Life Stress, Training, & Recovery

Recovery from training and competition is dependent on many systems (E.g., endocrine, hormonal, musculoskeletal, etc) to coordinate the appropriate responses to the stress placed on the body. Just like your bank account – you withdraw money and then (hopefully) you put money back in, attempting to not allow the account to drop below a certain point – there is a cost on the body that is paid every time we train and compete and we have to do things to try and repay that cost. As I say, “there is always a cost of doing business.”

Currently, coaches are rushing to find various methods of monitoring their athletes within the training environment (IE, GPS, HR, Force Plates, etc); however, one critical aspect that may often get overlooked is the athlete’s life stress. As I discussed in a previous article, Your Stress Account, understanding both specific (the things we have control over as coaches) and non-specific (the external stressors, outside of the competitive environment, that the athletes have to deal with) is essential to ensuring that we know how much we can push and how much we may need to back off.

While the above methods of monitoring training are helpful, quantifying the amount of stress being placed on the athlete is a cost effective way of understanding how they are adapting. I discussed the questionnaire I have used in the past in a previous article, Doing Simple Things Well, and while many coaches will often say to me, “We ask the athletes every day how they are doing when they come into the gym”, I do believe that putting a number on it, documenting it, and following the responses over time can be beneficial, not only for the coach to track the athlete’s trend, but also to educate the athlete about how they are doing.

Life Stress and Training

Life stress plays a key role in how we adapt (or don’t adapt) to training. A 2008 study by Bartholomew et al., evaluated 135 undergraduate students grouping them into either low or high stress groups based on a series of psychological measures. What they found was that those who were considered “high stress” subjects had a more difficult time adapting to the 12-week, periodized resistance training program. These high stress individuals saw lower scores on both bench press and squat as well as girth measurements (hypertrophy) in post program testing.

More recently (2014), Stults-Kolehmainen and colleagues  evaluated the effects that chronic mental stress had on the recovery of muscle function and somatic sensations (E.g., perceived energy, fatigue, and soreness) over a four day period. To quantify life stress, the Perceived Stress Scale and the Undergraduate Stress Questionnaire were completed by the subjects. The subjects completed a leg press training session of 6 sets x 10 reps at 80-100% of their individual 10RM. Maximal isometric force, jump height, cycle power, perceived energy, fatigue, and soreness were assessed at 24hr intervals following the training session. Interestingly, it was found that chronic stress had an impact on muscle recovery following the leg press training session, with low recovery curves being seen in those reporting high levels of stress. The subjects with lower levels of stress saw more efficient recovery curves. Perhaps the low stress individuals are in a position to tolerate and adapt to training more efficiently.

What About Injured Athletes?

Often, when an athlete sustains an injury, they will stop doing things like daily questionnaires because they feel that these questionnaires are only for those who are “training”. This becomes problematic because understanding an athlete’s psychological state can impact their recovery and rehabilitation. While injuries often have typical recovery time lines (E.g., 3-4 weeks), the goal should be to try and speed up the recovery process as much as possible without compromising the athlete’s health. One of the best ways to speed up this process and “drive in the fast lane”, so to speak, is to create an optimal environment for healing to take place. Educating the athlete on things like sleep, nutrition, hydration, and rest are essential.¬† Additionally, it is helpful to understand the athlete’s psychological state and do whatever you can to create an environment that allows the athlete to continue training in some capacity, as well as fuels optimism and decreases the negativity that some athletes can have once they get injured. Ford et al., (2000) found that an athlete’s psychological state can impact their time lost due to injury. Those that were less optimistic and didn’t cope well with stress had greater time loss following injury compared to those who were more optimistic and had better self-esteem. Finally, a meta-analysis conducted by Walburn and colleagues (200), found that wound healing was actually impaired due to stress, emphasizing the need for a better understanding between stress and healing.


The stress that athletes face outside of the competitive environment has the potential to impact their ability to train, adapt, recover from injury, and heal. While there are many methods of assessing athletes within the training environment, a simple questionnaire evaluating the athletes psychological status (discussed in a previous article on this site) can provide the coach with a better understanding of how the athlete is psychologically coping and can drive interventions and program changes to ensure that the athlete gets the appropriate attention they need.