The Case for Training Happy
Athletes, coaches and scientists agree that mood can profoundly affect almost every aspect of athletic performance. – By James Herrera
Standing at the base of the BMX track of the 2012 London Olympics, I watched from the coach’s box as American Connor Fields sat in lane one, the pole position, a spot he’d earned through qualifying races earlier in the day. Connor was in the prime seat for a medal run, yet a late start killed his podium dreams before the race even really got going. I glanced around at our USA team staff, bewildered at what had just transpired. How had the fastest athlete in the race just crossed the line in seventh place?
As I got to know Connor over the coming years, I began to realise the incredible stress he’d been under at the London games. Brian Mackenzie, coach to a host of world-renowned athletes, says that “not winning, competition stress, and the unbelievably high expectations that are imposed by [the athletes] and others can have drastic side effects.” He even goes so far as to say that “all athletes are dealing with some form of depression.”
The effects of that depression aren’t just limited to your head. The stress hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands, is responsible for responding to both physical and emotional stress, and plays a critical role in many other physiological functions. When it’s out of whack, you might experience high blood pressure, anxiety, blood sugar imbalances, digestive issues, decreased bone density, lingering depression, a suppressed immune system, impaired memory, sleep disturbances, muscle loss, weight gain, reduced wound healing, and even reduced thyroid function— all of which (obviously) make it challenging to train effectively.
The signs don’t stop there—a 2011 study in the Journal of Psychophysiology including 866 adults showed depressed subjects took significantly longer to reduce their heart rates following a stress test, at a variance of 3.7 beats per minute.
Mountain bike professional Kelli Emmett recounts the challenge she faced years ago. “I was going through a time with my father passing away, and I wasn’t able to physically push myself in training because I couldn’t recover. Even though my coach gave me additional days away from the bike, it didn’t seem to matter. It was a tough few months with minimal training and a continuous feeling of fatigue.”
Clearly, stress can set off a cascade of factors that can hurt our performance and recovery. The good news is that if we’re aware of it, we can use our mood to our advantage. Emmett’s training partner and 12-time US National cyclo-cross champ Katie Compton says, “I’m generally pretty positive about training and racing so my mood is only affected when I don’t get enough sleep or I’m into my third week of building and my body is simply tired. I don’t think there’s any pretending to be in a good mood to help you rest and recover better— but eating well, not feeling guilty about resting or being lazy, and getting plenty of good sleep help the most.” And if you’re looking for a sure way to boost your mood, try flirting. Emmett comments, “athletes joke on the circuit that when they are in love there is no need for sleep and recovery. I remember when I first started dating my boyfriend, I was on the ultimate high. I could recover with minimal days off the bike and train harder than any other season. It was my best race season to date.”
Connor Fields agrees. “When I am in a good, positive, and present mood, I find it easier to rest and recover. Not only do I find it easier to sit still, I find that my muscles are less tense and more relaxed overall. When I feel anxious or uneasy I find it hard to truly relax, even if I am not physically moving.” At the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, I watched the live feed as Connor, relaxed and faster than ever before, crossed the line to win a gold medal, validating what a positive mood can accomplish.