19 Strategies For Athletes To Reduce Mental Stress & Improve Recovery
Mental stress is part of everyday life. It affects mood, energy levels, happiness and has an overall negative impact on our health. Athletes who are able to effectively reduce mental stress in their life will benefit from better recovery and will have more energy for qualitative training.
It’s especially true for athletes who combine training with other full time commitments (job or studies). Many make the mistake of starting a tough training schedule without adjusting it for their lifestyle. As a result, they reach a training plateau and get demotivated by not seeing expected results.
The thing is that our bodies deal with lots of stress on a daily basis. Day job, family or relationship commitments, impact from poor diet, lack of sleep, weather – you name it. A regular person, most probably, is already in a state of chronic stress from everyday life. Add a demanding training schedule on top of that and it’s the recipe for a burnout.
So, what impact does mental stress has on our physiology? And how to minimize it?
Mental stress and its effect on the athlete’s body
Mental stress occurs when the area of our brain – called hypothalamus – is activated. That can happen when a person gets frightened, prepares to attack, expects a physiological impact, gets scared, angry and so on.
The way our body responds to stress is by going into a ‘fight mode’ and releasing hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These help to optimize energy to overcome dangers. That elevates heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar level, as well as sends the signal to the brain to prioritize using glucose (from glycogen) for energy instead of stored fat.
Also – since these aren’t necessary in a fight – the body suppresses immune function, reproductive and growth processes.
‘Fight mode’ is a good thing to use during a race or a match, but on a daily basis mental stress interferes with normal body functions and drains energy. In a way, it does essentially the same physiological impact that a training session. Without the adaptation benefit.
On top of that, since the brain requires glucose for energy, more stress causes people to crave sugary food and overeat.
Even the smallest stress factors add up during the day and prevent athletes from using their energy efficiently – to train or to recover. Which is why professional athletes try to reduce mental stress as much as possible and instead build good habits to optimize their training process.
Often people suffer from the condition called chronic strees. That’s the kind of stress that’s always there, but less defined than the ‘acute’ stress. For example, worrying about something that might not even happen.
Stressing about being stuck in traffic might not sound as much, but doing it on a constant basis drains energy levels pretty quickly.
Some of the symptoms of chronic stress might include:
- Difficulty staying focused
- Being easily irritated
- Sporadic energy levels (highs & lows)
- Problems falling asleep
- Frequent illnesses or inflammation related (or -itis) injuries – tendinitis, bursitis, fasciitis, etc.
- Low motivation or self-esteem
Chronic stress is like working as a bike messenger while having a full time job and other life commitments. Riding a bike might sound easy, but doing it every day at every opportunity leaves the body exhausted.
By having too much mental stress in life – and not giving the body time to recover from it – we push our body to the state when it has to work overtime. That doesn’t leave enough energy for much else in life – even being positive and happy.
Strategies to reduce mental stress
There are endless stress factors out of our control that can affect us. If we let them.
It’s important to remember that it’s our response to what happens around us that activates the hypothalamus (stress area of the brain). We can control that response and, as a result, reduce mental stress we experience.
Stress doesn’t come from any of the external factors. It’s created in our brains by our thought process.
So, most of the strategies below are targeted at changing the mental state to distance from stress. Be it by intentionally changing the thought process or physically by putting yourself in a situation that forces it to change.
At first some of the strategies below might feel like faking it and that’s ok. It’s a necessary step towards changing the thought process. Over time a less ‘stressful’ response will feel more natural.
#1 Get quality sleep
Sleep is by far the most effective way to reduce mental stress. It’s the only time of the day when the body is in the state of complete rest and can, therefore, recover both physically and mentally. For athletes it’s the main recovery time – when the body is asleep and fasts for extended period of time the production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is at its highest. So, not over-eating before bed and sleeping well helps to speed up muscle recovery and adaptation.
