The Relationship Between Stress and Injuries

Feb. 26, 2014

I’m constantly interested in learning about sports psychology. I’ve already talked a bit about coping with hitting the wall, and with motivations. I took it for granted that stress and difficulty coping might lead to injuries, so I hit the literature to see if my hunch was right. And I was! I found a great article looking at just this concept:

Fawkner, H.J., McMurray, N.E., & Summers, R.J. (1999). Athletic Injury and Minor Life Events: A Prospective Study. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 2 (2): 117-124

This study was really interesting – it sought to measure daily hassles and correlate them with injury rates in athletes. I find this interesting because we often track big stressors, like a job loss, but many of us are not that attune to minor stressors in our lives, and even minor stressors are important. Essentially, the theory tested here is that if you experience an increase in the stress you have, the more likely you are to experience an injury shortly after experiencing that stress. This is because many people respond to stress with negative coping strategies such as general muscle tension and distractibility, which obviously don’t lead to good athletic performance. For example, if your form is stiff, you may be more likely to strain a muscle. If you’re distracted, you may not pay attention to your form or things in the environment like a pothole in the road.

The study included 98 total athletes – 26 from women’s field hockey, 16 from women’s volleyball, and 56 (27 females and 29 males) triathletes. Data was collected weekly for 13 to 18 weeks, depending on the sport. The measure they used had 53 questions, measuring concerns from family and intimate relations, health, work, financial, and environmental issues. The athletes were asked about each event and if had been a hassle or something that helped them feel better. Note that it was the intensity was the primary thing measured and how it made them feel – not if they had new stressors.

Results:

35 athletes sustained injuries: 23% of the hockey players, 39% of the triathletes, and 43% of the volleyball players. And essentially, the authors found what they expected: they found that the intensity of daily hassles did increase about a week prior to injuries for nearly all the injured athletes. The uninjured athletes tended not to have any fluctuations in the intensity of their hassles from week to week.

 So what?!?

Ok, so first things first – PREVENTION! Do everything you can to reduce your overall stress load, and ALSO to prevent increases or fluctuations in stress. Standard pieces of advice apply here: Get enough sleep (ha!) and eat a healthy diet. Regularly do things just for fun, and don’t take yourself or your life too seriously. For athletes, particularly those training 15 or more hours a week, don’t pack your daily schedule so full that you feel like you are always feeling rushed, or that you can’t adjust to changes in your schedule as things pop up (and they will). Don’t get so sucked into training that you neglect other areas of your life, such as relationships or work, that will then turn into conflict and stress. Accept that you may not get everything done, and don’t beat yourself up for it. Balance, balance, balance.

Next, you should monitor your stress! Many of us are terrible at doing this. Remember, it’s not just new stressors, but increased intensity of existing stressors. So work may always have a certain level of stress, but perhaps a given day or week is especially bad, and it would be good to realize this. It’s harder than it sounds. To help with this, psychologists often have people monitor their stress and/or mood anywhere from 2 or more times a day, typically using a number from 1-10 (or a similar scale) to track stress and mood. You can do this on a basic wall calendar, and there are many mood charts available on the internet for free.

If you recognize such hassles or your overall level of stress getting worse, the next thing is to be really careful that week and next week while training. Some cautions to take to help with this could involve reducing the intensity of training sessions, such as doing drill/technique work, or even substituting a workout with Yoga, massage, or stretching. It might be a good idea to do a workout on an indoor bike trainer or treadmill so you can stop if you don’t feel it’s going well. You could also train with a partner who knows you well and can notice if you’re getting sloppy – but I would avoid training with a group if you’re the type to get sucked into competitiveness in group settings…not that triathletes ever do this. ;)

Stay healthy everyone!

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