By Christopher Cudworth
There are two kinds of stress in this world.
The first is stress from the unknown. We grow anxious and worry when fear of the unknown presses in on us.
These two types of stress produce very different responses in the human mind.
Stress from the unknown is distracting. It keeps us from being attentive on the matters at hand. It can cause erratic thinking and even irrational behavior as we try to come to grips with fear of the unknown. Stress from the unknown evokes the famous “fight or flight” response with which we should all be familiar. It is wired into our minds and body. The wilder side of our nature has not functionally changed in the last 100,000 years. So we must live and learn to cope with our inner animal. That type of stress is based in the notion of survival.
Stress from the known is much more direct and tangible. It does not hide from us like a fearful animal. It rather confront us. It is the stress of facts and empiric data. We either figure out how to solve a problem or we do not. That type of stress is the question of success or failure. It might not be something that is likely going to kill us. It just feels that way sometimes.
We experience both these types of stress as we engage in our chosen sports of running and riding.
For example, when an athlete maps out a plan to achieve a goal, there are tons of unknowns to anticipate along the way. These can stress us out. There is injury to worry about, and pain. We do not know how we will respond to these inevitable yet unpredictable factors in our training and racing.
There are the knowns to worry about as well. We might choose an event to enter. Completing a marathon. Riding a Century. Finishing an Olympic or Half Ironman.
Then we put additional pressure on ourselves. We set goals for these events. A three-hour marathon. A 5-Hour Century. Or that big bad full Ironman.
We envy somewhat those who seem to be able to handle the stress of training for these events. Some people organize their lives around their training and succeed that way. Their stress is pumped through their plan, which externalizes it somewhat. The unknowns exist outside the plan, and the plan is a filter for them. That’s one way of dealing with the unknowns. You try to eliminate as many of them as you can.
As for the knowns, we must learn to trust our preparation in order to deal with them. Some people take the step of hiring a coach in that circumstance. We then internalize the advice given to us by coaches about training volume and pace. We use empiric measures from the stopwatch to Strava to give us feedback on progress. We join up with others having similar goals and train together.
Then we show up at the race with all this stress neatly bundled where we can see and deal with it. Of course then there are nerves to deal with. Having put in all that work, we do not want to blow it.
That means everything from diet to hydration to stretching and strength must be calibrated to make the stress of the day go away. A well-prepared athlete then knows that nerves are a sign of anticipation, not worry. It is time to put all that stress behind you. Go as fast as you can. Race and measure your progress. Pay attention to the associative information that leads you to success.
The business of stress
We apply the same principles in business. We map a plan. We try to anticipate the knowns and the unknowns. We also try to reduce the stress that comes from putting pressure on ourselves, or dealing with pressure from bosses or clients.
So what do we do? Some of us go out and put more pressure on ourselves with fun activities like running, riding and swimming. That’s one of the tarsnakes of stress management. Sometimes to deal with the stress we already feel, we find ways to engage in positive stress to make the negative stress go away.
The purpose of corporate fitness programs is to engage peopel at two levels. First is better health. The second is better mental health. Exercise is a proven stress-reducer. That can help eliminate stress-related illnesses as reasons for worker absenteeism. That contributes to greater overall productivity. So reducing stress is considered a worthwhile investment by many businesses.
Yet on a practical level, we can all use some stress-reduction techniques to help us keep our stress levels in perspective. Here are some solid recommendations along those lines.
Record Your Training: High tech
With technology such as Strava and Garmin now available, it is possible to chronicle empiric data on nearly every type of workout you do, even walking the dog! In great detail you can record and measure progress. That track record can be great assurance as approach your event. That’s when doubt starts to creep in and stress can rise. Looking back on improvement and the volume of training you’ve done is a confidence builder.
Record Your Training: Low tech
If you’re not into high-tech feedback, buy a composition book at your local office supply store and write down your workouts. And here’s a suggestion: the low-tech version can be really great for recording how you feel about your workouts at the time. That can be just as important. In the near and long term, knowing how you felt about dealing with the stress of training and balancing your workout and business or family life is vital information.
In any case, write it down
One of the best techniques for dealing with stress is to get a genuine grip on what’s bothering you by writing it down. That way you can see your stressors in living, breathing black and white reality. It helps sometimes to see it all in your own handwriting. It’s personal that way, and not some cold, objective font lifted from a Microsoft Word document. Put little boxes next to the list of stresses and see if you can cross some off right away. Or prioritize by putting days or numbers when you can get things done.
That technique is great for “middle of the night” stress when you wake up with a madcap list of things to do or things to worry about and you can’t get back to sleep. Wander out to the kitchen and grab a legal pad. Write it all down. Usually that gives you some nice perspective. Then you can get back to sleep after grouping it all together and wake up fresh with a lively “to do” list already at your beck and calling.
Make a race or performance list
A compressed period of stress such as a race provides its own world of factors to consider. Every mile in a race is a piece of strategy. Your pace and feed zones, transitions or sections of the course where there are hills or other factors are all stresses you need to consider in advance if possible.
Building in leeway for the unknowns such as wind direction or stress brought on by competitors is key to a successful race strategy. Just know that you cannot control everything. That’s the whole point of having a stress compensation strategy. Being ready to adapt and having enough training foundation and practice at racing pace and conditions makes all the difference.
The dope on stress reduction
For all the criticism leveled at Lance Armstrong and that entire era of cyclists for secret doping plans, we may need to consider in retrospect that doping is nothing more than a calculated form of stress control. The more amped you are for competition, and more prepared, the better you can perform. Doping affords athletes a broader frame of reference in athletic performance. Being able to respond to competitive surges is just one of the many challenges athletes face in racing more than 2000 miles in 21 days. This is not to justify doping or suggest we make it legal. But it does explain some of the very human reasons why athletes seek competitive advantage in events of that scale. It’s a stress reduction technique.
The other thing at which Armstrong excelled was controlling his team and the peloton. He was known as a control freak in fact. In that he is not alone among great athletes. Sprinter Michael Johnson set world records at 200 and 400 meters and won Olympic gold in those events as well as relays. He was known for his almost obsessive knack for neatness and organization. That’s a method for eliminating the loose ends going into training and competition. If you can eliminate mental clutter you are far more able to focus your attention on the matters at hand and intellectually process the demands of competition and stress. It’s true in sports. It’s true in business. Organization does matter.
Stress and creativity
Yet we also know that great athletes respond to stress in highly creative ways. Being able to improvise on the fly is key to responding to competitive demands in all sports. In basketball a player driving into the lane faces a gauntlet of arms, hands and bodies. Being able to finesse your way to the basket, or muscle your way through is what makes great players.
In endurance sports, creativity can mean knowing when to surge or how to tuck into the group in a bike race when the winds get heavy. Finding creative ways to respond to stress is a massive competitive advantage at times.
When we line up for a peak performance it is a clear statement of purpose and mission. “I am no longer afraid.” That ability to come to grips with fear and stress is one of the things we so admire in great athletes. The Olympian who triumphs in a big race is a brilliant example to all of us.
Stress if part of the human condition, but what makes us truly human is finding the best ways to overcome our inner animal and do that thing that stress tells us we cannot.
So get out there and turn that negative stress into a positive experience. You can do it. We know you can.