A Scientific Approach to Exercise Stress, Burnout and Recovery Techniques
People with a high level of responsibility come across significant stressors every day. First, there is psychological stress related to high-level work, performance-related business or financial problems, and social relationships. Then there is the baggage of insecurities and emotions from our past that is often undealt with and still lie within the nervous system, affecting our physiology. Exercise is a physical stressor; however, regardless of whether the pressure is internal or external, it all affects the body in the same way. The primary regulator of the stress response is the autonomic nervous system. Regardless of whether there is a thought or there is an event occurring in the environment. The reaction is the same in the nervous system as it is in moderate and high-intensity exercise.
The stress response system (SRS), aka the fight or flight response, results in sympathetic nervous activity . This system elevates heart rate, stroke volume, and blood pressure to increase oxygen supply to working muscles. In addition, metabolic processes stimulate the release of glucose by a process called glycogenesis, resulting in increased available fuel to produce ATP for cellular metabolism, muscle contraction, and hence exercise . High-intensity exercise can be tasking on both the ANS and muscular-skeletal systems. Following training, if rest and recovery are adequate, adaptation occurs to cope with the increased demands of the environment. In a healthy stress response (fig 2.), activation of the sympathetic nervous is short-lived, followed by a rebound of parasympathetic activity . During this rebound phase, the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts stress to promote a regulatory process known as homeostasis. This process aids in nutritional absorption, nerve recovery, and muscular repair . For an adaptation, exercise needs to provide enough stimuli to cause mild skeletal and physiological damage. Progressive overload in weight training is an excellent example of this. Volume or intensity increase gradually to promote increasing resistance, resulting in continual muscular adaptation. The immune system responds by directing specific muscular recovery cells known as satellite cells to mediate muscular growth and repair .
In athletes and high performers, overtraining and burnout are rarely caused directly by the volume of training. It is often due to inadequate recovery . Poor sleep and inconsistent nutrition are the main perpetrators . However, due to a fast-paced life, such individuals do not give themselves enough time to process their psychological and emotional stress, leading to a lack of stress awareness. Look at a typical business owner who enjoys fitness. Their day may be scheduled with meetings and deadlines while fitting in an hour or two of high-intensity exercise. They may even have a small family to care for, and their schedule runs from 6 am to 9 pm. For the ambitious individual, life can become all too hectic. Running from meeting to meeting, making deadlines, and feeding the kids is a cumulation of small stresses. They all use the same nervous response as moderate and high-intensity exercise. The cumulative effect of such stress may occur more than 300 days per year. The by-product of such is elevated cortisol. Suppose cortisol is excessive for a sustained period. In that case, it leads to a heightened pro-inflammatory response detrimental to athletic performance . The issue causes both sleep and metabolic issues resulting in tiredness, fatigue, and irritability . From an overall performance level, lack of motivation may occur, habits alter, and sabotage behaviours may occur. These can be conscious or unconscious, depending on the level of the awareness of the individual. However, it is often due to a significant physiological change from an altered or perturbed stress response.
The Altered Stress Response
Over an extended period of mismanagement, an altered stress response occurs (fig 3). With heightened sympathetic activation while the parasympathetic response is attenuated . After many years this leads to a condition known as sympathovagal overdrive. A state typically observed in patients with chronic sleep issues, cardiac disease, and autoimmune disorders related to inflammation . High performers such as business owners, CEO’s and athletes often thrive off stress. However, awareness may be lacking, or health is not a priority due to passion and focus on their vision and success. If recovery is lacking, chronic stress leads to diminished vagal tone. Primarily used to sense the physiological condition within the body, the vagus nerve provides sensory information back to the brain to detect stress, pain, and internal awareness signals of when to slow down. When this system becomes perturbed, the parasympathetic nervous system is ineffective. Thus, it is only a matter of time before a chronic condition such as burnout or health concern such as cardiac arrhythmia, or worse.
