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Dispatches : Fitness

Stress and the Athlete's Body

You’re lying in bed, and you suddenly start worrying. It could be about anything. Or nothing. Maybe it’s just a sinking feeling in your chest, with no thoughts at all—until that old, familiar darkness descends, beckoning the doubts back in again. Then your heart rate quickens as your mind whirs with worst-case scenarios. Tightness creeps into your neck and shoulders, but you’re too busy worrying to notice.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. While stressing doesn’t necessarily make you diagnosable, it does mean you’re anxious, probably tired, and possibly less likely to be at your physical best. In addition, we often don’t realize the extent to which everyday stress can compromise performance. 

“Our self-awareness as individuals is incredibly poor,” says Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist and Boston University professor. “There’s a reason you’re exhausted.”

Even if you don’t recognize its physical manifestations, your anxiety is burning up energy stores and motivation levels you could be using to train. When your brain detects and responds to a threat, it leads to the release of adrenaline, says psychologist Richard Zinbarg, who heads up Northwestern University’s Anxiety Lab. In the short term, this gives the body a boost of strength and energy. But when it persists, it leaves the body drained. While the exact impact varies from person to person and is difficult to quantify, the effect is major.

“Like a car engine that revs into the red for too long, it will break down over time,” sports psychologist and performance coach Robert Smith says. “Our bodies start to show the wear and tear of chronic stress.”

The solution? Diagnosed anxiety disorders are best treated by a medical professional. But for the rest of us, the first step is awareness. Naylor recommends doing a “shoulder check” throughout the day. If they’re tense, take a deep breath to release the strain. 

Smith suggests deep breathing—inhale slowly through the nose and exhale out through the mouth. This self-conscious breathing will bring you back to the moment.

Stress management is difficult because we live in a fast-paced society, but many coping mechanisms are fairly simple. It’s about “realizing that we have these skills, but aren’t using them when we most need them,” Naylor says. 

While some level of stress is good for performance—that boost of adrenaline can make you faster on race day—“excessive anxiety is not one bit helpful,” advises Naylor. “If you’re focused enough, you’re focused enough. There’s a tipping point.”

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How to Prepare for a High-Altitude Race

We know the feeling (Outside's headquarters are at 7,000 feet). Doing any sort of activity at high elevation, even just a simple walk, leaves you feeling like all your past months of training didn’t even happen—and that you’ve been smoking a pack a day instead.

So what are you supposed to do if you live at sea level and want to travel for a race that is at altitude? Surprisingly, you don’t have to feel like you’re dying the whole time—if you flow the rules of high-altitude racing.

Your Body on Altitude

No matter how good of shape you are in, it doesn’t matter when you head up to the mountains, at least for the first few days while you are acclimating. That’s because your body is experiencing hypoxia, where your blood carries a lower level of oxygen than normal. The wheezing and shortness of breath you experience is your body trying to compensate for these lower oxygen levels.

“Your heart rate goes up to try to get more oxygen into your lungs—it is trying to increase the  pumping of your heart to deliver and transport more oxygen to your tissues,” says Robert S. Mazzeo with the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado. Altitude also causes hormonal changes to occur—like the pumping of adrenaline to help with oxygen transportation and delivery. This all happens when anyone is exposed high altitude, but if your body doesn’t acclimate well, you can get acute mountain sickness, which unfortunately feels a lot like a bad race anyway—headache, nausea, and vomiting.

Arrive Early and Lower Your Intensity

So how do you complete a high-altitude race when you train at sea level? Since we don’t recommend blood doping, and a hyperbaric chamber will set you back a few thousand dollars, aim to get to the race location a week in advance and stay active—which accelerates the acclimation process. Don’t, however, workout at your full intensity and volume. Instead, reduce your intensity by 10 percent and volume by 10 to 20 percent, over your taper, too, says Lance C. Dalleck, an assistant professor of Exercise and Sport Science at Western State Colorado University and researcher for the High Altitude Performance Lab. Take the first day or two off, and if you aren’t experiencing symptoms of acute mountain sickness, start training, but slightly less.

But be sure to prepare mentally, as your race pace will be slower and dehydration sets in quicker. Rather than trying to maintain your typical pace, consciously slow yourself down to avoid blowing up.

Timing Is Key

If you can’t arrive a week in advance and get your body acclimated, schedule your arrival time as close as possible to race day, says Dalleck. Avoid racing between 24 to 72 hours at altitude and instead head up the night or morning before. “That is when you are suffering the most and are most prone to mountain sickness, when you are really starting to acclimate,” Dalleck says of the one-to-three day period. “Before 24 hours, you haven’t really started acclimating... If you race right away, you will beat all of that happening. Your performance on day one at altitude will be better than on day two, three, or four.”

You can also try to get to a somewhat higher altitude at home, if possible, since preexposure to altitude can start that acclimatization. Aim to spend four or more hours at 5,000 plus feet a few times in the month leading up to the race.

If you still end up feeling like crap the whole race, don’t sweat it. It’s not you—it’s genetics. “We see a lot of variability in athletes at altitude,” says Dalleck. “Some individuals don’t seem to be as impacted by the altitude.  Others at sea level might be world class athletes and at altitude, they are just anybody else.”

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Monkii Bars

You won’t find this equipment at your local park. Instead, the Monkii Bars are a lightweight, portable suspension-training tool.

