I want you to think about the stress in your your life like water in a bottle. Yes, a water bottle. Your bottle can only hold so much liquid (stress) before it explodes and everything comes pouring out the top. All the stress in your life from work, family, friends, training, and a pandemic all must fit in the bottle.

What happens if the bottle explodes? Injury, burnout, depression, sleepless night, and more, that's what happens.

If you only have one bottle to fill and must keep the liquid in the bottle, lest you suffer adverse consequences, how do you go about regulating the amounts? How does it all mix? What does it look like to manage your stress load over time so you can continually adapt to it, to absorb. Let's discuss.

Normal life stress

normal life stress
This is your normal life stress

The normal day-to-day that exists in your life probably takes up 1/2 to 3/4 of your capacity for stress. This is the normal stress you feel every day dealing with a normal work load. This includes handling family issues, sitting in traffic and catching your least favorite pundit being retweeted. This is very manageable.

You manage this because it's routine. The liquid easily evaporates just as quickly as you refill. This type of stress, both positive and negative, comes from the things that break you down AND build you up on a routine basis. No Big Deal.

Normal Training Stress

normal life stress plus normal training stress
Life stress +
Normal training stress

After you handle your normal life stress you might be looking for something a little extra. Perhaps you like running or skydiving or high stakes poker. All of these extra curricular activities bring their own set of stressors. Again, both positive AND negative.

Normal life stress has already filled most of the bottle so new stress can only take up a 1/4 to 1/2 of your daily/weekly/monthly capacity. Besides, you only have so much time in a day. I mean, yeah, you're a professional with kids and a job and an Ironman to win, you sleep sometimes. With a good coach (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) you are able to create just enough training stress on a regular basis that you can recover and adapt in a reasonable amount of time. While the bottle is fuller, the liquid still evaporates at a fast enough rate that you can keep refilling it.

With life and training together, the bottle gets pretty darn full but there is always just enough breathing room for a tiny bit more. While this is a higher stress environment, it is completely sustainable for long periods of time. Think lots of base training.

High volume and intensity training

high volume training stress
High volume training stress

When we decide to kick things into high gear with training we start filling our bottle much quicker and much fuller. Our gap to a full capacity becomes razor thin. The higher the volume and intensity of training, the less room we have for error. Adding additional volume or intensity OR any other type of life stress might blow the cap right off the bottle. (Who has other stress in life anyway?!?)

This is why Olympic athletes live like hermits when they are in intense training periods. The more you can lower your normal life stress the more room you have to add normal training AND high volume/intensity training.

You always want to leave yourself a tiny buffer at the top of the bottle. Any spillage means increased niggles, trouble sleeping, motivation issues, and eventually much worse.

This level can only be sustained for so long. The bottle is only so strong. Yes, you're not overflowing but fluctuations in temperature, humidity, and normal life changes can throw everything out of alignment. Very few environments hold a current homeostasis for long.

This begs the question, what happens if one or more of the current stress levels in your life has a quick fluctuation? What happens if the bottle bursts open?

Too much stress

stress we can't handle
When we can't handle our stress

If you fill your bottle with too much stress it will explode. You might be familiar with some explosions and a few key attributes of the inability to manage and adapt in a timely fashion. These include injury, sickness, exhaustion, miserable mood swings, feelings of depression, and the list goes on.

Too much stress (both positive and negative), for any reason, will eventually create unintended and unwanted consequences for you. You might also create unintended consequences for your family, friends and work colleagues. This is the primary responsibility of a coach, to make sure you get the stress you need to get better while making sure it is manageable.

Keep the liquid in the bottle. Keep refilling it at a rate by which you can manage it through evaporation and you'll see a lot of success in your life.

But what about now? What about when life throws you something you could never expect? Your races are all canceled, you can't train with your friends and even the pool (man oh man, do you hate swimming...) is closed. What does this do to your ability to manage and adapt to stress?

Pandemic stress

pandemic stress
Pandemic stress

Your life is different right now whether you've come to terms with that or not. Life will stay different for months to come, regardless of when shelter in place orders are finally lifted in your area. The faster you can move through the stages of grief to acceptance, the better. The extra stress is here to stay.

And I assure you that pandemic stress is real and it is filling up a larger portion of your water bottle than you could have ever imaged. That 1/4 to 1/2 of your bottle available for training is now, maybe, 1/8. You no longer have the capacity to maintain a normal training week.

Use this time in your life to focus on managing what you can. Maybe a walk makes more sense than a run. Perhaps your 4 hour bike ride should only be 2 hours. The majority of the athletes I work with have seen a dramatic reduction in their volume and/or intensity over the past few weeks whether they thought they needed it or not. I suggest you do the same even if Ironman has a new virtual race every weekend (eye roll...).

When a pandemic happens

Work life with pandemic stress
Your work life with Pandemic stress

The addition of pandemic stress to people's bottle is forcing a lot of explosions. You might be in the same boat with your bottle spilling over like a torrent from a coke after a kid gets excited and goes tearing around the house with the bubbly treasure.

There is no easy answer to managing your pandemic stress and continuing everything else in your life. Some best practices include cutting down on the things causing you the most stress. That might mean less news coverage, abstaining from social media for a few days or taking a vacation day so being the at-home teacher is more manageable. Going for a leisurely walk instead of a training run or finding a way to add 30 more minutes of sleep tonight can help.

There is no right answer on how to manage your stress right now but there are plenty of answers that fill the bottle too quickly and result in a rough day. I'm here to tell you that while you can't avoid all rough days, you can minimize them, even during a pandemic. Just try something, remove something, or make a tiny change. It could mean all the difference keeping your water in the bottle.

And this isn't a perfect model but more of a solid rule of thumb.

What are you doing to manage the levels of stress in your life right now?

Today is a good day to make a little room in your bottle. Take a step back and let evaporation happen :)

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Nick Brodnicki

March 7, 2021