Recovery is essential to physical and mental performance. Before discussing ways to ensure adequate recovery, we will delve into detecting the condition described above. The first sign may be poor sleep or a refusal to sleep longer than 5 hours because of a lack of valuing sleep. Those who are suffering from chronic stress have trouble sleeping and frequent spontaneous awakenings . Stress is the number cause of sleep issues. Elevated cortisol and excitatory chemicals remain high in the brain creating a physiological environment making it difficult to calm the mind to initiate sleep. Another sign of chronic stress is reduced heart rate variability . Fluctuations in heart rate mean a sensitive autonomic nervous system and are a sign of good health. Without the appropriate equipment, it may be challenging to measure HRV. However, monitoring resting heart rate before getting out of bed in the morning could be helpful. If the morning heart rate is elevated compared to the resting heart rate during the day, this may indicate chronic stress or overtraining . CO2 Tolerance is also a related breathing indicator used to monitor stress over extended periods. Monitoring time to expire air from a full breath whilst controlling the exhalation as slowly as possible throughout the nose and tracking the expiration time offers a simple way to detect deviations. If a fall is more significant than 10%, it may represent a time to add further relaxation (Shift Adapt). Due to diminished vagal tone, interoceptive awareness (IA) is reduced . This lack of bodily awareness makes it challenging to pre-empt injury or illness.
However, there is a simple way to assess IA. Laying on the floor, attempt to feel the heartbeat. This method is not a cognitive process. It is a somatic one, meaning that thinking or imagining is different from awareness. Just relax and feel for the beat. Set a timer for 30 seconds and count the heart rate. Repeat this twice and take the average bpm. Following, measure pulse using a standard method for 30 seconds. Suppose accuracy is less than 60% or no heartbeat is detected. In that case, it may be a sign of sympathovagal overdrive lacking in IA where relaxation or recovery protocols such as low-intensity exercise improve mind-body awareness, such as vinyasa yoga . In the next section we will dicuss some of the more important areas of recovery and what can be done to help in such a situation.
Recovery is about balancing the autonomic nervous system, refuelling, and becoming aware of the mind-body connection. As the primary regulator of homeostasis, the ANS controls hormones such as cortisol, leptin, and growth hormone. These hormones play a vital role in metabolism, appetite, and muscular repair. The time spent on recovery is dependent on multiple factors such as fitness level, social status, resilience, age, and gender. There are almost too many variables to cover in this editorial. However, we shall cover some of the most critical aspects of recovery. We are starting with sleep.
Sleep is an essential physiological process. Without sleep, man would die in a matter of weeks. Sleep is also a necessary process for recovery from exercise. During sleep, up to 70% of the growth hormone and a significant volume of testosterone are released . Adults who lack sleep (<6hours) have the testosterone level of someone who is ten years senior . Not ideal for a high performer or athlete. It is during sleep that the body undergoes most of its parasympathetic nervous activity. During this altered state of consciousness, the body goes through the essential physiological processes involved in growth and repair. With poor sleep, the body enters into a catabolic state. Skeletal muscle protein uptake decreases, and metabolism is reduced . Not ideal for body composition or performance. During REM and deep sleep, the brain undergoes significant recovery processes’.
The by-product of metabolic waste (adenosine) of wakefulness clears through a process using cerebral spinal fluid and the brain pump from breathing, maintaining brain health. As a result of that and sleep spindles providing bursts of high flow electrical activity in stage 2 sleep, learning processes occur, consolidating memories and storing proprioceptive information of motors skills. Therefore in poor sleep, the ability to learn skills such as handstands or Olympic lifts is impaired. Aim to get 7-9 hours of quality sleep. Quality means being asleep for more than 90% of the time t in bed. Research suggests that in periods where overtraining may occur, such as during the latter part of a sporting season, or periods of high stress, it may be beneficial to extend bedtime to 10 hours per night .
To ensure high-quality sleep, there are steps to take. First is a need to create positive beliefs about sleep and prioritise it for those seeking sustainable high performance. Then the circadian rhythm, cellular gene clocks, and socially constructed chronotypes need to be aligned as closely as possible by creating the appropriate lifestyle habits and behaviours. This means eating, exercising and sleeping at similar times and avoiding excessive alcohol, drugs, and further stressors. More information regarding the science of good night sleep can be found here .
