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4 Ways To Prevent Stress Affecting Sports Performance

Photo credit: James Mitchell

Love it or hate it, stress plays a complex role in athletic performance.

On one hand, stress can be a great motivational driver by pushing athletes to reach their max potential through increased focus and drive. On the other, too much stress can have debilitating effects, negatively influencing confidence, clarity and the ability to perform.

Finding the line between leveraging stress as an asset and being crippled by the effects of too much is a balancing act many athletes have a tough time navigating.

Just to be clear, we’re not talking physical stress from a well-structured training plan — that’s the kind of stimulus that allows the body to adapt and get stronger over time. Instead, we’re talking about the “I have 500 things to do and no time to do them” kind of stress — the stress of everyday life.

Polar athlete Patrick Nilsson is no stranger to both types of stress. This five-time IRONMAN champion has competed at the highest level of the sport, but he’s also managed to navigate a rapidly-changing personal life, starting with the birth of his son and most recently moving into a new house. As with any major life transition, this led to some stressful circumstances that ultimately impacted his athletic performance.

Like many of us, it wasn’t the big-picture things that took their toll, but instead it was the smaller, day-to-day chores and decisions that added up to a stressful situation.

“I was used to living by myself, living in a hotel room, going to training camp and doing the training, eating, sleeping and going and back to training,” says Nilsson. “I’ve gone from only doing triathlon to having a family and having a house and that transition went pretty quick.”

“It’s cleaning or painting the house or picking up the son from kindergarten, making food or going shopping — it doesn’t need to be hard, but it builds up in your head,” says Nilsson.

“That’s the kind of stress I’ve experienced in the past few years. It’s things you need to think about, things you need to do, decisions to make — it was a new kind of stress for me, and I know it can be worse, but the reaction in the head and body is the same.”

The impact was almost immediate. For about half a year, Nilsson wasn’t seeing the results he expected despite training right, and he attributes this dip to a lack of focus due to the new stressors in his life.

But through a combination of outside help and trial and error, he found four key ways to help mitigate the stress in his life and get his triathlon career back on an upwards trajectory.

1. Confiding in Others

For Nilsson, being able to talk to others about what is causing him stress is a huge outlet. It allows him to externalize what he’s going through, justify that it’s normal and share his experience with those closest to him — mainly his fiancé and mental coach.

My coach adapts my training after my personal life so I’m not feeling stressed about fitting in the training.

“I also talk to my triathlon coach about how I’m feeling and I give him a heads up that maybe this week we will be moving, or something else is going on,” says Nilsson. “Then we can restructure the training sessions and adjust to keep the training and fitness good, but not as heavy.”

He also started writing down tasks that were piling up to get an overview of what he needed to accomplish, split the load between himself and his fiancé, and marked each off once complete to make things feel more manageable.

2. Finding Distractions

As mentioned, four years ago Nilsson would head to a training session with nothing else to think about besides the session itself. With his personal life now including a family and a new house to manage, there are plenty of things to take some of the focus away.

Nilsson has learned that distractions are a good way to keep his training in focus.

“Once you get used to the stress and have a way to tackle it, distraction can be really good when it comes to performance,” he says.

There are more important things in life than one bad training session, and you can always refocus for the next training session.

“Four years ago if I had a bad training session, I was angry about it for a week. Now, if I have a bad training session, I’m coming home to my son and he runs to me to give me a hug, and it’s hard to be angry.”

While acknowledging sources of stress can be serious, he’s succumbed to the fact that many of his stressors are small things, and it’s best to distance himself from them through a variety of outlets. This includes using training to distract himself from what’s causing stress in other aspects of life, too.

“For me, I’ve been able to tackle stress with training. Instead of doing a two-hour super-hot bike ride, I might do an even longer training session inside and think of other things and process what’s going on,” says Nilsson.

“It’s also always a good idea to have a distraction from the stress and training, and this might mean watching a movie with my fiancé or playing with my son — just do something where you’re not thinking about it.

3. Reframing the Stressors

Nilsson found that reframing the stress in a more positive light is important, especially on race day when he needs to perform at his best. There’s a fine line between feeling stressed and feeling excited, and sometimes a simple mindset shift can leverage these feelings for the better.

“The reaction in the body is the same if you get stressed, nervous or excited, and you might get tense or feel some adrenaline,” says Nilsson. “I tell myself ‘I want to race, I feel good, I’ve done everything I should, I need to relax about it,’ and if I’m lucky, I’ll perform well, if I’m not lucky, I’ll get a puncture or something. I’ve done everything I should so there’s nothing to be stressed about.”

He also emphasizes to check on the small things that are within your control to help alleviate some of the stress on race day. This includes giving yourself plenty of time to find the starting and finishing line, figure out how the transition area works and shore up any other logistical issues that can derail your day so that race morning is only about performing.

4. The Bigger Picture

Through a combination of simply confiding in others, finding distractions and reframing the source of the stress when possible, Nilsson has adapted to be able to use stress to benefit his performance. There’s more to life than training, and separating training and his personal life keeps things fresh.

“Once you understand how to make boundaries, stress can be good. You have to have other things in your life besides training, and it might be wrong to call it stress, but during that early time in my life, it was stressful. I wasn’t used to it, but now I’m happy and performing better than ever before,” says Nilsson.

“For example, I’m doing the training with 100-percent focus as I should and I’ll talk to my coach before and after, but instead of thinking about triathlon 24/7, I’m going home to my son and fiancé and get to relax and have a good time and recharge for the next training session.”

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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