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Essay: A New Understanding of Stress and the Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm



The science of stress has greatly influenced sport training. The formative works in the field from the early 20th century, particularly those by Walter Canon and Hans Selye, are frequently cited as the basis for the understanding of how humans adapt to training-imposed stress. However, key cornerstones of the conventional understanding have shifted in recent decades. In addition to its physiological aspects stress is now seen to have important psychological and emotional components, making the body’s response to imposed stress more individualised and difficult to predict. Although the evidence and logical rationale supporting the new perspective seem incontrovertible, it has as yet failed to spark the revolution in the commonly held training planning and prescription, or recovery and regeneration, paradigms it may warrant. The author provides a history of stress theory, culminating with the current understanding and its relationship to training theory. Although how the new awareness will be used to better design training and recovery processes remains to be fully explored, he suggests that gains are most likely to be realised when both training environment and coach-athlete interactions are designed to moderate rather than escalate non-physical training stressors.
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015 27
© by IAAF
A New Understanding of
Stress and Implications
for Our Cultural Training
by John Kiely
he difficulty is not in creating new
ideas, but escaping from old ones.
John Maynard Keynes
Physical training imposes stress on the ath-
lete’s neuro-biological system, thereby stimu-
lating adaptation and promoting an improved
resilience to similar forms of stress in the fu-
ture. The direction and magnitude of these ap-
plied training stressors must be appropriately
targeted to enhance the athlete’s performance
capacity. If, however, imposed training stress
continually exceeds the athlete’s capacity to
dissipate the lingering consequences of such
stress applications then residual deficits tem-
porarily remain and accumulate. Inevitably
leading to an increased vulnerability to injury,
illness, overtraining, burnout and overuse syn-
ES S ay
The science of stress has greatly influenced
sport training. The formative works in the
field from the early 20th century, par-
ticularly those by Walter Canon and Hans
Selye, are frequently cited as the basis for
the understanding of how humans adapt
to training-imposed stress. However, key
cornerstones of the conventional under-
standing have shifted in recent decades.
In addition to its physiological aspects,
stress is now seen to have important psy-
chological and emotional components,
making the body’s response to imposed
stress more individualised and difficult to
predict. Although the evidence and logical
rationale supporting the new perspective
seem incontrovertible, it has as yet failed to
spark the revolution in the commonly held
training planning and prescription, or re-
covery and regeneration, paradigms it may
warrant. The author provides a history of
stress theory, culminating with the current
understanding and its relationship to train-
ing theory. Although how the new aware-
ness will be used to better design training
and recovery processes remains to be fully
explored, he suggests that gains are most
likely to be realised when both training en-
vironment and coach-athlete interactions
are designed to moderate rather than esca-
late non-physical training stressors.
John Kiely works as a doctoral supervisor in
the Institute of Coaching and Performance
at the University of Central Lancashire in
Great Britain and as a strength and condi-
tioning coach with the Irish national rugby
team. From 2005 to 2009 he was Head of
Strength and Conditioning for UK Athletics.
30:3; 27-35, 2015
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015
increases in arousal begin to diminish perfor-
mance. However arousal was neither specifi-
cally defined nor directly measured. Instead,
the effect of varying intensities of (crudely cali-
brated) electric shock on a mouse’s capacity to
discern between differently coloured pathways
was used as proxy. Although replication at-
tempts using various animal models repeatedly
failed to find comparable results4,5, the proposi-
tion that adverse events evoke predictable re-
sponses falling along a stereotypical trajectory
was subtly implanted in the collective scientific
Subsequently, in the 1920’s, CANNON,
echoing BERNARD’s earlier work, proposed
that strongly aroused animals conserve the
constancy of their internal environment via
the mediation of catecholamines — epineph-
rine, norepinephrine, dopamine — secreted
from the adrenal medulla. He employed the
term ‘‘homeostasis’’ to describe the process
through which stable steady-state functioning
was preserved; suggesting that increasing cat-
echolamine concentrations powered a ‘fight or
flight’ response designed to remove imposed
threats and facilitate a return to baseline condi-
tions of homeostatic equilibrium6.
A decade later SELYE began the body of
work that was to revolutionise the field, switch-
ing attention from the catecholamine’s of the
adrenal medulla to the glucocorticoids of the
adrenal cortex. He observed that rodents ex-
posed to a variety of physiological discom-
forts exhibited a common set of prototypical
responses. Regardless of whether rats were
immobilised, electrically shocked, or exposed
to heat or cold, the resultant mal-adaptations
seemed to share a common trajectory. In
a now famous 1936 letter to Nature he de-
scribed a triad of symptoms — adrenal en-
largement, gastrointestinal ulceration, atrophy
of the thymus — commonly elicited by a wide
variety of biological challenges.
SELYE re-employed the engineering term
‘stress’, first used by CANON7 a decade ear-
li e r, to describe the organism’s reaction to such
perturbation. He defined the stress response
as the “non-specific response of the body to
From this perspective the training process
is an exercise in stress management1. A pro-
cess demanding that the strategic application
of training stress is appropriately balanced
with adequate recovery. To this end, a vari-
ety of planning and periodisation strategies
are typically used to balance imposed training
stress with appropriate rest and various recov-
ery and regeneration techniques are employed
to expedite the athlete's return to an uncom-
promised state of training readiness.
