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Stress is everywhere; the term stressor describes any event that triggers your sympathetic nervous system and initiates your body's "fight, flight, or freeze" response.
Stress describes how your brain and body react to the total mix of internal and external stressors from all areas of your life. Although stressors come from various aspects of daily life – work, family, emotional, spiritual, and financial – they can also come from physical demands like training and competing, as well as recovery from these activities and resulting injuries. While we generally focus on negative stressors, there are positive ones, such as a dinner with friends and family, a round of golf, or a walk in nature.
The stress response can be as short as a few seconds, to as long as the stressor impacts your body. Quick physical stress; for example, stubbing your toe, might only last minutes. When we have a combination of stressors that recur, such as training multiple times a week or dealing with difficult co-workers daily, then the stress can become damaging to long-term health and wellness.
Chronic stress can often leave you feeling fatigued and worn out and can affect almost every system in the body, from mental focus to physical performance, from sleep to immune function, and often manifests in unwanted weight gain.
Given all the sources of potential stress, how can we ensure that the physical activity we engage in provides positive stressors and doesn’t add to the mix of negative stressors in our day-to-day lives?
When looking to the sporting world for answers on managing the physical demands and stressors of sports, there is no better place to turn than to the UFC Performance Institute team. The UFCPI industry-leading experts in training, performance, and recovery are dedicated to supporting athletes in a sport where managing the fight, flight, or freeze response is imperative to performance, and the physical stressors on the body are enormous. The experts at the UFCPI explain: “Even the most elite athletes must manage many sources of stress, ranging from physical training demands (including injuries) and performance anxieties to social or financial stress. All these sources of stress add up to an accumulation of strain on the human at the center of the athlete or performer. Having tools to manage the many stressors being experienced, such as breathwork and performance breathing, has proven a critical tool for our UFC athletes in managing the challenges both inside and outside of the Octagon.”
Fortunately, we can employ physical, behavioral, and biological strategies to manage our overall stress.
At first glance, you might think breathing runs on autopilot – it's fundamental to life. But being intentional about how and when we breathe can play an essential role in the signals we send to our bodies and how breathing regulates our stress response. Breathing techniques can help balance the swings between the sympathetic nervous system – the fight, flight, freeze response – and the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest and digest response. This can be key to optimizing performance and focus, while avoiding "adrenaline dumps" at times when they are not beneficial. Improved breathing in an MMA fighter (and everyone else, for that matter) can increase blood flow, improve oxygen utilization in muscles, improve mental state, make quick decisions, and respond to coaching cues. The UFCPI educates its athletes on proper breathing to strategize optimizing performance.
What causes improper breathing? Although you have probably noticed your breath changing in response to a stressful situation, you might not have ever paid attention to how your posture and body mechanics play a role in your breathing. If you watch a baby breathe, then you notice their bellies rising and falling with every breath; this is ideal, as the breathing motion involves the expansion of the diaphragm and is controlled by the nose. Over time, as adults, a combination of poor habits and a hunched-over posture (think of the forward-leaning posture we see in computer work and cell phone use), cause us to shift away from this natural diaphragm breathing and to start using our neck and shoulder muscles to take in oxygen.
Take a deep breath. Did your shoulders and chest rise to take in the oxygen? Or did your shoulders stay in place, and your belly expand? Impaired breathing mechanics can increase hyperventilation and stress the upper body's muscles. This hyperventilation disrupts the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the body, leading to impaired circulation in the body and brain and oxygen delivery to working muscles.
Although assessing your breathing pattern and being aware of diaphragm-driven breaths can take time, eventually it can become your default breathing pattern without having to think about it.
Addressing posture and upper body tightness through percussive massage (HI wording and link), mobility exercises, and focusing on breathing through the nose can go a long way toward managing stress levels.
When fighters are in the Octagon and when we are responding to a high-stress environment, performance breathing is a great strategy, but what can we do to manage chronic and repeated stressors?
Breathwork Training and Meditation
One strategy to deal with stress is meditation. Core by Hyperice is a physical device that gently vibrates in your hands and is paired with a library of content in the Core App. Users simply put in headphones, pick up the device, and listen and feel the meditation through vibrations while synced to audio soundscapes. Core also has ECG sensors that listen to and track a user’s heart rate while meditating, giving you actual HRV data and feedback as to how you perform over time.
Stressors in the body trigger a series of biological responses in the body as well; attention to the foods and nutrients we take in support the body's response to stress.
Stress uses energy, meaning your calorie and nutrient needs change when exposed to stress. It is often tempting to turn to fast foods or comfort foods in times of stress. Be sure to balance your diet with healthy foods like lean meats, fish, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and fermented foods, which can all positively impact mood and performance. When stressed, your body burns through nutrients like vitamin C, B vitamins (especially B6), calcium, and magnesium. When the demand for these nutrients is high, and the diet can’t keep up, supplementing these nutrients helps ensure the body can provide the best response to stressors.
Finally, minimizing the stress of physical training can help the body optimize its response to other stressors. Protein and protein supplements, such as whey protein or amino acid complexes, can optimize your recovery from training and competition. Leucine, an amino acid building block of protein, provides the signal your body needs to stop muscle breakdown and turn on the recovery process after training. The sooner we provide this trigger to the muscles, the longer the recovery window. You need about 2.5 to 3 grams of leucine to turn on muscle recovery; the amount found in 20-25 grams of protein-containing foods or protein powders. Look for a total of 0.5-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight spread across the day to ensure adequate protein intake for training and recovery.
To learn more about stress management and training considerations, Hyperice, Thorne, and the UFCPI are continually updating their resources to provide cutting-edge information to help you best build out your personal stress response action plan.