6 Ways To Improve Your Recovery When You’re Stressed Out

Sometimes, an intense workout isn't great for stress.

Whether it’s the ever-present anxiety of the seemingly endless pandemic, not being able to hug your friends for months, or some intense combination of these and other factors… things are pretty stressful. Especially if you’re prone to high stress levels from depression or anxiety regardless of the state of the world.

It’s perfectly understandable if your sleeping patterns are off, your eating habits are out of sync, and your motivation levels are in the proverbial toilet. Trying to work out healthily in the midst of quarantine can be tough, especially when your baseline stress is so high. Workout recovery strategies are even more important when you’re stressed — but of course, the more stressed you are, the harder it is to set up solid workout recovery habits.

So what’s a quarantined lifter to do?

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician before undertaking any new weight loss regimen.

How Life Stress Impacts Workout Recovery

Working out might operate as emotional stress relief, but it’s also a huge stressor on your body. It’s usually good stress, sure, but for your nervous system, stress is stress is stress. Adding too many high-energy ingredients to your life can bubble over into overtraining, injury, and an overall crappier emotional state — which is going to circle back and defeat the purpose of lifting for stress relief, anyway.

Adding too many high-energy ingredients to your life can bubble over into overtraining, injury, and an overall crappier emotional state — which is going to circle back and defeat the purpose of lifting for stress relief, anyway.

The more stressful your life is, the more total stress your body is coping with.

To make it overly simple for a moment: if your body is in constant survival mode because you’re perpetually panicked about your job security, throwing in a super intense HIT session might do more harm than good. You’re adding to your body’s overall stress levels: your body can’t really tell if you’re deadlifting heavy or you’re in mortal danger.

On top of that, the more freaked out you are about life, the less likely you are to focus on things that your body needs to recover after hard workouts: solid sleep, healthy food, and (here’s a wild idea) rejuvenating stretching and body care.

It’s not a cute cycle, but it’s got a huge impact on your exercise game. The less you sleep, the less recovered you are for your next session. The less well recovered you are, the more your workout will break down your body and the more tired (and sleepy-stressed/agitated) you’ll be, and on and on.

Finding little ways to break into that cycle and slow it down can be hard, but it’s important if you want to truly prioritize your gains, both mentally and physically.

[Related: 4 Research-Backed Ways Lifting Weights and Eating Right Improve Mental Health]

When you’re stressed out, you might be tempted to lift more — it helps clear your mind and brings you to your happy place, after all. But the cumulative stress from both rigorous lifting and general life stress can backfire. If you want to maximize the mental health benefits of being a strength athlete, you’ll need to recover smarter so you can lift stronger.

Control What You Can Control

You can’t give yourself a raise or control your COVID work schedule (or lack thereof). You can’t control when your kid can safely go back to school or the fact that your pup just got fleas. There are stressful things — life and death things — that you cannot control. Recognizing which tough factors of your life you can control directly and which you can’t is important at regulating your stress levels.

No, you can’t make your best friend less depressed, but you can be there for them when they need you. You can’t magically make yourself less anxious, but you can reach out for help when you need to. You can’t stop your dog from wanting to bark when they want attention, but you can take them out for a good walk and training session so they can get the mental and physical stimulation they crave.

Find the things you can control in larger situations, and focus on those things as much as you can. You might find that it’s more similar to lifting than you thought. You can’t control if someone else is using the squat rack on leg day, but you can control what exercises you do while you wait (Bulgarian split squats, anyone?). You can’t control if it pours when you have a 10k scheduled, but you can have appropriate running rain gear on hand.

You already do these things for your workouts — focus on it for your larger life, and hopefully it can help bring down your stress levels enough to help you be able to manage your workout recovery better.

online therapist

Carve Out Therapy Time

If you really love lifting, you’ve probably said on more than one occasion that the gym is your therapy. If you suddenly can’t go to the gym because of COVID — and don’t know when you can go back — that’s… an issue. You’re out your favorite coping mechanism, and now your favorite de-stressor is a source of added psychological stress (because yes, missing the gym is very stressful for your mental state).

Instead of diving into at-home workouts even harder might be good, but if you don’t monitor it well and recover effectively it can easily slip into overtraining. Make sure you’re getting actual therapy if you can — apps like Talkspace are making it more affordable than ever. Even when you do have regular access to the gym, focusing on your mental health is a hugely important part of managing your gym life. 