This rationalisation, however, provides noth-
ing new. The teachings of the early pioneers of
the science of stress, Walter Canon and Hans
Selye, have long been acknowledged as great-
ly influencing contemporary training theory and
coaches have long understood the importance
of balancing imposed training stress with ad-
equate recuperation. What has changed sub-
stantially in the decades since Canon and
Selye’s formative work is our understanding
of the true nature of the stress phenomenon.
This theoretical revision poses an important,
but as yet unexamined, question: have we built
aspects of traditional training philosophy upon
an incomplete understanding of the nature of
stress and, if so, what might we learn from re-
aligning training and recovery practices with
an updated understanding of contemporary
stress science?
A Brief History of Stress
In the late 19th century, BERNARD de-
scribed how the constancy of the internal bio-
logical environment, the milieu intérieur, was
maintained in the face of imposed challenges
by adapting aspects of function so as to main-
tain an optimally healthy state2.
Although this work pre-empted much of
what was to follow, the evolution of the science
of stress did not begin in earnest until the first
decades of the 20th century. The landmark
work of YERKES & DODSON described the
proto-typical ‘inverted-U’ relationship between
arousal and performance3: suggesting that in-
creased arousal steadily improves performance
until, at some hypothetical turning point, further
A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015 29
A Challenge and a Revolution
SELYE’s paradigm undoubtedly represent-
ed a leap forward in our understanding of how
humans respond to stress. Nevertheless by
the end of the 20th century, philosophical and
academic shortcomings of the conventional
stress paradigm became apparent.
Crucially, the concept of ‘stress’ was prov-
ing to be more complex, multi-faceted and
difficult to define than previously envisaged.
For medically-oriented researchers homeosta-
sis and GAS were both firmly biologically en-
trenched concepts; an issue acknowledged by
SELYE, late in life, when he noted that he ''gave
little thought to its psychological or sociologi-
cal implications for I saw stress as a purely
physiological and medical phenomenon”15.
Yet psychologists, whose research tradi-
tions had evolved along an independent tra-
jectory, held a very different view. In contrast to
their more biologically-oriented counterparts,
they considered stress to be primarily a cogni-
tive and mental phenomenon. As physiological
and psychological research traditions inevi-
tably overlapped and clashed, the dominant
model of SELYE began to be challenged by
researchers adopting more inter-disciplinary
any demand”, and a stressor as any challenge
“noxious to the tissues”8. SEYLE’s observation
that the stress response appeared to follow a
predictable trajectory led to his later formula-
tion, in 1956, of the General Adaptation Syn-
drome (GAS). The GAS framework described
how, once the stress response was evoked,
biological stressors were countered in a pre-
dictable fashion progressing through a stereo-
typical sequence of phases: first alarm, then
resistance and eventually, if the stress was suf-
ficiently overwhelming, resulting in exhaustion9.
As the 20th century entered its final quar-
ter, our understanding of biological adaptation
following stressful challenge was shaped by
these early pioneers, as was the associated
terminology which subsequently percolated
into popular culture — stress, homeostasis,
‘fight or flight’, GAS. Although acknowledging
that each individual has distinct stress thresh-
olds and set-points, strengths and vulner-
abilities, the subtly imposed presumption was
that we all respond to biological stress along
a common trajectory: a perspective re-enforc-
ing the covert message that we all respond to
stress in predictable stereotypical fashion.
Stress and Training Theory
Although SELYE himself claimed never
to have considered the application of his re-
search to sporting domains, it was not long
before astute coaches began to appreciate
the potential relevance of this emerging sci-
ence to athletic training contexts10. As early as
the 1950’s the influential swimming coaches
Forbes Carlile and James “Doc” Counsilman
had already begun interpreting and translating
SELYE’s work to sports training contexts. They
were soon followed in this effort by track and
field coaches Fred Wilt and Deloss Dodds11,14.
Toda y the influence of the early doctrines of
the science of stress remain apparent in both
sports science and coaching realms, as con-
temporary theorists continue to re-cycle the
teachings of CANON and SELYE to justify and
substantiate key aspects of current training
practice12, 13, 14.
Key points:
• Training adaptation and recovery are
highly individualised and heavily
modulated by back ground emo-
tional setting.
• Physiological training and recovery
are not purely physiological phenom-
• Optimal training and recovery strate-
gies blend physical and psycho-
emotional elements.
A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015
A Resolution Emerges
Greatly facilitated by the technological and
neuro-imaging revolution of recent decades,
the historical disconnect between physiologi-
cal and psychological stress interpretations
has been largely resolved. Of particular rele-
vance is the growing awareness of the central
role played by the brain’s emotional centres in
mediating the stress response. These, primar-
ily mid-brain, regions are highly interconnected
with the neural systems underlying sensation
and perception on one hand, and cognition,
goal-directed behaviour and motivation on the
other. This organisational structure firmly plac-
es the brain’s emotional centres at the inter-
section between bottom-up sensory feedback
and top-down goal-directed thought. From
this perspective the emotional centres con-
stitute the intersection where sensation and
perception are interpreted and blended with
conscious intentions and desires19, 20.
