Dear Mark: Improving Exercise Stress Tolerance, Stress and Athletic Performance, My Stress Practices, Non-Negotiable Stress, and Distractions

Dear_Mark_Inline_PhotoFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering five questions about stress. First, how can someone handle the stress from training five days a week, assuming they don’t want to cut back on gym days? Second, what are the negative effects of chronic stress on athletic performance? Third, what do I do when I’m stressed out and Primal Calm isn’t cutting it? Do I have any practices? And fourth, how can a working mom with three little kids deal with non-negotiable stress? Fifth, can distractions like TV or movies help us deal with stress, or are they just ways to ignore the problem?

Let’s go:

I’d like to know more about how to best combat stress from HIIT other than just don’t work out 5 times a week. Don’t know that I’m willing to sacrifice days at the gym. Thanks!!

My first suggestion—and the best one—is to sacrifice days at the gym. Five days is excessive for most people, and since you’re complaining about too much stress, you appear to be most people. Drop a day or two and you’ll get better results and experience less stress.

My second suggestion is to keep going training five days a week but make your workouts longer and easier and shorter and more intense. If you’re doing 5 days at that moderate-high intensity, moderate-high volume setting so many assume is the path to fitness, you will crash without physiological enhancement. Do 2-3 days of intense strength training—quick, dense, hard workouts using full-body movements—and sprints. Do 1-2 days of really long, really easy aerobic work. That could be a hike, a long bike ride, or even time on the elliptical, exercise bike, or treadmill.

Third, you can start playing around with supplements and foods and practices to speed recovery.

Beets are probably best here. Beet juice has been shown to reduce muscle pain after training, speed up recovery after hard training, and improve muscle phosphocreatine depletion rates during intense efforts.  Beets even reduce sympathetic over-activation of muscles, promoting more resting and relaxing.

Take tart cherry. Tart cherry juice/powder/concentrate can  speed up recovery after intense, prolonged training. Tastes good, too.

Cold water immersion can improve short term muscle recovery, especially in the heat where tissue cooling is a big impediment to getting back at it, but it may hamper hypertrophy and long term strength development.

This is a big topic. I should probably cover it more in depth.

How does chronic stress impact athletic performance?

In many ways.

Chronic stress increases the chance of injury. During intense “life events”—deaths, illnesses, divorces—an athlete’s risk of getting injured goes up. You can’t perform if you’re injured.

Chronic stress increases the risk of burnout. You’re adding stress to stress, and something’s going to give.

Chronic stress decreases performance. Consider how the stress of a game coming down to the wire with everything on the line affects athletes differently. Some rise to the occasion, sink the free throws, make the catch, complete the final push. Others shrink against pressure, miss the free throw, drop the catch, fall back at the end. Those for whom pressure increases performance simply haven’t reached their stress tolerance threshold. Those who buckle have reached it. If an athlete is suffering from chronic stress, they have reached their stress tolerance threshold.

Other than primal calm(used before and love it!) what physical practices do you use to help reduce the affects of stress?

I’ve tried meditation. Doesn’t work for me. Or rather, I don’t work for it. At this point in my life, I’ve pretty much accepted that it’s not going to happen.

Moving meditations work. My absolute favorite is to get out on the open water and go standup paddling. Some of my most awe-inspiring moments have happened on the board, like coming upon a pod of dolphins who proceed to frolic under, around, and with me, or having an up-close experience with a mama gray whale and her two calves.

Good fiction helps. You temporarily inhabit another world, live another narrative. It’s a reset. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll make a point to carve out an hour or two for time with a good book.

Exercise usually works. It never hurts. Let’s put it this way: I’ve never regretted deciding to hit the gym, run some hill sprints, or go for a hike when I’m feeling the effects of stress coming on.

Going outside wearing as little clothing as you can bear is another. This is the advantage of working from home. I can slip outside in shorts and no shoes, make contact with the earth and sun, and almost immediately feel better. I don’t know if it’s the vitamin D or nitric oxide from the sun, or if “grounding” is doing anything on a physiological level, but it sure does work. Things are a little different now that I’ve moved to Miami, so I’m still figuring all that out.

what can we do with stressors that absolutely cannot be eliminated from our lives while maintaining a high level of energy for our life’s demands?… coming from a mom of 3 under 3, breadwinner, full time working outside the home, special needs parent.