Learning to manage your stress with a therapist will go a long way toward helping your fitness recovery, because you’ll learn to sleep better, relax harder, and cope easier with the stressful life situations that would normally eat into your gym recovery. So if you can, focus on mental therapy as much as physical therapy — the two go very well together, and will only ever help each other.

[Related: How I Cope With My Missing-the-Gym Anxiety]

Work On Your Sleep Hygiene

Sure, it feels like anyone who tells you “just get more sleep” clearly has never lied awake at night with seventeen anxieties buzzing through their brain. I’ve tried to sleep more, you might want to scream. But between work and family and your workouts and everything else that life throws your way, it can feel impossible. So, “get more sleep” is a very complicated ask.

But there are little ways you can intervene in your sleep patterns. Experiment with night mode on your phone if you absolutely feel like you need it at night, but try to keep your phone out of your bedroom to help you fall asleep faster and harder. Want to try to go to bed earlier than midnight? Scootch up your bedtime by a measly 15 minutes every day for a week, and you’ll be forming a new habit before you know it.

There’s a reason that so many pro strength athletes swear by daily naps — if that just won’t work for you, remind yourself that it’s okay to let yourself lie on the couch and close your eyes, even just for 15 minutes or a half hour. Put on a soothing podcast if you need to direct your mind somewhere so it can’t wander and stress more. Any way you can grab some extra sleep, get it — sleep is one of the single best exercise recovery tools there is, so definitely make it a priority.

[Related: How to Get Optimal Sleep to Recover]

Lift Less, Recover More

Pretty much no strength athlete wants to be told to lift less, but lifting less when you’re super stressed out won’t destroy all your gains.

If anything, it may well be just what you need to let your body reset and recharge so you can come back into the game with more energy and motivation. You’re much more likely to overtrain when you’re stressed — possibly because you’re trying to overcompensate by lifting more, and/or because you’ve pushed your body to its highest capacity.

And during quarantine, most people’s stress levels have been straining over capacity for months. It’s very normal to want to lift more when you might actually need to lift less so your body can recover properly. Try long, brisk walks to get the jitters out of your system and as a form of active recovery. Plus, it’s surprisingly useful for fat loss and mobility.

[Related: 6 Reasons Walking Is the Most Underrated Exercise]

yoga athlete
Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock

Try New Forms Of Exercise

Lifting less doesn’t mean you have to take yourself away from exercising entirely, especially when it’s already such an important part of your mental health and self-care routine.

But instead of trying to deal with constant stress by constantly pushing yourself to your physical limits, try lower intensity work. Other forms of exercise like yoga and long walks are brilliant for active recovery — and for helping you destress your body while maintaining your fitness.

Even if they’re not part of your usual fitness repertoire, calmer forms of exercise like yoga are excellent for all strength athletes. Getting your blood circulating and your muscles working without throwing your central nervous system into distress will get you stronger, both mentally and physically — and that’s really what you’re after when you lift, anyway.

woman meditating

Practice Acceptance

It’s okay if your lifting suffers while the world is on fire. Say it with me:

It’s okay if my lifting suffers while the world is on fire.

The world doesn’t even have to be on fire for it to be okay for your lifting to suffer.

It’s great to hear stories about people who have come to love training at home, who find it better than their gym; it’s wonderful to hear that folks have access to garage gyms and other ways to work out safely during the pandemic.

But even if you have the equipment, it’s very normal and more than understandable to just… have no motivation. It’s okay to be so stressed out that working out drops on your priority list, or that you have to completely put the kettlebells away for a week, or two, or more.

This pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint — erm, a set of 20, not a single rep — and it’s okay to pace yourself in any way you need. Even if that pacing means you’re just coming to a full stop and doing nothing but breathing in and out. When you’re ready to get back into your lifting, it will be there for you, and your body will be ready and eager to re-adapt to your training. 

Take A Break

There’s a reason pro strength athletes have ice baths and massages and all manner of expensive recovery toys — because, no matter how you do it, recovery is the most important part of your training.

You’re pretty much always going to spend more hours of the day not training than you are training, so you’ve got to optimize the majority of your time. If you can’t magically make your life less stressful, you can adjust your lifting to make sure you’re not piling stress on stress on stress. It’s okay, and probably even necessary, to take a break from working out when you’re super stressed — you’ll come back much stronger, both mentally and physically.

Featured image via Maksim Shmeljov/Shutterstock