Accordingly, when we experience any
change in circumstance, such as a sudden in-
crease in physical exertion, the sensory infor-
mation heralding this change is gated through
the brain’s emotional circuitry where it is evalu-
ated on a continuum ranging from benign to
‘threatening’. This emotional interpretation
of the ‘threat’ posed subsequently launches
the stress response initiated by the Central
Nervous System (CNS), and calibrates the
magnitude of this response to the individual’s
emotional state. Hence, it is our emotional in-
terpretation of the imposed stress that launch-
es the cascade of neuro-chemical events con-
stituting the human stress response. These
neuro-chemical events, in turn, trigger the
subsequent down-stream alterations in con-
centrations of circulating hormones that drive
adaptations in all dimensions of function —
from cognitive sharpness to psychological
state to physiological regulation — as the sys-
tem prepares brain and body to cope with the
anticipated challenge.
Crucially, the magnitude of the stress re-
sponse is not directly dependent on the mag-
nitude of the stressor. Instead it is the emo-
tional resonance attached to the stressor —the
At the heart of this challenge were two cen-
tral assumptions: first, that the stress response
follows a stereotypical non-specific trajectory
as portrayed by the GAS response and, sec-
ond that physiological stress is predominantly
caused by physiological challenge and that its
consequences are primarily physiological in
Central to these controversies was the ori-
gin of the so-called ‘first mediator’: the uniden-
tified event first triggering the stress response.
SELYE predicted, and fruitlessly searched for,
a biological first mediator. In contrast LAZA-
RUS and MASON proposed that the first me-
diator is psycho-emotional in genesis, in es-
sence suggesting that the body’s physiological
stress response is not instigated directly by the
physiological stressor, but by the changing
emotional state of the individual brought about
by personal interpretation of their capacity to
cope with the imposed challenge 16,17. Notably,
MASON’s experimental work led him to con-
clude that whenever the noxious “psychologi-
cal concomitants” of physical stressors could
be removed, or substantially reduced, then the
GAS response was drastically moderated18.
This work clearly demonstrated that the mag-
nitude of the stress response, subsequent to
any imposed physical stress, was in large part
modulated by the individual’s emotional re-
action to it. In other words that the adaptive
response launched to cope with a physical
challenge was not solely dependent upon the
extent of that physical challenge, but also on
the set of psycho-emotional anxieties, expec-
tations, projections and associations accom-
panying that stressor.
As the century drew to a close, these de-
bates remained largely unresolved. Neverthe-
less the failure of purely biologically-oriented
concepts of GAS and homeostasis to satisfac-
torily explain the increasingly apparent effects
of non-physical factors – emotional regula-
tion, anticipation and learning – on stress re-
sponses, suggested the portrayal of the stress
response as a physiological response to a
physiological challenge was fundamentally un-
reflective of reality19, 20, 21.
A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015 31
ers of the stress response, contemporary in-
sight firmly places the brain, and in particular
the emotional circuitry, as the ultimate control-
ler of our reaction to imposed challenge25.
Relevance for Sport Training Theory
In relation to sports training theory, evidence
illustrating the interactivity between emotional
state and physical consequences continues to
grow. As illustration: Individual differences in
self-confidence, self-esteem and anxiety have
been demonstrated to elevate injury occur-
rence and impede recovery26,27. Accordingly
it has been suggested that stressed athletic
populations, in particular those with low self-
esteem, are especially vulnerable to the family
of stress syndromes typified by overtraining,
fatigue and depressive-like symptoms26.
Other research studies have established
that: 1) athletes, self-rated levels of mental
stress were predictive of the magnitude of
their individual adaptive responses following
a highly controlled training intervention27; 2)
the combination of low stress resilience and
elevated stressors can interact to compro-
mise both cardiovascular and power training
adaptations28; 3) exposure to elevated levels of
training and psychological stress increase the
incidence of negative health outcomes in well-
trained triathletes29,30; and 4) heightened anxi-
ety can lead to increased incidence of injury in
professional soccer players31.
In fact, a wide range of imposed stress-
ors — emotional, dietary, social, sleep and
academic — have now been demonstrated to
variously down-regulate the immune system,
dampen adaptive responses and negatively
affect motor coordination, cognitive func-
tion, mood, metabolism and hormonal health:
thereby diminishing multiple dimensions of
athletic performance and elevating injury risk31.
Historically we assumed that adaptation to
stress could be partitioned into a regimented
sequence of events following a predictable
trajectory. From a contemporary perspective,
registering of the stimulus as threatening or
benign; as stimulating or anxiety-inducing—
that ultimately dictates the extent of the stress
defences mobilised, and dictates whether this
response will be proportionate or dispropor-
tionate to the actual challenge imposed. Ac-
cordingly, the response to any given stressor
is heavily modulated by subjective perception.
We analyse the stress, and from this analysis
emerges our individually-specific sense of se-
curity, predictability, motivation and compe-
tence, or alternatively our sense of insecurity,
unpredictability, anxiety, fear and impending
risk. Thus our personal emotional interpretation
of the applied challenge amplifies or damp-
ens the subsequent cascade of bio-chemical
events constituting the stress response. This
sets the bio-chemical backdrop upon which
training stress is overlaid and, in turn, shapes
consequent neurological, psychological and
physiological adaptations19, 20, 21.
