractions include noise, weather, equipment issues, issues with the environment, etc. She noted internal distractions include things such as self-doubt or intense self-consciousness, fearfulness, negative thoughts, personal worries, and overwhelming internal thoughts, all of which disrupt your own actions even though you are well-practiced.
It started to make sense to me why my mind would wander to my 401K during my online class, or why every block seemed insurmountable during my run: my stress was becoming a distraction to my sport.
Beyond just causing my runs to be less fun, stress has the potential to do some actual damage to my health. "Research has consistently demonstrated a relationship between stress and athletic injury risk," cautioned Dr. Marks. "Changes in focus and attention (e.g., tunnel vision, distraction, increased self-consciousness) interfere with an athlete's performance and can make them more susceptible to injuries they might otherwise have been able to preempt." She also noted increased muscle tension caused by stress can reduce coordination and increase the risk of physical injury. "These risks are compounded for athletes with high life stress or low personal coping skills," she explained.
Although I know my stress won't go away overnight, it's comforting to know that focusing on managing it can not only help ease my day-to-day anxiety, but it can also lead to a safer, more fun workout.