Exercise can be a great way to blow off steam. But for many of us, it can become an additional source of stress. Setting yourself impossible goals, the constant battle with your inner couch potato, that annoying twinge in your knee after your evening run – if you aren’t careful, your exercise routine can lead to mental and physical overload. Professor Klaus-Michael Braumann, a renowned German sports medicine specialist, shares ten useful tips and tricks to help you strike the perfect balance.
Ever since there have been human beings, there has been stress. This timeless phenomenon developed to help us cope with daily challenges. Stress is simply a physiological reaction to situations that trigger responses of fright, fight, or flight. Back in the Stone Age, a threat such as a physical attack would trigger one of two possible reactions – stand and fight or run away. So fighting and running are deep-seated physiological reactions to stress. And today exercise remains the best way to relieve tension, even when its causes are mainly psychological. This is because stress causes our bodies to produce adrenaline, which is stored in tiny vesicles in our autonomic nervous systems. Physical activity causes these vesicles to empty – and stress to dissipate. Which means that working out is usually a very good way to get a handle on stress.
At one time or another, we have all probably come home exhausted from work and been unable to resist the siren call of the couch. But exercise rather than inactivity is the key to lifting your spirits. Physical activity is important for relieving mental stress, and a little goes a long way. A short run or even a brisk walk can be enough to restore your equilibrium after a hard day in the office. I recommend getting at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, but an hour is better – even if you don’t really feel like it. Since a normal daily dose of physical activity is necessary to stay healthy and physically fit, having fun shouldn’t be your primary motivator. After all, brushing your teeth isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s part of a healthy lifestyle. Plus it’s easy to integrate exercise into your daily routine. Get off the bus one stop earlier and walk the rest of the way. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Hop on one of the many available bike-share bicycles for one leg of your daily commute.
The biggest challenge can be striking a healthy balance between too much and not enough physical activity. Too much strenuous exercise can not only cause both physical and mental stress, but often leads to injury as well. It poses a danger to your body because exhaustion impairs your physical coordination. And it’s not good for your mind, either! When people work out a lot, this can lead to changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters, the messenger substances that play an important role in the exchange of information inside the brain. This means that certain neuro-processes can no longer run smoothly. And this can lead to depression. People who are constantly functioning in the red zone of the stress-o-meter continuously produce so much adrenaline that at some point it starts to affect the body’s ability to produce and secrete these important stress hormones. In other words, when you’ve reached your physical limit, don’t think you have to play the tough guy and power through.
If you want to do competitive sports, you have to be one hundred percent fit – mentally and physically. Because the two are closely connected. A positive mindset – good psychological energy – is extremely important to achieving peak performance. But if you are over-motivated and set your expectations too high, the release of adrenaline can inhibit certain synapses that would have enabled a wider range of actions. This phenomenon is known as “tunnel vision,” and it occurs in stress situations. It means we can only access the instinctive or learned processes that have been stored in our bodies’ systems. We tune out all other processes that would allow us to modify our planned course of action. The trick is to mentally condition yourself, so you are able to consider other options even when you are under a lot of pressure, and act on them if necessary. By making your mind more resilient, you are able to avoid tunnel vision when your stress levels are high, remain mentally agile – and react appropriately to each situation.
Every person, every athlete, can occasionally have a bad day. Admitting this to yourself can be the first important step in developing a tougher mindset. It’s completely normal to experience phases where you don’t feel like running. So if you want to be physically active and improve your performance, you should have a structured workout plan. This helps you get out and exercise even when you’re feeling unmotivated. You can put together a plan by yourself, with the help of a sports medicine doctor or personal trainer, or in coordination with a running or exercise group or sports team. It serves as a source of motivation and gives you structure and support. If you’re feeling sluggish because you ran a half-marathon on the weekend, for instance, it’s okay to simply do a light workout. But if you are just looking for excuses not to go on your run because it’s raining, you should pull yourself together and say, “I’m going to stick to my plan and get out there, rain or no rain.” Such conscious decisions help build your mental toughness.
Running can be a social activity if you do it in a group. People often complain that an individual sport like jogging doesn’t give you enough opportunities to communicate with others. But your neighborhood soccer team actually has fewer chances to talk to each other – unless they hang out together after practice. When they’re out on the pitch standing and running ten meters apart, they can’t and shouldn’t really hold a running conversation. Running in a group, on the other hand, offers a lot of opportunities for real dialogue. Because if you’re running for fun, the optimum pace is one at which you can still talk without difficulty. And running together lets you offer each other support and motivation. Because as noted above, every one of us sometimes needs that extra push out the door.
If you want to relax, unwind, and let your thoughts wander while you’re running, you should leave your devices at home. It makes a lot more sense to just take off and enjoy nature. Tracking and measuring every step and breath can make you put more pressure on yourself. Of course it will depend on what your personal goal for that workout is. If you are looking to actively improve your performance, it can help to make judicious use of the many technical helpers that are available nowadays – like to make sure you are getting the right amount of rest and recovery after a workout. After all, the basic idea of exercise is to bring your various organ systems out of their state of equilibrium, sap their energy, and then give your body enough time to regain its strength. Certain apps and devices can be used to help you strike a balance between intensive exertion and optimal regeneration in order to achieve the best possible performance at a certain point in time. But if you just want to stretch your legs a bit after work, you don’t need smartphone apps to help you.
Smartphone apps do have their advantages – they don’t just track our performance over a period of time, but also ask us about our state of mind. This is important for recovering from a workout. Even a common app questionnaire using the six-smiley system – ranging from a grinning to a weepy face – can be enough to make you think about how well you slept, how your legs feel right now, and how much energy you have. Such systems let you evaluate your own workouts and the rest and recovery period that follows. This shows you when you should take it easy for a day. Unfortunately many athletes believe that skipping a workout is one of the seven deadly sins. But it can actually be essential – the body needs time to recover completely.
It’s never a bad idea to introduce a bit of variety into your workout routine. An intensive running training plan should include other forms of exercise. If you limit yourself to jogging on the flat, for example, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments may suffer. You can counteract this through sports such as yoga, which exercises different parts of the body. And focusing on specific muscle functions that are otherwise neglected is a very good idea. Doing meditative exercises – another possibility is Qigong – is an important way to strike a healthy balance. Everyone should find out what is most helpful for them. The opposite also applies – sports that require a lot of concentration depend on a good level of physical fitness. Dart players, for instance, have to be physically fit, even if it’s not always readily apparent. The same goes for chess or target shooting. Physical fitness is necessary for maintaining concentration until the end of a match, giving you that subtle edge over your opponent. If you try to play golf without a certain level of fitness, you end up ploughing up half the course and never striking the ball cleanly.
If you don’t have a good physical foundation, i.e. a certain level of fitness, you can push as much as you want – but you won’t get very far. Of course you should exercise with willpower and self-confidence. But a positive mindset can’t compensate for being in bad shape. Of course mental toughness can help you draw on your last reserves, especially in the top ranks of competitive sports. In competition, athletes will have an edge over their equally physically strong opponents if they can play to their psychological strengths. But again, although mental strength is an important factor, it is merely a complement to physical prowess. If you don’t put in the training time, there are no Jedi mind tricks that will get you over the finish line of the marathon.