Find the wiggle room. There’s always some lurking around. Go home a little early one day a week. Did your world crumble around you? Did the business fail?  Probably not. What probably happened was people didn’t even notice and got on with their work normally. Try that. See how it goes. See if it affects your status at work or ability to get the job done. I suspect it won’t.

There may be some wiggle room with the kids, too. Three under three with special needs is intense. I won’t discount that. I only ever had two at the most to deal with, so I can imagine. But see what you can do. Set up a cordoned off play-area or playroom that you can dump them in for a few minutes here and there for some alone time. Be willing to let them work things out themselves from time to time instead of immediately rushing in to mediate, as long as the screams aren’t too bloodcurdling. Be tolerant of a bit of discord.

How much do distractions (playing games, watching movies) help against stress? Ignoring issues is not a long-term solution, but do they help in delaying the negative effects of stress?

Great question.

We can do great things with these complex brains, like plan years in advance, make predictions, solve complicated problems. We can also do bad things with them, like ruminate. We can fall into recursive thought loops. Take the uniquely human affliction of stressing about stress, or even worse, stressing about stressing about stress. You won’t ever see a dog doing that.

Sometimes, a distraction is exactly what you need to break out of the cycle, disrupt the thought loops, and cut through the stress.

It’s not ignoring it, actually. It’s dealing with the stressful thought loop the only way you truly can—by arresting its progress.

Now, should you engage in an endless series of distractions to avoid thinking about the bills you should be paying, the life you should be leading, the marriage you should be saving? Definitely not. But certain types of mental stress definitely benefit from the occasional injection of distraction.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading and thanks for asking such great questions. Take care!

Be sure to chime in down below if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions.


TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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31 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Improving Exercise Stress Tolerance, Stress and Athletic Performance, My Stress Practices, Non-Negotiable Stress, and Distractions”

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  1. Welcome to Miami.. When did you move here ? Which part of Miami are you at ?

    1. Wow, I love Miami. I frequent Miami quite a bit. I am very athletic and love to surf and any water sports. Not at all a gym person. Spend quite a bit of time outside. Miami definitely has the climate for it.

  2. So much good stuff here…can’t believe no one has commented yet! I have a few things to add…to the first person (not sure if a guy or girl, not that it matters) I totally agree with Mark…don’t go to the gym so much. My body look and performs better now than when I used to work out like crazy. Love Mark’s recommendations…know beets can be amazing. I would totally add collagen peptides to your daily routine also. Good for all of your connective tissues.
    For the person asking about physical practices, I’d totally encourage you to try meditation. I am super high energy and never thought it would work for me, but even five minutes makes a difference. I just close my eyes and focus on breathing. But just getting outside into nature is amazing too.
    And to the mom of three, damn, you have your hands full! But love Mark’s advice about letting them work some stuff out on their own. Looking back I wish I had done that more!

  3. Wow so Mark did I read that right you relocated to Miami? Lived near Malibu (in Camarillo) for 10 years before I came back home to Minnesota. Man do I miss hiking in Malibu Creek and eating at Neptune’s Net.

    1. Maybe he is kidding. Not sure I believe he moved unless the earthquakes and fires were getting too close to home. Now it’s just rising sea levels to think about…

      1. Per his Instagram account he has indeed moved to Miami Beach, FL.

  4. Would definitely like to know more on the Miami move! You slipped that in there so nonchalantly. When, why? What do you love about it and what’s been a challenge? Have you switched to Speedo’s or are you still in the transitional phase?

  5. For HIIT, I found that eating protein and 150 gm of carbs after an afternoon workout helps me recover faster. For general stress I now take 600mg of magnesium 5 days a week in 3 doses between the hours of 9pm and 9am. I get up a couple of times during the night to use the bathroom and that gives me a chance to take it during the wee hours (no pun intended). I also eat all my fat for the day at lunchtime since fat interferes with magnesium absorption. These two practices have helped me a lot.

  6. Miami??? Now I can’t call you “Malibu Mark”! “Miami Mark” just doesn’t have the same groovy ring to it

  7. I can’t emphasize Mark’s advice to take days off from the gym. I am by no means some hardcore gym rat and have had a lot of time away from working out since we had our third kid. However, over the last few months I’ve got back into but I promised myself that this time around if I started to get tired or just didn’t want to do a workout, I wasn’t going to. The only compromise is that if I didn’t want to do something intense (strength or sprints) I did need to walk. Walking was absolutely important and unless sick, basically never counts as “stress.”

