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5 Considerations For Quantifying Stress

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? By simply listening to our bodies, are we able to deliver a truly objective approach to training and stress management? For some athletes, there may be value in attempting to do a better job of quantifying the role and toll that stress has 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 the easiest and best way to manage stress is to sleep. 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 it’s a good idea to set up a chart in your TrainingPeaks dashboard to keep tabs on any trends that might take shape. When you get a sense of the way 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. 

Hear 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 more accurately prescribe training load. If you’re not familiar with HRV, it’s very simply a method for understanding the effect that stress has on the body by measuring the time gaps between heartbeats—the more variability in these time gaps, the less stressed you are. 

HRV helps to quantify total load because it ostensibly takes into account, 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 are manifesting themselves 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 very powerful tool in the integration of 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 time 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, and 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 has a good understanding of the way 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 useful, 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 with the same importance that we give key workouts. There are many different methods to capture and track stress, but the most important factor is that they’re done consistently and taken into consideration 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 so that a balanced approach is reached.

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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. Browse his pre-built training plans on TrainingPeaks, or for more information on personal coaching and custom training plans, visit www.thomasendurancecoaching.com. Follow him at @endurance_coach.

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