This entangled interactivity ensures that no
stressor is ever solely psychological, physi-
ological, cognitive or emotional. Instead every
stressor — every stimulus triggering a stress
response — exerts a neurological, biological,
psychological and emotional toll. Thus even
stress responses triggered by stimuli that
appear far removed from psycho-emotional
significance, such as cold exposure, vary
dramatically dependent upon the emotional
resonance attached to the stress-inducing
event18 ,19. Similarly healing times following lab-
oratory-induced inflammatory reactions can
be readily amplified or dampened, extended or
shortened, simply by manipulating perception,
emotional appraisal, and background levels of
psycho-social stress20. Furthermore the influ-
ence of prior experiences, such as an early-life
exposure to specific forms of pain, can ever-af-
ter alter the stress response induced by similar
future events 21, 22, 23, 24. These examples, along
with many more, illustrate the deficiencies in
conventional rationalisations of the physical
stress response as a direct consequence of
the applied physical stressor.
Importantly, and in contrast to traditional
Selye-led perspectives, which considered the
pituitary and adrenal glands as the critical driv-
A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015
the individual’s emotionally-driven response to
background levels of current life stress.
From this perspective the objective of phys-
ical training, and of recovery and regeneration
processes, is to positively manipulate these
chemical environments to maximally accentu-
ate athletic performance and optimally facilitate
physiological and psychological recuperation.
Practical Implications
Unquestionably the empirical descriptors
of training — the numbers we use to describe
and prescribe training sessions — remain of
great importance. As coaches we need a plan
and we need a practical means of clearly com-
municating the plan to the athlete. We need to
be able to clearly empirically prescribe training
parameters: how long, how many, how quickly
and so on. But we must also be aware that
simply conforming to these mechanical train-
ing parameters does not adequately control
the imposed training stress and does not guar-
antee a specific training effect.
In order to most productively accentuate
training-induced adaptation we must be aware
of the unseen influences that conspire with
physical training to dictate the subsequent
adaptive response.
When athletes are subjected to elevated
non-training stressors, physiological training
adaptations will inevitably be compromised.
This will occur regardless of the origin of that
stress: whether it be anxiety due to loss of form,
exam pressure, relationship turbulence, poor
sleep, corrosive environmental conditions, etc.
Furthermore, the extent to which the athlete’s
physical health is impacted by such accumu-
lating multi-source stress will vary extensively
dependent on their personal stress reactivity
to the specific forms of stress imposed.
Accordingly athletes will be most predis-
posed to negative training outcomes — injury,
illness, poor performance — during periods of
heightened stress, and individuals with high
however, it is evident that individual adaptation
subsequent to any imposed stressor is not the
generalised process historically suggested by
homeostatic and GAS models. Instead it is
highly specific and largely unpredictable with
each stressor eliciting a uniquely individual
stress ‘signature’ personalised by the blending
of genetic, behavioural, experiential, historical
and environmental idiosyncrasies, and ampli-
fied or dampened by the emotional resonance
attached, by the individual, to that stressor.
This rationale does not suggest that stress
is purely an emotional phenomenon, but high-
lights that once a stressor is applied the stress
response is initiated, and its magnitude regu-
lated, by the individual’s emotional evaluation
of the challenge posed by that specific stress-
inducing event. This emotional attribution is
in large part set by the combination of Nature,
in terms of genetic heritage, and Nurture, in
terms of early life experiences: both factors
over which the athlete or sports coach exert
no retrospective control. Importantly however,
although our emotional reactivity to imposed
stressors is heavily influenced by heritage and
history, we can nevertheless favourably manip-
ulate current and future conditions to promote
positive adaptation, and diminish the negative
impacts of excessively elevated or prolonged
stress responses.
Inescapably, at its most fundamental level
the adaptive response to training is instigated
and driven by a cascade of stress-induced
chemical changes in various internal environ-
ments: changes in concentrations of molecular
messengers in the muscle; hormones circulat-
ing throughout the body; and neuro-trans-
mitters, neuro-modulators and neurotrophic
factors in the brain. These various chemical
environments, however, are not simply dictat-
ed by training performed but are overlaid upon
the bio-chemical backdrop shaped by the ath-
lete’s current emotional state. In essence the
bio-chemical context is set by the integration
of training-imposed stress, overlaid upon the
existing bio-chemical backdrop of the individu-
al. In turn, the bio-chemical backdrop is set by
A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015 33
turbulence, is not necessarily a new insight. As
is often the case, we find certain coaches have
intuitively evolved philosophies, processes and
practices promoting stress resilience in their
athletes. Famously, Percy Cerutty, the coach
of 1960 Olympic 1500m champion Herb El-
liot, emphasised and designed interventions to
build character as well as physical robustness.
What this new science does add, however,
is an explanation of the mechanisms through
which such interventions positively impact
stress resilience and the removal of doubt as
to whether or not such strategies are useful to
the athlete.
There is a final, perhaps hidden, implica-
tion here: how the athlete reacts to stressful
situations is, as we have noted, dependent on
their individual predispositions combined with
the individual coping strategies they may em-
ploy. But an individual’s stress response is also
highly influenced by context and environment.
