Fighters life stress management
Stress can prohibit you from training and fighting at optimal performance / Shanice Desilva

Opinion: Stress can prohibit you from training and fighting at optimal performance, whether an amateur or professional competitor.

Often fighters stretch their physical limits by consistently training hard to achieve increased fitness and skill, but neglect the body outside the gym. The body can only be pushed in training according to how well the athlete recovers and manages stress. This does not only detail emotional/mental stress but rather expands to physical/bodily stress as well. If you’re serious about competing and winning, whilst hoping to sustain a lengthy career in combat sports, you’ll need to understand a few things about your body.

Nervous systems

Your Autonomic Nervous System manages the involuntary internal functions of your body. There are two branches within this system; Parasympathetic and Sympathetic.

Your Parasympathetic System is also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system. It is solely responsible for restoring your body to a state of homeostasis (balance), where your cells and muscles are able to repair and recover from the training you do.

Your Sympathetic system is the ‘fight or flight’ system. It is responsible for releasing adrenaline as a response to danger or stress. It’s needed to avoid getting punched in the face in a fight. It causes our heart rate to increase rapidly, whilst to a degree shuts down our immune system and our digestive tract. It simply chooses to prioritize pumping adrenaline through our system in order to make more energy readily available to the muscles for the fight or flight response.

The stress hormone that you should be aware of, which is released through this sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response, is called cortisol. Elevated cortisol over a prolonged period of time has catastrophic effects on your metabolism, digestive system, mental state, emotional stability, sleep pattern and the immune system. Therefore if your cortisol is consistently elevated, you will find that losing weight, gaining muscle, performing well in the gym or for a competition becomes increasingly more difficult and rather frustrating.

Gaining mental edge in training

As a result of elevated cortisol and the adherent lack in performance, most people begin to stress over why they’re not training well. The repercussions for this thinking, often paired with the belief that the lack of performance is a talent-skill related-issue, can be the difference between winning or losing – come fight night.

Ever heard of professional athletes receiving psychological treatment for gaining a mental edge in competition? The mental state has everything to do with your performance but is equally reflected by how you manage your body through rest/recovery, as a way of managing the stress that you cannot avoid.

You cannot avoid bills. You cannot avoid relationships with people and the emotional strain that often comes with them. Also, you cannot avoid technology. These stressors put your body into a state of ‘fight or flight’ depending on how often you play into them. Therefore, they can and will affect your performance and training. There are ways in which you can learn to deal with stress more appropriately, though. Ignoring stress is not management, it is what we know as the ‘bandaid approach’.

Here are four pointers, which could drastically improve your performance. It could also give you the edge you are looking for in training and competition.

1. Sleep. Minimum of 7 hours each night. This is where your body repairs muscle tissue, cells and restores energy which is going to be responsible for your stamina and energy output in training the following day. Avoid technology within an hour or two of bed-time. Use a Magnesium supplement right before bed time to assist with falling asleep, muscle cramping or pain, and to improve the quality of your sleep as well.

2. The sauna is not just for cutting weight! It is equally as beneficial as getting a sports massage. One unique benefit which is achieved through sauna use is cell reproduction and reconstruction, due to the state of thermogenesis your body enters. If you are using an infrared sauna, your immune system is also notably strengthened. For recovery purposes, spend no more than 20 minutes (2×10 minute cycles with a short break in between) in the sauna.

3. Active recovery and Complete Rest. Most fighters train 5-6 days a week. Active recovery, such as swimming or a light jog is beneficial for preventing muscle stiffness. Considering the volume of training most fighters go through, Complete Rest is just as important (if not, more important). Complete Rest is a vegetative state of relaxing by doing nothing physically strenuous because exercise is also a “Stressor”. If you cannot schedule both types of recovery, you can optimize your rest by slotting in naps before/between training sessions.

4. This is perhaps the most important point for managing stress as an athlete. Mental recovery and self-development. The athlete is only as strong as their mind, because their body cannot go where their mind will not push. Meditation, yoga, affirmations, counselling or sports psychology, journaling or reading are all fantastic ways to improve your mental capacity and ability to deal with stress. Stress that you cannot avoid. Consciously switching your nervous system from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest) must be a priority.

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Shanice Desilva
Shanice Desilva is a writer and personal trainer from Perth, Western Australia. She specializes in training developing athletes for competition in various sports, including combat sports. She also trains in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Perth, and has done for 6 years. Desilva is a regular contributor to FIGHTMAG, where she writes the ProLeague blog.

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