Stress and injury – why they’re related

Stress and injury are related and today’s blog is about why. Stress is part of life, it is something that is impossible to avoid. How we deal with stress is the same regardless of the type. The body reacts to both physical or psychological stressors in exactly the same way. By pushing our nervous system towards a sympathetic state or, more simply, a flight or fight response. In the sympathetic state, we are ready for action, to run away from the lion if you will. The opposite of this is the parasympathetic state where we recover from the time spent in the sympathetic state.

real stress

The evolution of our stress response

As we have evolved and particularly in the last few hundred years the amount of time we need a “real” flight or fight response has diminished significantly. We no longer need to watch out for lions or Vikings. Instead, we now worry about work deadlines, the car needing repaired or not having checked Facebook for 5 minutes.

We have replaced very real, life or death stressors for ones of a much more perceived nature. None of the 3 example I mentioned really require the kind of response need to deal with the lion or Vikings. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet evolved a way of reacting differently to these situations.

Psychological stress and injury

When we are stressed in a life or death situation it is generally short-lived and we get to recover. You escape from the lion, or the Vikings, and get to drink beer and live another day. A lot of modern life type stress is continuous. It is, perhaps, not as severe as the lion chasing you but the fact that it is ongoing in many ways makes it worse. This places you in a continual fight to get back into a parasympathetic state which is essential to fully recover from life’s stresses, never mind any training stress.

When we are in a stressed state our hormones are pushed towards a catabolic state. Why does this happen? You enter a catabolic state to mobilise energy reserves to allow you to fuel your sprint away from the lion/Viking. The anabolic/rebuilding hormones are suppressed when you are in a catabolic/sympathetic state.  You definitely aren’t going to be in a parasympathetic state since all your senses need to be on red alert. This needs to wait until you’ve escaped the danger and you’re celebrating that fact you’re not dead.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the injury rates in student-athletes go up at exam time, especially finals. The stress of everything riding on those exams is huge and is definitely going to make recovery more difficult.

What can you do about it?

We have replaced the very real stress of impending death by lion/Viking with the not so life or death situation of missing a Facebook update what can we do about it? The first thing is to learn how to switch off. Sounds simple but in reality, requires some patience. We rarely stop for 2 minutes before checking for texts, emails, status updates etc. Setting aside some proper quite time can pay huge dividends.

One of the best and easiest things to do is to learn to meditate. Meditate? I hear you say. Isn’t that hard? Meditation in its simplest form is about clearing your mind by focusing on a repetitive task. To this end, I recommend focusing on your breathing and counting 100 breaths.

The beauty of this approach is it doesn’t require any training. You don’t need to go to a retreat to learn how to do it. And it has the bonus of deep breathing really helps place you into a parasympathetic state. As you breathe place your focus on the exhale rather than the inhale and count 100 exhalations. Don’t worry if you lose count, simply start counting again from the nearest 10.

Tip 1

Set aside 15 minutes

Don’t worry if you lose count, simply start counting again from the nearest 10.

Don’t worry if your mind drifts. When it does, clear your mind and refocus on your breathing.

Tip 2

With the work deadlines and other, similar, activities, I find this one is worth trying.

Before you go to bed get a piece of paper and note down the main things that are bothering you. The trick here is not to write them down but to draw little pictures or symbols to represent the different areas. The use of pictures changes the way your brain works and makes it easier to tap into your subconscious. Once you’ve done this scrunch the paper up and tell yourself that you are doing all you can to resolve the issues.

I find this technique is really useful if you are struggling to get a good nights sleep .

Training stress and injury

Tim Gabbett has explored this area extensively. His findings have shown that high levels of training can have a positive effect in reducing injury. You can’t just jump into high levels of training volume or intensity, you need to build up to it. Taking the time to develop a good base of fitness where the load is progressively increased means that acute spikes in load are more likely to be tolerated.

If the training spikes are too high then you are much more likely to get injured. If you work on gradually increasing your overall training load over a period of time you reduce the chances of the spike in training stress to result in an injury. You may have decided that 400m repeats are a great idea but haven’t done them in several months or that you are simply going to increase your session per week from 3 to 5. Either of these without a graded approach will increase injury risk significantly. With the 400m repeats rather than doing the session of 8 reps start at 4 and build it up over the subsequent weeks. When increasing the number of training days spread the workload of 3 days over 5 and build from there.

Aerobic fitness and injury

Having a better aerobic fitness has benefits in all sports. This is still the case even if they are purely anaerobic events. Good aerobic fitness allows you to tolerate higher workloads as you can recover better both during a session and between sessions. For the weightlifter, some very easy sessions at around 120-130 HR will have a positive benefit. This repeats itself across any event that, on the surface, appears anaerobic. Aerobic fitness is the foundation on which you can build many other qualities.

In terms of dealing with training stress, it allows you to tolerate higher training loads. This, in turn, allows you to benefit from the protective nature of those higher training loads.

Overuse injuries or underuse injuries?

Most training injuries are considered to be as a result of what we call “training load error”. This is to say that you have been doing too much. What isn’t talked about is that whilst you have been doing more than you can tolerate the real error is that you have been routinely doing too little.

The error is not that your overall training load is too high but that you have spiked your training load. In the same way that higher training loads confer a protective benefit  low volume training can leave you open to injury. This is because the low chronic/underlying volume makes it easy to create a spike in the training volume that you cannot tolerate.

This does not mean we all need to be running 100km a week or in the gym 5 times though the week. What it does mean is that you need to be mindful of and changes in training volume or intensity.


If you would like to have a chat about how to deal with stress or adjust your training in relation to it,  you can arrange a free phone call. or click here if you’d like to  enquire about an appointment.


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