    This came from me opting to stop focusing on “gains” per se and only work out as a matter of managing stress and maintaining health. (In fact I recently parted ways with my squat rack and barbell to focus entirely on bodyweight work. Between family and work life, I just don’t have the energy to keep up with lifting big.)

    A funny thing happened when I dropped from three strength sessions a week to two, not only did I not suddenly shrivel up into this weak guy who was doing fewer pull-ups each week, I seemed to be improving more week over week. On top of that the dread factor before starting wasn’t there, I wasn’t carrying being over tired and a lighter schedule means an extra long day at the office doesn’t mess with any sort of schedule. I just work out the next day and make sure I take a few walks at the office.

    It’s really hard for someone like me to accept, but it’s pretty amazing how often “less is more” really applies.

  8. The way I have dealt with stress that is unavoidable by choice or circumstance is to change my relationship to the situation. I have been a floor registered nurse for over 28 years. I have seen huge changes in our patient population. I now deal with heroin addicts, alcoholics and issues related to poor life choices every shift. By cultivating compassion for myself and all around me I have been able help myself and others. Less judging and more treating.

  9. Moved to Miami??? I bet Mark just stuck that in there to see how far down we’ve read or to see if we’re paying attention—-

  10. “At this point in my life, I’ve pretty much accepted that it’s not going to happen.”

    Doesn’t seem like the Mark Sisson I (think I) know. 🙂

    1. Sitting meditation doesn’t work for everybody. It has never worked well for me either, and I don’t often have the patience to pursue it. Sometimes I can manage a few minutes, but it ‘s usually more bother than it’s worth.

      Side note: Open water = sharks. Be careful, Mark.

      1. Shary I used to feel the same way. What I find that works best for me is guided meditation I listen to via some headphones and the world and all your problems melt away for that period in time. You should read “You are the Placebo” by Joe Dispenza, one of the most profound books I’ve ever read. Near the end of the book his EKG’s of various folks brain scans over time while meditating is absolutely amazing. This is coming from a skeptic who used to snort at “weirdos” and “new age flakes” talking about meditating.

  11. I love your “drop days at the gym” suggestion! I keep telling my friends this all time. They feel stressed because they are not seeing results, etc. But it’s because they are stressing themselves physically as well as mentally and emotionally on a regular basis due to their jobs, etc. They go to the gym 6-7 days a week. I’m like, “it’s NOT healthy to workout 7 days a week!” So THANK YOU for explicitly posting that!

  12. I really liked this set of questions/answers. I’ve been in a really stressful season my life and it’s good to read some of this and step back and think about my situation in a new light.

  13. My partner of 7 years died tragically 5 months ago. It was the most traumatic experience in my life.
    I dealt with it by going to the gym every day but I’d do what Mark suggests..Let’s say a very heavy lifting day Monday ( squats, dead lifts, pull ups etc ). Following day I’d do a MAF session for 90 minutes. day after that sprints/HIITS, followed by MAF then lifting heavy again, then MAF>Sprints>MAF>Lifting and so on. so never two intense things two days in a row like heavy weights on mon then prints on tue. Always slow MAF sessions between each one.
    I have never done meditating but doing a MAF session, staring at that heart rate for 90 minutes with repetitive music in my head phones must be the closest to meditation I ever get – my mind goes blank – stress just fades away and i don’t think about anything really.
    Ideally I should probably go out and hike or something but i choose MAF for those recovery sessions because i live in London where hiking or park runs are not an option for me.

    1. Im so sorry about your partner’s passing. Thank you for sharing this.

  14. I read about Tony Robbins moving to FL – and out of Cali. Did you have any similar reasons for moving to Miami, Mark?

  15. Earlier, I put this comment in the wrong place (the Yoga post). Hope you don’t mind if I move it here. If I did more yoga, perhaps I would be centered enough to pay attention to where I am posting on MDA.

    Dear Mark,

    vitamin C and collagen question:

    Vitamin C reduces benefits of exercise, but it increase the body’s ability to assimilate collagen. Exercise an hour or so after taking collagen helps your ligaments and cartilage get blood flow they need for repair. Is there some minimum amt of vitamin C I can take to help collagen synthesis without reducing exercise benefits? Am I wrong about all of the above in the first place?


  16. The meditation part is HUGE to me. As a guy who stays up on performance science for muscle growth and performance I often neglected meditation. Since I started meditating more I’ve noticed every aspect of my performance increased.

  17. To the stressed out Mom of 3 – my heart breaks for you. You need help, not stress management strategies. You have too much on your plate for any one person to handle.