Typically, regular people should aim to get around 8 hours of sleep every night, while athletes need around 9. However, many don’t come close to those numbers and, as a result, are in the state of chronic sleep deprivation. Not too strong to feel sleepy, but not enough to feel energetic every morning.
Remember that every hour of sleep until midnight is worth two. That comes as a result of daily Circadian Rhythms – the effect of the amount of light in the environment on the body and, as a result, the time the melatonin production starts.
Short ‘power’ naps (no more than 20 minutes) are a great way to reduce mental stress as well. They help to ‘reboot’ the nervous system and clear the head, but must be short to avoid getting into deep sleep phase.
#2 Take control of your attention
Try to limit the amount of time spent on external things, like watching television, reading the news or using social media. It’s interesting and exciting, sure, but more often than not it only steals our attention with ‘sensations’, creates worry and distracts from what really matters.
When we wake up and reach for our phones first thing in the morning to check the news or social media, we kind of ask the world to tell us what to want and what to focus on. Without even thinking of what do we want to do, we are thrown in the environment where everyone else is richer, better looking, achieves more and overall the world is going to end.
News, television and social media were not created to make our lives better. Those were created to make companies money – the more time we spend engaged the more stuff gets promoted to us.
#3 Spend time with yourself
Instead of focusing on external things, take the time to think of what you want and do that. As Dalai Lama said it once – spend some time alone every day.
Often stress comes from not having enough time to do all the things we need to or want to do. Living a ‘busy’ lifestyle and starting every day with a thought of getting through it as quickly as possible (or waiting for the weekend) doesn’t help to get in touch with whatever is important in life. It doesn’t even leave time to think about it.
When we take some time every day to take care of ourselves the magic starts to happen. That uninterrupted time helps us mentally relax, figure out who we want to become, discover what makes us happy and how to structure our lives around that.
The best time for that self-reflection is early in the morning where there is nobody bothering you and you have all the willpower and energy to make things happen.
#4 Write a diary
One great thing to do during ‘alone time’ is to analyze stressful situations when emotions took over. Understanding and labelling these negative emotions helps to recognize them and control them better in the future.
Anger, worry, frustration – these emotions are caused by hormones that are released in response to a stress factor. These are not productive and don’t really improve the situation. Anger causes actions we later regret and rarely resolves conflict. Worrying brings more stress. Frustration and complaining only makes us feel worse.
Suppressing emotions never works. Instead, experience them and learn from them – for that purpose diaries are great listeners.
Keeping a diary is a good way to become more emotionally and mentally resilient. Make a list of things that bring you anxiety or frustration and then think of ways how to address those.
Personally, I used to be afraid of mass starts in kayaking. Just thinking about upcoming races made me worry a lot. Labelling and recognizing my fears helped to find ways to overcome them and remain confident in other areas.
#5 Change your language
One thing I learned over the years is that how we talk to ourselves and how we interpret life events affects our life view. In particular, when we engage in negative self-talk our mind actually starts to believe it.
In fact, there’s an area in the brain – called Reticular Activating System – that helps the brain notice things and make connections. So, when we focus on the negative our brain naturally looks for things that are wrong with us or in the world and presents that to us.
The good thing is that this mechanism works in the other direction equally well. If we focus on the good things, our lives will naturally become filled with the good stuff. So, find the energy to look for positive things in any situation. Over time positivity will become the reality and the setbacks in life will not carry that much mental stress.
A great way to start is to change the words we use in our daily lives. For example, instead of saying I am not ready for this say I got this. Or instead of saying I can’t do anything right try saying I am learning from my mistakes. Instead of I have to, say I choose to – and so on.
#6 Spend time in a good company
Spending time with people you care about and who make you smile is a great stress reliever and anti-depressant. Doing so with or without specific purpose helps to distance from whatever is causing the stress or troubling thoughts.
Go for an easy group ride, do a harder session with friends or just gather for a board game evening – it doesn’t matter. Just make sure people you’re spending time with are not ‘energy vampires’ and cause you stress in the first place.
