The 1977 film Pumping Iron is a documentary that shows the preparation and competition between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Louis Ferrigno in the 1975 Mr. Olympia Bodybuilding Championship. During the prep for the competition, Arnold gets a call from his mother, informing him that his father had passed; Arnold goes on to talk about how he told his mother that there is nothing he can do for her and that he would not be coming home for the funeral. Arnold believed that the stress of losing his father would only hinder his training for Mr. Olympia. Not only did he not want to be present for the memorial, but he felt it would be best to completely block the loss from his mind.
Now, it is very fair to criticize Arnold about his priorities and overall family values, but he is not necessarily wrong about the science. For competitive athletes, stress can be a hindrance to your preparation, performance, and recovery. In a sport like bodybuilding where the athletes are so surgical about their training, the stress endured from the loss of a loved one can definitely have adverse effects.
We all have a life off the field, and sometimes we do need to completely step away from the game in order to deal with real life. We also need to be able to manage our stress levels during the offseason because there will always be some sort of adversity that we will have to push through. Here are some of the effects chronic stress can have on your athletic performance.
First Let’s talk about Cortisol
It is impossible to talk about the effects of stress in the body without first explaining cortisol. According to YourHormones.Info, “Cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It also has an especially important role in helping the body respond to stress” (Yourhormones.info, 2019). When we encounter stressful situations, our Endocrine system releases cortisol in order to brace the body for possible threats. When the stress becomes chronic, excessive cortisol sits in the bloodstream and we begin to see negative outcomes.
Memory and Focus
It is quite easy to imagine that internal stress could affect an athlete’s focus. Personal issues that elevate our stress level will often consume our mind and make it difficult to focus on the task at hand. Studies have also shown that elevated levels of cortisol are consistent with memory loss (Cohut, 2018). For athletes that are constantly processing information and making decisions, such as a quarterback reading the blitz and coverage of the defense, a point guard looking to get her teammate an open shot, or a pitcher trying to find the right pitch to get a strike out, memory is key to execution. Many failures we see from athletes under stress are not just about physical incapability, but often lapses in focus or judgement.
Increased Muscle Tension and Decreased Elasticity
Increased cortisol in the blood also increases lactic acid ultimately decreases elasticity in the muscles (Hayes, 2018). This increases stiffness, inhibits range of motion, reduces speed, and most importantly increases the risk of injury. When chronic stress is an issue there is nothing that can be done on gameday to reverse these effects. Make sure that along with managing your stress level you constantly engage in recovery activities such as stretching or self-myofascial release (foam rolling), which release lactic acid and increase blood flow.
Testosterone is an essential anabolic hormone, which can be suppressed by increased levels of cortisol in the body (Brownlee, 2005). Testosterone has not only been linked to strength , and physical performance, but elevated testosterone levels have also been linked to the drive that an athlete has to compete (Wood, 2011). Testosterone might be the single most important element in the sport of bodybuilding, and athletes have been known to go through great extremes to get more of it. Knowing that stress can lower testosterone specifically, we can see why Mr. Schwarzenegger, in the biggest competition of his life, chose to avoid stressful situations at all cost.
Inhibits Muscle Growth and Recovery
Chronic stress causes the body to be in a constant “fight or flight” mode. The constant elevated level of cortisol slows down protein synthesis, and leaves the body in a constant state of muscle breakdown (First endurance, 2013). Therefore, your muscles will not recover or grow, and all of your offseason training becomes obsolete. It’s very important that as we train our body for the adversity of the upcoming season, we train our mind for the adversity that comes with day to day life.
Athletes, I cannot stress this enough, neither your sport, nor training for your sport are effective methods to relieve stress if you have a chronic stress issue! In fact, intense exercise increases the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream. Get a massage, meditate, read by the ocean, or take a yoga class. Look for activities outside of your daily grind that allow you to relax. Find your peace off the field, to become the beast on the field (yes that’s pretty corny, but you get the point).
Brownlee, K. K. (2005). Relationship Between Circulating Cortisol and Testosterone: Influence of Physical Exercise. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.
Cohut, D. M. (2018, October 25). How does stress affect the brain. Medical News Today.
First endurance. (2013, Feb 11). How Cortisol Effects Performance. Retrieved from First endurance: https://firstendurance.com/how-cortisol-effects-performance/#:~:text=Cortisol%20has%20a%20catabolic%20(muscle,positive%20adaptations%20to%20exercise%20training.
Hayes, A. (2018, August 29). How stress sabotages muscle building and weightloss goals. Men’s Health.
Wood, R. (2011). TESTOSTERONE AND SPORT: CURRENT PERSPECTIVES. National Center for Biology information.
Yourhormones.info. (2019, January). Cortisol. Retrieved from Yourhormones.info: https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/