Issue #15- Don't Mess with Stress
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Issue #15 - Don't Mess with Stress

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Welcome back to Peak Performance, our newsletter highlighting the latest science in performance and personal growth.

In our last edition, we wrote a story highlighting the very real performance-enhancing power of belief. We also promised that Brad would be following it up with a more detailed and scientific column for New York Magazine. In case you didn’t catch it, here it is: This is the Only Performance Enhancer All Athletes Use.  It is our hope that you’ll now realize that when applied correctly and under the right circumstances, belief is not just another baseless self-help concept, but rather a serious high-performance intervention.  And with that, onto this week’s topic: stress and recovery.

Don’t Mess with Stress
Venture into any collegiate or professional football training room and odds are you’ll see gadgets galore, many of which are designed to help athletes recover from their workouts. Whether it’s an ice bath, a cryotherapy chamber, medical-grade compression boots, ultrasonic wands, electrical stimulation pads, or countless bottles of supplements, these teams spare no expense when it comes to preparing their athletes for the next day’s practice or game. It makes sense, right? These are world-class athletes playing for big bucks (in some cases for themselves, in other cases to fill university coffers). Why not throw the kitchen sink at them to enhance recovery?  

For starters, because recovery can be counterproductive.  In order to grow, we need stress. When a stressor is applied—for example, a hard workout—it acts as a signal for the body to adapt and become stronger so it can handle increased strain in the future. If that signal isn’t sent or, if it’s short circuited by endless “recovery,” the body won’t grow.

When we artificially decrease a stressor (i.e., “recovery”) as soon as a workout is complete—for instance, by hopping in an ice bath to thwart inflammation—it’s as if we are telling our bodies, “Hey! Wait a minute, the bad stuff is gone, we don’t need to worry about improving our defenses.” Research shows ice baths and anti-inflammatory pills may blunt adaptations from a workout. Similarly, taking anti-oxidants following hard training decreases adaptations because they mask the oxidative stress that accompanies working out, and this oxidative stress is the very signal we need to jump-start our body’s production of mitochondria, the energy-producing powerhouses of our muscles.

This paradox isn’t just at play in athletics. The same logic applies when astronauts lose bone density in space (stress of gravity is absent) or when the immune system weakens because it isn’t exposed to bacteria. The mind works in a similar fashion, too.  We learn best and grow our mental muscle when we challenge it. Studies show that learning is enhanced when we are forced to struggle to solve a problem versus when answers are spoon fed to us.

This isn’t to say that “recovery” is always a bad thing.  Context is key.  Prior to a big event, doubling-down on recovery and eliminating stress makes sense. All the training/work and subsequent adaptation is done, and the focus should become doing whatever you can to feel fresh and confident. An ice-bath or compression socks in the week before a marathon or the night before a big game makes a lot of sense, as does reviewing answers without much struggle prior to a big exam.  But in the midst of training—whatever it is you are training for—remember that overdoing "recovery" can shunt positive adaptations. You need to let the stress response run its course in order to grow.
Try This
  • For Athletes: Periodize or plan your recovery just like you would your training. Instead of instantly hoping in an ice tub or popping antioxidants after every hard workout, save recovery modalities for when you really need them, like during the week or two before a big event. When the goal is to improve from training, it’s often best to let the body be (outside of treating acute injuries, of course).
  • Only when you are in the final days leading up to a major competition should you shift into recover-at-all-costs mode. At that stage, feeling good on competition day is more important than gaining additional adaptations from training
  • For Everyone: The next challenge you face, instead of trying to eliminate the stress as quickly as possible, look at it as an opportunity to grow. Research shows that doing so fosters resilience and long-term growth.  
Learn More
“It’s only when you step outside your comfort zone that you grow. Being uncomfortable is the path to personal development. It is the opposite of complacency.” Nic Lamb.  World Champion Big Wave Surfer.
That’s it for this edition of Peak Performance.  We hope you learned something new.  Don’t hesitate to send us your questions or comments or to reach out on Twitter @SteveMagness and @Bstulberg.
Finally, if you find this newsletter interesting and useful, please share with your friends and colleagues.
Brad and Steve

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