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Lowering Stress & Increasing Performance, Six Strategies

Posted on Thu, 27 May 2010 04:55:00 -07:00

Lowering Stress & Increasing Performance, Six Strategies

Lowering Stress & Increasing Performance, Six Strategies

June is right around the corner, and with it, the start of several high profile sporting events such as the World Cup, US Open Golf, Wimbledon... the list goes on! For spectators, the fun is just starting, but for the athletes involved in these events, all of their preseason sports training can only carry them so far. Also paramount to in-season success is stress management. Here, strength and conditioning coach Todd Durkin shares the tips he imparts to his top athletes for handling stress heading into a championship season. On or off the court or field, these tips are your best defense against stress.


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Stress is defined as the non-specific response we have to demands placed on mind and body. In other words, everything causes stress. From the moment we wake to the moment we sleep again, life is filled with stressors. Everything we do, good or bad, pleasure or pain – it all causes stress. Disheartened? Don’t be. There’s good stress and there’s bad.

The two kinds of stress are positive (eustress) and negative (distress). We can move from positive to negative with changes in quantity (too many stressors equals negative stress) and quality (the nature of the demand). In other words, car accidents cause negative stress, but the way we interpret other events in our lives can cause negative stress too. What is interpreted as “stressful” to one person may be a non threatening event to another, adding to the overall stress level but not causing negative stress unless you think it will.

Stress is married to performance. The right amount of stress leads to peak performance, and too much stress leads to poor performance. Hoping to do your best? You’ll need some positive stress. I do a lot of public speaking, and I’ve learned through the years that there’s such a thing as being too relaxed before I present. I need a little stress to get my adrenaline flowing. It energizes me and helps me to connect to my audience. In the right amount, stress is the necessary ingredient for success.

But how about those of you who turn to puddles at the thought of public speaking? The experience creates massive amounts of stress, and instead of fueling performance, you become physically and mentally overwhelmed. Under negative stress, we suffer physically (dry throat, sweaty palms, racing heart, sick stomach, etc.) and mentally (forgetfulness, anxiety, etc.). Possibly, you’ve experienced this. It’s not pretty – it’s painful.

Each of us has a threshold for when our stress level becomes too much and our performance is hindered. Finding our threshold, our tolerance for stress, is an important goal and requires self awareness. Acute experiences of stress, like public speaking, are easy to spot, but how about chronic stress in our lives? Have you been living with it for so long that you no longer recognize it?

When we are under the weight of too much stress, our bodies send out signals like warning flags. When we know what to look for and we listen to our bodies, we manage stress better. How does your body warn you when you’re under too much stress?

Maybe you suffer cognitively or emotionally. You might experience increased levels of anxiety, tension, worry and fear. Maybe you suffer physically. Do you experience stomach pain, muscle tension, joint pain and headaches? Do old injuries flare up when your stress level is elevated? Or maybe your red flags are changes in behavior – too little or too much food, too little or too much sleep, smoking, drinking, no workouts, poor anger management... Sound familiar?

Add it up and you have the mind/body/behavior triangle – our personal relationship with stress and the built in warning systems we have. There is no better barometer of stress than our bodies. Start listening to yours, and when you recognize you've reached your threshold, turn to these six techniques (below) to help improve your ability to cope with and manage the stress in your life.

  • Start with physical conditioning. If you struggle with this, then do it first thing in the morning (5am or 6am). Get a trainer, attend a class, set goals, find a workout accountability partner or sign up for an event like a triathlon. Making a commitment to health and fitness will have a huge impact on your physical and mental health.
  • Make sound nutritional choices. Eat like a king or queen in the morning, a prince or princess at noon and a pauper at night. Plan ahead for trouble zones (i.e., air travel, late night hotel arrivals, lunch and dinner presentations that cause you to miss a meal, etc). A great idea I heard from a client is to refuse the menu (too many temptations) at restaurants and order without one. Ask for simple fish, grilled chicken or lean steak prepared without oil or butter, lots of steamed veggies and a side salad without dressing. Request dressings or sauces served in a small portion on the side (or not at all).
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Nothing lowers our stress threshold faster than lack of sleep. How much sleep do you get? If you are a five hour a night sleeper, I challenge you to get six or seven hours in. If you are a 10 hour a night sleeper, I challenge you to exercise more. A healthy adult should not need 10 hours a night. Here’s a good rule: go to sleep relaxed, and you will wake relaxed. That means turn off the computer 30 minutes before going to bed, disconnect from all electromagnetic waves that can actually disrupt the quality of your sleep, put some lavender on the pillow, read a great book or take a hot bath before retiring to bed. Any of these things will set the stage for a restful slumber.
  • Create “me” time. Whether you read, meditate or listen to great music, take time to nourish your soul. How often do the words, “I don’t have time to think” come from your lips? Hit the pause button daily and feed your mind with words and music that lift you up. We cope better with the reality of today when we have faith that tomorrow will be brighter.
  • Learn to say no. Nothing reduces stress faster than turning off the flow of demands you require of yourself. And while you’re at it, take some time off! Start small if you have to (half days, three day weekends), but be warned! Vacations are addictive. We all need more of what a good friend of mine calls “mellow yellow” time. A quiet afternoon, a lazy Sunday, a road trip... It won’t be long before you’re hooked and happier than ever.
  • Surround yourself with positive people. Research tells us that a strong and loving support system is highly effective in improving the ability to cope with life stresses. Feeling low or overwhelmed? Phone or visit a friend. Invite a neighbor to go for a walk. Share your life with others and remember the power of laughter – it is the best medicine. Stay connected with the people who lift your spirits. Thank them for the impact they have on your life.

We can’t completely remove stress from our lives. The good would go out with the bad. We need some stress in order to perform at our best. What we don’t need is excess stress – more stress than we can cope with successfully. Most of us struggle with life balance. We are challenged daily by professional and personal demands. The goal is to know our personal threshold for stress and do our best not to exceed it. And when stress is unavoidable, rely on the above strategies to get you through.

Todd Durkin shares his top TRX moves for pro athletes in the TRX Performance: Train Like the Pros DVD.

Todd Durkin, MA, CSCS, is the owner of Fitness Quest 10 ( in San Diego. Additionally, he is the Head of the Under Armour Performance Training Council. He has appeared in 60 Minutes, on ESPN, the NFL Network, and been featured in Sports Illustrated, Business Week, Prevention, ESPN the Magazine, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Men’s Journal, Stack Magazine, Self, Shape, Fitness and the NY Times and Washington Post.

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