Use them at home, in your office, at a park, or while camping and traveling—the whole system is completely self-contained within the sleek bars.

Here’s how it works. Remove the 18-foot suspension line from the bars, then throw the line over a branch or hook it up to a door with carabiners and webbing. (A door-attachment accessory is still in the works.) Use the loop to adjust the length, and voilà, you have a personal-training system. The kit also includes training and set-up-anywhere guides.  

Work on upper and lower body strength or use the bars to extend your flexibility. Because the Monkii Bars can be used and stored almost anywhere, you’ll have no more excuses for not working out. The product is set to ship later this summer.

Pre-order for $98, monkiibars.com

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The Road Less Sprinted: The Rise of Fastest Known Time

A growing number of trail runners are finding a new way to test themselves, and it doesn’t involve race fees, bibs, or finish line chutes.

Instead, they’re enlisting their own stopwatch, navigational prowess, and determination to set trail Fastest Known Times, or FKTs. They pick a route, decide whether they’ll receive any outside help in the form of food or aid along the way, and try to cover the distance as fast as possible.

“FKTs allow for a lot more individual creativity than official races,” said ultrarunner Anton Krupicka.

In recent years, the FKT phenomenon has become increasingly visible. A web site—Fastest Known Time—now exists dedicated to record keeping, enabling runners to look up existing records and post their own. The site has several hundred threads dedicated to FKT attempts.

“I think there has been an increased interest in FKTs,” said Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Time site. “There are a lot of really cool areas that will never have races on them. Wherever you live, you can find a route.” 

Some of the recent attention to FKTs emerged because elite trail runners have tackled major efforts. Whereas elites used to prioritize races over FKTs, Bakwin said, some are now making speed attempts the centerpiece of their season, due to both personal preference and growing support from the companies that back them. 

Kilian Jornet, a Spanish mountaineer and ultrarunner who many consider the best in the sport, has built his career around setting speed records on mountain routes. 

Sponsors, in turn, have followed suit in embracing FKT efforts. The North Face sponsored Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe when they set a speed record on the John Muir Trail last year. Rob Krar, who set the record last year on the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim route, believes his effort on the iconic route—along with a couple of top race performances—helped land him a sponsorship with The North Face.

Public awareness of trail speed attempts has increased as sponsors produce videos and blogs highlighting FKT records. Jornet’s sponsor, Salomon, helps create online videos about his efforts, leading to global recognition of Jornet’s pursuits. New Balance sent a film crew to Colorado last summer to track Anton Krupicka’s attempt to set a speed record on a route up and over a series of 14,000-foot peaks. And Patagonia made web video of the record-setting-run Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson set on the Trans-Zion trail. Moehl, who also set the women’s speed record on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail last year with Darcy Africa, said Patagonia prefers that she attempt FKTs and trail adventures rather than just stick to traditional races.

“Patagonia likes the storyline that goes along with it,” Moehl said.

Both elite and amateur runners who attempt FKTs say they’re drawn to the grassroots element of the endeavor. Rather than traipsing through the woods with hundreds of other race competitors, they’re on their own in nature. For trail running enthusiasts, that’s often what drew them to the sport in the first place.

“For me, it’s returning to the roots of why I love mountain running,” Wolfe said. “The joy and freedom of moving through the mountains in a minimalist style.” 

FKTs also enable runners to tackle routes in which races will never take place. Permits will likely never be issued for races in wilderness areas or National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. 

With speed efforts, runners can pick their run day based on personal health, fitness, weather, or convenience, and not have to worry about a designated race day. FKTs also provide a compelling challenge for athletes who want their adventure to include navigation and strategic planning

“Races are an adventure, but one where you can blow up and get a car ride back home,” said Matt Hart, who set the Zion Traverse record in 2010 and tries to go after a new FKT each year. “There is more adventure, more risk in trying for a FKT. You have to estimate your abilities and go for it.”

But even the most ardent supporters of FKTs acknowledge that there can be downsides. Some runners simply prefer the support and comfort of directional race flagging and aid stations, and don’t want to navigate a wilderness area on their own. Krar said that some athletes might end up in trouble because they chose a route above their ability level.

Criticism also can arise if too many runners are attempting to cover a trail as fast as possible on their own terms. Bakwin and Krar noted problems with large volumes of runners in the Grand Canyon trails in recent years. The runners can overwhelm toilet facilities at the bottom of the canyon and sometimes blow past mule trains and walkers. Of course, very few of these runners are actually attempting FKTs, but observers can easily lump solo or two-person competitive runners into the category as huge groups of runners.

“I’ve heard a lot of reports of runners not obeying common courtesy because they’re on the clock,” Bakwin said. 

For these runners, time—and making records of it—means everything. The history of FKTs likely dates way back, but long-term record keeping is tough to uncover. That’s why Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time web site roughly 10 years ago. He and friend Buzz Burrell made sure to dub the records on the site Fastest Known Times, as there can always be existing speed records that no one knows about. The site encourages runners to use GPS, photos, and other methods to verify their times.

“If you want to go out there with no GPS track and no witnesses, that’s great, but then don’t publicize it and ask sponsors for support,” Burrell said. “If you’re going to publicize yourself, then document yourself. It’s a package deal.”

In addition to keeping records, Bakwin wants the site to tell stories of both trail triumphs and failures. He’s more interested in someone’s trail experience than the end time result.

“I wanted to have a place those stories could be saved,” Bakwin said. 

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