#7 Eat a more natural & light diet
Including more foods that are in their natural state (not processed) in the diet helps to avoid drastic blood sugar changes and reduce inflammation across the body.
After a highly processed or carb-rich meal insulin that the body produces causes blood sugar to drop significantly. That’s a signal for the brain that the body is in danger and it releases cortisol to optimize the energy it has left.
Also, eating a light diet – more frequent smaller meals and less meat & dairy – makes it easy for the body to process food. As a result, it uses less energy for digestion and has more to spare.
A secret to overcoming stress is to worry less – easier said than done, right? Turns out, you can learn to actively clear the mind from troubling thoughts and learn to control it by practicing meditation.
The process of meditation helps to quiet down the noise of daily things and bring the mind to the current moment where there’s no stress. Consistent practice, however, trains the mind to recognize thought patterns and control what to focus on. That’s particularly useful for athletes, as it helps to build mental resilience.
The easiest way to start meditating is to take 10-15 minutes daily to sit in a quiet place, breathe deeply and focus only on inhaling and exhaling. Whenever you recognize the mind wandering off to some topic, just gently let it go and bring the focus back to the breath.
#9 Practice gratitude
Practicing gratitude has a transformative effect on our psychology. Finding something to be grateful for in a situation has the power to substitute any negative emotion for a positive one. That essentially changes the mental state and helps to reduce mental stress.
It’s really difficult to be angry or upset and grateful for the experience at the same time.
While sometimes it’s hard to find gratitude in hardships, it’s like training the muscle – practice is key. With gratitude it’s not the result that matters, but rather the proactive search for things to be grateful for that does. Over time we’ll naturally feel less stressed about the challenges we face, because we’ll be able to see a ‘higher’ purpose in them.
A great way to find gratitude and reduce mental stress is to think about the experience from a learning perspective. Think of what you can learn from the experience and how it makes you better. Not how it stresses you out.
#10 Listen to music
Music is a great way to relax the mind. It acts as a distraction – when our brain hears a melody it finds attractive, it naturally switches focus from the stress factor to it.
In stressful situations calm music (slow, quiet) tends to work best. It slows down the heart rate, reduces blood pressure and, therefore, reduces the stress response. On a daily basis, though, putting on something that charges you and makes you want to sing helps to feel more alive and happy. Singing along is, in fact, a great stress reliever as well.
#11 Adopt a winner’s mentality
Very often people put more pressure on themselves to achieve something by thinking when I get somewhere, then. Some might even put their lives on hold until they achieve it.
However, waiting for something to happen to feel fulfilled is not a winner’s mentality. It doesn’t allow a person to feel good about himself and assumes that he has already lost. Not strong enough, not fast enough, not happy enough, not excited enough. Moreover, excitement about achievement lasts for some time, but eventually fades. And when the person starts to think what to achieve next he or she will once again feel incomplete.
Instead, adopt a mentality I am what I am now. Accept your strengths and weaknesses, create an action plan to achieve your goals and work on it.
#12 Spend time in the nature
Nature has an amazing power to calm a person down. There is something about the fresh air and the views that creates that magic effect. And of course the fact that there’s much more oxygen outside, which helps the body to process cortisol that was released as a result of stress.
On top of that, spending time in the sun promotes the production of vitamin D in the body. It has a direct impact on mood and energy levels and its deficiency leads to muscle weakness, fatigue and depression.
As little as 15 minute long exposure to direct sunlight is sufficient to generate the daily dose of vitamin D.
Go for a hike or an easy run outside. Do it alone or in a good company – doesn’t matter – but do it often.
#13 Don’t take anything personally
Taking something personally is a path to either an argument with someone or getting stuck in a destructive thought pattern (doubt, worry, fear, etc.). Either way, doing so only creates more stress.
A much healthier approach to interact with the world is to consider what Don Miguel Ruiz writes in his book The Four Agreements:
Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.
Everyone lives with their own understanding of reality and express themselves differently. Take yourself out of the picture and try to focus on the fact of the matter instead.