And a key influencing factor for athletes is how
the coach reacts to stress. Is the coach calm,
or worried? Does the coach project an aura of
thoughtful decisiveness or anxious reactivity?
Stress is contagious and if as coaches we
wish to build low stress environments, perhaps
as a first step we need to develop our own ca-
pacity to deal with stress. In essence to prac-
tice what we preach.
One of the great paradoxes of stress, first
highlighted by SELYE, is that although we
commonly think of it as a negative, it is es-
sential for life. Without the changes driven by
successive stress applications, we fail to adapt
and instead become fragile to future challeng-
es: but excessive or prolonged stress imposed
on an individual lacking the capacity to cope,
inevitably leads to some form of breakdown.
Despite the dramatic evolution of stress
science since SELYE’s foundational work, our
translation of stress theory to training theory
appears frozen in time, as illustrated by the
stress reactivity will be especially vulnerable.
In contrast, athletes displaying more stress-
resilient characteristics will inevitably be more
robust to the wide variety of challenges im-
posed by an athletic life. Such characteristics
are, like all other human traits, partly bestowed
by genetic legacy and partly by practice; partly
by Nature and partly by Nurture.
The coach can, however, play a crucial role
in designing the athletic environment and the
culture of the training group so as to moder-
ate background stressors. The coach can en-
courage, or prescribe, activities that have been
demonstrated to reduce background stress:
practices such as mindfulness meditation,
socialising with family and friends, expressive
writing, or activities as simple as walking in na-
ture, breathing-based relaxation exercises or
engaging in enjoyable hobbies.
Furthermore coaches can tailor their inter-
actions with athletes to help nurture and devel-
op stress resilient traits: for example, ensuring
all competition and training plans have been
clearly communicated to the athlete and that
the athlete has been given the opportunity to
input into these plans. This develops the ath-
lete’s understanding of the programme; faith in
the programme; and a sense that his/her voice
and opinions are important. Nurturing the ath-
lete’s sense of ownership, empowerment and
sense of control over their own destiny greatly
reduces the experienced sense of threat and
anxiety that drives an over-active stress re-
The psychological hardiness, necessary for
success in competitive environments, is com-
monly ascribed to three interrelated personal-
ity characteristics: commitment, control and
openness to challenge. Those displaying har-
diness characteristics are not simply mentally
tougher, but also exhibit more robust immune
response 33.
Understanding that athletes will be most vul-
nerable to physical, psychological and immu-
nological breakdown during times of emotional
A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015
Please send all correspondence to
John Kiely
continued recycling of the doctrines of the
early stress theorists. As coaches we often as-
sume physical training is an exclusively physi-
cal phenomenon: we numerically prescribe
physical training and expect training outcomes
to be predictable and directly dependent upon
the imposed training load.
MASON, the physician and researcher at
the forefront of the revolt against conventional
stress dogma, once noted “The knowledge that
the psyche is superimposed upon the humoral
machinery for endocrine regulation drastically
complicates our whole view”16. Understand-
ing the complex nature of the stress response
certainly complicates our view of the training
adaptation process, but it also helps illuminate
the way forward, adds explanatory clarity and
provides coaches with an opportunity.
An updated appreciation of how an exces-
sively activated stress response can negatively
impact the athlete’s health and performances
provides the coach with important background
information. The science has advanced rapidly
in recent decades and today we have a much
richer understanding of the nature of the stress
phenomenon than previous generations. Yet,
crucially, how this knowledge is most effective-
ly translated into coaching practice is a ques-
tion that empirical science cannot answer, and
which remains open to argument and personal
interpretation. As with other bodies of aca-
demic information the science can ‘suggest’,
but the coach must ‘decide’. As always, each
coach must thoughtfully weigh the presented
arguments and filter them through the lens of
their personal experience and philosophy, be-
fore deciding how these insights may — or may
not — apply to their coaching context.
A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
• The stress response is not the mono-
lithic, predictable process traditionally
• Stressors impose distinct adaptive
‘signatures’ dependent upon context,
constitution, history, and persistently
transitioning biological states.
• The consequences of an imposed
stressor may be broadly predictable
on a population-wide basis but, at the
individual level are unpredictable.
• Each stressor exerts a psycho-emo-
tional toll, which if unremediated,
damages the neural circuitry driving
emotional responses, inevitably lead-
ing to ‘wear and tear’ and reduced
resilience to future similar stressors.
• Physiological stress is not solely
physiological in genesis, similarly
stress of any origin exerts a physio-
logical toll.
New Studies in Athletics · no. 3.2015 35
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A New Understanding of Stress and Implications for Our Cultural Training Paradigm
... Following this, interest has built around understanding the relationship between brain and physiology, especially regarding exercise adaptation. Previous work has indicated that response to a stressorincluding exercise, feelings of fatigue, and pain -is filtered through the brain's emotional centres, which evaluate the stressor in terms of its threat [99]. Current perceptions suggest that biological adaptation, to an imposed or perceived stressor, is not regulated by the magnitude of that stressor, but by the nature of the stress response launched to remediate the challenge presented to the neuro-biological system [101]. ...
