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5 Considerations For Quantifying Stress While Training

BY Taylor Thomas

Tracking and managing stress is key to your performance. Here are some things to consider.

Everyone’s been told to “listen to your body” when it comes to managing stress while training, but what does that really mean? Can we deliver a truly objective approach to training and stress management by simply listening to our bodies? For some athletes, there may be value in attempting to do a better job of quantifying stress’s role and toll on training quality. Using a blend of metrics, non-traditional concepts, and routine tracking, you can shed more light on how your training should be modified during times of increased stress. 

Track Sleep Hours and Quality

It may sound obvious to most athletes, but sleeping is the easiest and best way to manage stress. Start tracking the efficacy of your sleep by recording how much you slept, as well as the objective quality of that sleep. With the help of emerging technology like sleep trackers, you can log metrics such as sleep latency, sleep efficiency, sleep consistency, respiratory rate, time in REM and more. 

When comparing these metrics against performance, setting up a chart in your TrainingPeaks dashboard is a good idea to keep tabs on any trends that might take shape. When you get a sense of how your sleep quality affects your training, it can help you make concrete decisions regarding your workouts. For example, if you get terrible sleep one night due to stress at work, you may want to move a planned interval workout to another day when you’re more rested and able to perform. 

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

HRV has gained popularity and credibility in the last few years as coaches and athletes begin to understand how it can be used to prescribe training load more accurately. If you’re not familiar with HRV, it’s very simply a method for understanding stress’s effect on the body by measuring the time gaps between heartbeats—the more variability in these time gaps, the less stressed you are. 

HRV helps quantify total load because it ostensibly considers diet, stress, etc., versus purely focusing on physical stress. Recording your HRV every morning before any training has occurred and then tracking trends in HRV on a rolling 7-day average can provide insight into how stressors manifest in the body. Studies have shown that looking at HRV through the lens of longer-term averages instead of a daily HRV score helps emphasize cumulative fatigue. Once trends uncover themselves, HRV can be a powerful tool in integrating stress into training decisions.

Mood and Motivation

How an athlete feels, not physically in terms of fatigue, but their emotional state and drive, can be very telling. When tracked in conjunction, these “metrics” can help uncover stressful periods that athletes may be trying to deny or push through. It’s a natural inclination to want to perform well, so many athletes will deny their ongoing negative mood or lack of motivation in an attempt to make progress. While not every day or week is going to be a home run, there will certainly be tough periods, and if pushed too far, everyone has their breaking point. 

Should Life Stress Count Towards Your TSS?

When discussing and attempting to quantify stress, we’re ultimately trying to assign metrics to the age-old “listen to your body” approach. But is it possible to assign a stress score to situations outside of training? 

It can be argued that the body processes life stress the same way it does stress from a workout. If an athlete or coach understands how these stressors relate, assigning a TSS to a stressful day or week could help compensate and proportionally weight the toll that life stress might take on their performance. For this metric to be helpful, however, the athlete must be very tuned into their own stress response and its effects—and honest about its relative weight. 

TSS May Not Tell the Whole Story

One of my favorite sayings is that “Training doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” The body and mind are dynamic and can change dramatically from day to day. This is where the “art” of training and coaching comes in; a good coach will have the experience to factor in signs of fatigue, stress, overtraining, and/or burnout and adjust accordingly. The subtle tells may never show up in CTL, ATL, and TSB, but taking action on them may very well mean the difference between a long and sustainable career in endurance sports and one that ends abruptly. 

Stress, and how it’s managed, plays an integral role in performance. The body and mind are intrinsically linked, and this relationship must be treated equally as important as we give key workouts. There are many different methods to capture and track stress. Still, the most important factor is that they’re done consistently and considered when weighing decisions related to training prescription and goals. Stress is a natural part of the human condition, but as athletes, it’s vital that it be given the weight and attention it deserves to reach a balanced approach.

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About Taylor Thomas

Taylor Thomas is the owner and founder of Thomas Endurance Coaching. He has more than a decade of experience in the bicycle industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. As a USAC and TrainingPeaks Level 2 Certified coach, he’s helped athletes at every level prepare for and reach their goals in road, mountain, and cyclocross.

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