Someone was rude to you as you bumped into him not because you are a bad person. It’s because that someone is having a bad or stressful day himself. Don’t blame yourself for something other people think.
#14 Take a training break
It’s a good thing when the release of cortisol (stress hormone) is followed by a period of rest. That’s how nature intended it to be. However, many athletes don’t give their bodies enough rest. They train hard throughout the year, which results in constantly elevated cortisol levels. Over time this leads to chronic stress, training plateau or burnouts.
Instead, take a training break at the end of every season or after a race. Consider going on vacation or trying a different sport. Having no structure for a change has a great power to relax the mind. And who knows what kind of new passion it can spark.
It doesn’t have to be a period of complete rest, though. Take a couple of weeks easy – at low intensity with no structure – just for yourself. Use that time to let the body recover and don’t be afraid of losing fitness. With correct strategy you’ll come back even stronger.
#15 Train in the present
Be realistic and train based on where your physical condition currently is – not where you want it to be. When we compare ourselves to something we believe is better we get emotionally attached to that condition and disconnected from reality.
The only person we should compare ourselves to is who we were yesterday.
So, don’t lie to yourself by trying to execute sessions that elite athletes do if you can’t yet match their result. It’s inefficient and will only create more stress, frustration and, most probably, lead to over training. Instead, discount those training sessions down to your level and build from there.
#16 Get a hobby
Having an outlet or activity where you can utilize excessive mental energy is a great way to reduce mental stress. It works the same way as music does – by distracting the mind from a stressful situation to something you enjoy doing.
Make it something other than training, though. It’s already a large part of life for an athlete. Better engage in something creative (writing) or learn a skill (playing music, cooking).
Having diverse hobbies also helps to get some perspective on what really interests and sparks passion in our lives. It also helps to realise that we can’t focus on one single area in life all the time. At some point we’ll feel unfulfilled in others.
#17 Easy physical exercise
Sustained low intensity physical activity – in Zones 1 & 2 – is a great way to reduce mental stress. Moving the body promotes blood circulation, reduces blood pressure and increases energy levels. But more importantly, prolonged cyclical motion (repeating the same movement over and over) helps to put the mind to rest and makes a person feel more present in the moment.
If you can’t handle the silence, listen to a podcast as you exercise. It helps to take the mind away from troubling thoughts.
Yoga is another great way to unwind. Besides stretching out tight muscles it also gives an opportunity to tune in with your body and feel more mindful.
#18 Get great at time management
Being good at managing time can improve focus and help to minimize nerves and anxiety both on a daily basis and before a race.
Time managing is all about staying organized. A great way to approach it is to keep track of important tasks and plan your time.
- List down all appointments, things to be done and ideas that circle around in your head.
- Prioritize the list by moving most important actions or tasks to the top.
- Define the next immediate action to be taken for each of the tasks.
- Schedule every appointment and each individual action into your calendar.
- Repeat as you get more ideas or tasks.
Not only does this approach helps to organize thoughts and reduce mental stress, but also get more done. And that in itself gives a massive motivational boost.
#19 Be easy on yourself
Above all, don’t take life too seriously all the time. Most stressful situations we find ourselves in are not worth stressing about. Is it really the end of the world that the phone battery died or there’s no place to park?
Nobody has it figured out. Life is very unpredictable and while we can spend tons of energy organizing everything, there’s still a chance something will go wrong. And we can never know what it will be.
Don’t be afraid to look silly or embarrass yourself. Have more fun – both with others and at yourself.
Make a mental shift to a more flexible perspective. Our perception of reality becomes our reality. So, when we’re serious about every area of our life we risk to lose that sense of play which gives life its colors.
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How did I get here?
Hey there! My name is Andrejs and I am here to inspire, entertain and get you fit for any adventure.
I went from being an over trained pro athlete to a blogger sharing how not to waste time and live life to the fullest.
Traveling, new sports and activities brought new meaning to my training and made it much more effective, fun and enjoyable.