... By combining the work in this field, we can summarise that every stressor, including exercise, exerts a neurological, biological, psychological and emotional load depending on individual interpretation [99,100,103]. This means that what often feels solely like a physical response, such as fatigue, is mediated by perception, suggesting the psychological and biological responses to a stressor are irrevocably mutually entwined. ...
... As an example, subjects with lower stress scores show greater increases in both bench press and squat strength compared to subjects with higher stress scores [126]. Similarly, an athlete who has just argued with a spouse and has long-term financial worries is less likely to mount an optimal adaptive response than a content athlete [99]. ...
Full-text available
Abstract: Background: Traditional exercise prescription is based on the assumption that exercise adaptation is predictable and standardised across individuals. However, evidence has emerged in the past two decades demonstrating that large inter-individual variation exists regarding the magnitude and direction of adaption following exercise. Objective: The aim of this paper was to discuss the key factors influencing this personalized response to exercise in a narrative review format. Findings: Genetic variation contributes significantly to the personalized training response, with specific polymorphisms associated with differences in exercise adaptation. These polymorphisms exist in a number of pathways controlling exercise adaptation. Environmental factors such as nutrition, psycho-emotional response, individual history and training programme design also modify the inter-individual adaptation following training. Within the emerging field of epigenetics, DNA methylation, histone modifications and non-coding RNA allow environmental and lifestyle factors to impact genetic expression. These epigenetic mechanisms are themselves modified by genetic and non-genetic factors, illustrating the complex interplay between variables in determining the adaptive response. Given that genetic factors are such a fundamental modulator of the inter-individual response to exercise, genetic testing may provide a useful and affordable addition to those looking to maximise exercise adaption, including elite athletes. However, there are ethical issues regarding the use of genetic tests, and further work is needed to provide evidence based guidelines for their use. Conclusion: There is considerable inter-individual variation in the adaptive response to exercise. Genetic assessments may provide an additional layer of information allowing personalization of training programmes to an individual’s unique biology.
... The influence of psycho-emotional factors on numerous dimensions of performance has recently been illustrated within athletic preparation contexts (Kiely 2016;Mann et al., 2016;Stults-Kolehmainen et al., 2016). Similarly, the mechanisms underpinning how psycho-emotional states mediated biological adaptations have been extensively outlined within the wider psycho-biological (Ganzel, 2010) and ...
... To illustrate this, Bartholomew and colleagues (2008) reported that after 12 weeks of resistance training, participants with lower levels of self-reported lifestyle stress had greater increases in both bench press and squat strength compared to those participants with a high stress score. Similarly, a subject who has just argued with a spouse and has long-term financial worries is likely to have less resources available to mount an optimally healthy adaptive response than a subject who is content (Kiely, 2016). ...
Full-text available
Variation between individuals in response to a stimulus is a well-established phenomenon. This thesis discusses the drivers of this inter-individual response, identifying three major determinants; genetic, environmental, and epigenetic variation between individuals. Focusing on genetic variation, the thesis explores how this information may be useful in elite sport, aiming to answer the question “Is there utility to genetic information in elite sport?” The current literature was critically analysed, with a finding that the majority of exercise genomics research explains what has happened previously, as opposed to assisting practitioners in modifying athlete preparation and enhancing performance. An exploration of the potential ways in which genetic information may be useful in elite sport then follows, including that of inter- individual variation in response to caffeine supplementation, the use of genetic information to assist in reducing hamstring injuries, and whether genetic information may help identify future elite athletes. These themes are then explored via empirical work. In the first study, an internet-based questionnaire assessed the frequency of genetic testing in elite athletes, finding that around 10% had undertaken such a test. The second study determined that a panel of five genetic variants could predict the magnitude of improvements in Yo-Yo test improvements following a standardised training programme in youth soccer players. The third study demonstrated the effectiveness of a panel of seven genetic variants in predicting the magnitude of neuromuscular fatigue in youth soccer players. The fourth and final study recruited five current or former elite athletes, including an Olympic Champion, and created the most comprehensive Total Genotype Score in the published literature to date, to determine whether their scores deviated significantly from a control population of over 500 non-athletes. The genetic panels were unable to adequately discriminate the elite performers from non-athletes, suggesting that, at this time, genetic testing holds no utility in the identification of future elite performers. The wider utilisation of genetic information as a public health tool is discussed, and a framework for the implementation of genetic information in sport is also proposed. In summary, this thesis suggests that there is great potential for the use of genetic information to assist practitioners in the athlete management process in elite sport, and demonstrates the efficacy of some commercially available panels, whilst cautioning against the use of such information as a talent identification tool. The major limitation of the current thesis is the low sample sizes of many of the experimental chapters, a common issue in exercise genetics research. Future work should aim to further explore the implementation of genetic information in elite sporting environments.
... Subjetive | Stress | Pre-season | Academy | Soccer Headline T he monitoring of sleep and subjective wellbeing is of increased interest to sports practitioners (1,2). Increases in subjective stress have been associated with maladaptation and underperformance (3,4), and have the potential to negatively influence sleep (5). Furthermore, it is often reported that sports people fail to get sufficient sleep (6), which can negatively influence both recovery and performance (7). ...