Refuelling from exercise is also an essential part of recovery. Nutritional strategies should be put in place to ensure calorie and macronutrients intake meet energy and protein requirements. There will be certain situations when people require to enter a calorie deficit. Perhaps an athlete is attempting to make weight, or someone wants to lose a few pounds. In short, this can be beneficial. However, remaining in a calorie deficit for too long can cause hormonal changes similar to those seen in chronic stress . These changes may further exacerbate health issues related to high cortisol, inflammation and catabolism. Chronically elevated cortisol alters appetite-controlling hormones making it difficult for a person with chronic stress to rely on their judgment for nutrient intake . In such situations, it may be beneficial to consume foods that have anti-inflammatory properties, such as oily fish and avocados. In addition, herbs such as turmeric and cinnamon have properties to reduce inflammation. Some supplements can help; however, finding a qualified nutritional expert to assist with dietary plans to aid recovery is recommended.
Myofascial release is a great way to reduce stress. Not only is it beneficial for mobility and range of motion, potentially reducing the risk of injury and elevating performance . It is also helpful for emotional and mental stress. Repressed emotions and anxiety can be stored within the body, causing tension within muscle fascia — a concept known as somatic stress. If not appropriately dealt with, emotions may cause tightness, pain, and inflammation . This issue is why we feel tightness in the back and shoulders after a long day at work. Within the muscle fascia, there are many nerve endings. These nerve endings send information back up the vagus nerve to signal how we think and feel to our brain. This concept is the interoceptive information I was discussing earlier. Under chronic stress, these nerve endings become blunted, and the data sent back to the brain is altered . This adaptation may change one’s self-perception, creating a negative mindset or lacking emotional awareness  essential for high performance and life success . Movements in yoga, massage and trigger point therapy can aid in releasing this tension, freeing up muscle fascia supporting a healthy mind and nervous system .
Breathing is a forgotten recovery tool. We can consciously control our autonomic nervous system by utilizing the breath. Wim Hof, a man that has been providing the medical world with such breakthrough information, has demonstrated that with cold exposure and breathwork, human’s can consciously fight off infection and alter immune responses . High performers can utilize a tool that their team is teaching worldwide at home to enhance their resilience. However, in such cases, it would not be appropriate to use the Wim Hof Method due to likely further contributing to activation of the stress response. Simple, slow, light breathing expanding the rib cage, known as diaphragmatic breathing, is more so recommended. 3-5 minutes a few times per day helps stimulate the vagus nerve and thus the parasympathetic nervous system . Flow breathing with a deep inhalation for 3-6 seconds contracts the diaphragm followed by an 8-10 second steady exhalation relaxing the mind and body, promoting recovery. Prolonging the exhale and breathing with appropriate breathing mechanics through the nose is of vital importance here to promote greater HRV and relaxation. Simple mindfulness practices can provide incredible results if practised daily. A simple habit of performing at home in less than 10 minutes, either first thing in the morning or to promote a relaxing state before bed, is ideal for aiding recovery. Use this breath calculator and the CO2 tolerance test to find a suitable breathing flow for you.
These are just some examples of recovery practices that can reduce stress, cortisol, and inflammation. Sometimes it is about getting the basics first, health, not just physical health but mental and social wellbeing. The quality of sleep and consistent nutrition are paramount for optimal performance. These two focuses might not be enough; however, the amount of time spent on recovery varies on an individual basis. As a rule of thumb, aim to have a least 10-15 minutes to practice healing daily. Those exposed to chronic stress, such as athletes and high performers, may require more recovery. My mission is to optimize and sustain high performance using individualistic and scientific-based recovery strategies specializing in sleep, breath and stress recovery. If you would like to get in contact for a consult about how we can work together to ensure you can sustain high performance and health. Please get in contact with me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a 15-minute discovery call here.
Martin McPhilimey BSc, MSc, MRes, CRFS
Performance Through Health
Consultant, Scientist, Coach
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