... This increase could have been due to increases in competition match play and travel (14) compared to the pre-season period. Increases in psychological stress have previously been associated with disturbances in immune function (15), risk of injury (16), and smaller adaptations to training (3); as such, increases in self-reported stress have the potential to negatively impact performance (4). Accordingly, addressing this increase in selfreported stress could be an important intervention for this cohort, particularly later during the competitive season. ...
... The concept of periodization has received substantial attention in recent years, with much of this focus centering on presenting periodization as being irrelevant to the modern athlete [1][2][3]. However, the term 'periodization' is not owned by sport and instead lies within the greater realm of scholarly activity as a term used to describe specific periods of time, such as in the arts, history, and architecture [4]. ...
... In a separate essay, Kiely [3] claimed that the GAS does not account for the potential psychogenesis of the stress response and the influential role of factors such as psychological or emotional state during the stress response. Selye [135] admitted that during his original conception of the stress concept in 1936 he ''gave little thought to its psychological or sociological implications for [he] saw stress as a purely physiological and medical phenomenon''. ...
Full-text available
Recent reviews have attempted to refute the efficacy of applying Selye’s general adaptation syndrome (GAS) as a conceptual framework for the training process. Furthermore, the criticisms involved are regularly used as the basis for arguments against the periodization of training. However, these perspectives fail to consider the entirety of Selye’s work, the evolution of his model, and the broad applications he proposed. While it is reasonable to critically evaluate any paradigm, critics of the GAS have yet to dismantle the link between stress and adaptation. Disturbance to the state of an organism is the driving force for biological adaptation, which is the central thesis of the GAS model and the primary basis for its application to the athlete’s training process. Despite its imprecisions, the GAS has proven to be an instructive framework for understanding the mechanistic process of providing a training stimulus to induce specific adaptations that result in functional enhancements. Pioneers of modern periodization have used the GAS as a framework for the management of stress and fatigue to direct adaptation during sports training. Updates to the periodization concept have retained its founding constructs while explicitly calling for scientifically based, evidence-driven practice suited to the individual. Thus, the purpose of this review is to provide greater clarity on how the GAS serves as an appropriate mechanistic model to conceptualize the periodization of training.
... The process of integration requires the active engagement of the athlete, ideally as the driver of their development. We therefore, need to utilise a variety of tools need to be used to understand the needs of the individual athlete and the psycho-emotional backdrop against which development takes place (Kiely, 2016). Whilst developing an athlete's understanding is well established as being necessary to maximise learning (Abraham & Collins, 2011a), there is also the need for the coach to have an empathic sensitivity to the emotional state of the athlete and check the accuracy of these perceptions (Rogers, 1975). ...
... Therefore, we would suggest that the results serve to highlight the central role 567 played by challenge and potential emotional disruption as a tool for development. (Huntsinger, 2013;Kiely, 2016). Therefore, what might a relatively 580 minor emotional disturbance for one individual, can be experienced in a completely different 581 manner by another. ...
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Research on the developmental trajectories of performers increasingly focuses on the nature of challenge in talent development. This study sought to investigate the interaction of challenge, emotional disruption and impactful feedback in the talent pathway. Employing a pre-post design, a group of eight junior international rugby league players were interviewed prior to and following their senior transitional season. Data were collected through two semi structured interviews and analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Participants progressed through a pathway that was perceived to be devoid of challenge until the start of the senior transition. At this stage, however, frequent emotional disturbances were experienced, associated with a greater personal weighting of the feedback provided. Findings suggest that events and feedback that were emotionally laden were a critical element of their developmental experience. LaySummary This study explores the interaction of challenge, emotional disruption and feedback for athletes transitioning to the elite level. The emotional ‘highs and lows’ are identified as critical to overall development, rather than something to be ‘coped with’. We suggest that the athlete experience should be a focal point for practice.
Full-text available
Stress-injury models of health suggest that athletes experience more physical injuries during times of high stress. The purpose of the current study was to evaluate the effect of increased physical and academic stress on injury restrictions for athletes (n=101) on a Division I college football team. Weeks of the season were categorized into three levels: high physical stress (i.e., preseason), high academic stress (i.e., weeks with regularly scheduled examinations such as midterms, finals, and week before Thanksgiving break), and low academic stress (i.e., regular season without regularly scheduled academic examinations). During each week, we recorded whether a player had an injury restriction or not, thereby creating a longitudinal binary outcome. The data was analyzed using a hierarchical logistic regression model to properly account for the dependency induced by the repeated observations over time within each subject. Significance for regression models was accepted at p<0.05. We found that the odds of an injury restriction during training camp (high physical stress) were greatest compared to weeks of high academic stress (OR=2.05, p=0.0003) and low academic stress (OR=3.65, p<0.001). However, the odds of an injury restriction during weeks of high academic stress were nearly twice as high than during weeks of low academic stress (OR=1.78, p=0.0088). Moreover, the difference in injury rates reported in all athletes during weeks of high physical stress and weeks of high academic stress disappeared when considering only athletes that regularly played in games (OR=1.13, p=0.75), suggesting that high academic stress may affect athletes that play to an even greater extent than high physical stress. Coaches should be aware of both types of stressors and consider carefully the types of training methods imposed during times of high academic stress, when injuries are most likely.
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We draw on the theory of allostasis to develop an integrative model of the current stress process that highlights the brain as a dynamically adapting interface between the changing environment and the biological self. We review evidence that the core emotional regions of the brain constitute the primary mediator of the well-established association between stress and health, as well as the neural focus of wear and tear due to ongoing adaptation. This mediation, in turn, allows us to model the interplay over time between context, current stressor exposure, internal regulation of bodily processes, and health outcomes. We illustrate how this approach facilitates the integration of current findings in human neuroscience and genetics with key constructs from stress models from the social and life sciences, with implications for future research and the design of interventions targeting individuals at risk.
Full-text available
Individual differences in pain sensitivity and reactivity are well recognized but the underlying mechanisms are likely to be diverse. The phenomenon of stress-induced analgesia is well documented in animal research and individual variability in the stress response in humans may produce corresponding changes in pain. We assessed the magnitude of the acute stress response of 16 chronic back pain (CBP) patients and 18 healthy individuals exposed to noxious thermal stimulations administered in a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment and tested its possible contribution to individual differences in pain perception. The temperature of the noxious stimulations was determined individually to control for differences in pain sensitivity. The two groups showed similar significant increases in reactive cortisol across the scanning session when compared with their basal levels collected over 7 consecutive days, suggesting normal hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis reactivity to painful stressors in CBP patients. Critically, after controlling for any effect of group and stimulus temperature, individuals with stronger cortisol responses reported less pain unpleasantness and showed reduced blood oxygenation level-dependent activation in nucleus accumbens at the stimulus onset and in the anterior mid-cingulate cortex (aMCC), the primary somatosensory cortex, and the posterior insula. Mediation analyses indicated that pain-related activity in the aMCC mediated the relationship between the reactive cortisol response and the pain unpleasantness. Psychophysiological interaction analysis further revealed that higher stress reactivity was associated with reduced functional connectivity between the aMCC and the brainstem. These findings suggest that acute stress modulates pain in humans and contributes to individual variability in pain affect and pain-related brain activity.
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Psychological hardiness characterizes people who remain healthy under psychosocial stress. The present exploratory study investigates possible links between hardiness and several immune and neuroendocrine markers: IL-6, IL-12, IL-4, IL-10, & neuropeptide-Y. A total of 21 Norwegian navy cadets were studied in the context of a highly stressful military field exercise. Blood samples were collected midway, and again late in the exercise when stress levels were highest. Psychological hardiness (including commitment, control, and challenge) was measured two days before the exercise. While all subjects scored high in hardiness, some were high only in commitment and control, but relatively low in challenge. These "unbalanced" hardiness subjects were also more stress reactive, showing suppressed proinflammatory cytokines (IL-12), increased anti-inflammatory cytokines (IL-4, IL-10), and lower neuropeptide-Y levels as compared to the hardiness-balanced group. This study thus shows that being high in hardiness with a balanced profile is linked to more moderate and healthy immune and neuroendocrine responses to stress.
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The planning and organization of athletic training have historically been much discussed and debated in the coaching and sports science literature. Various influential periodization theorists have devised, promoted, and substantiated particular training-planning models based on interpretation of the scientific evidence and individual beliefs and experiences. Superficially, these proposed planning models appear to differ substantially. However, at a deeper level, it can be suggested that such models share a deep-rooted cultural heritage underpinned by a common set of historically pervasive planning beliefs and assumptions. A concern with certain of these formative assumptions is that, although no longer scientifically justifiable, their shaping influence remains deeply embedded. In recent years substantial evidence has emerged demonstrating that training responses vary extensively, depending upon multiple underlying factors. Such findings challenge the appropriateness of applying generic methodologies, founded in overly simplistic rule-based decision making, to the planning problems posed by inherently complex biological systems. The purpose of this review is not to suggest a whole-scale rejection of periodization theories but to promote a refined awareness of their various strengths and weaknesses. Eminent periodization theorists-and their variously proposed periodization models-have contributed substantially to the evolution of training-planning practice. However, there is a logical line of reasoning suggesting an urgent need for periodization theories to be realigned with contemporary elite practice and modern scientific conceptual models. In concluding, it is recommended that increased emphasis be placed on the design and implementation of sensitive and responsive training systems that facilitate the guided emergence of customized context-specific training-planning solutions.
The traumatic events of September 11, 2001, have dramatically changed our lives forever. Americans and people around the world were shocked by the unprecedented and horrific attacks on civilians. The anthrax scare further shook the security and complacency of Americans. We must all live with heightened vigilance and increased fear of more unpredictable attacks. With the attacks and their aftermath, many Americans experienced levels of emotion, particularly fear and anxiety, to which they are unaccustomed. Many experienced acute posttraumatic symptoms (Schuster et al., 2001; Galea et al., 2002; Schlenger et al., 2002; Silver, et al., 2002). Although some people do not recover well from the trauma and develop chronic anxious or depressive conditions, in the vast majority of cases, these feelings recede, and people go on with their normal lives. These people will not return to their previous state, however – the external world has changed, and their internal psychological states have changed, too. What are the psychological and biological mechanisms for the rapid change in emotion, and then the return to a normal although changed life, or, in some cases, to a new life of pathological states of anxiety or depression? This chapter explores the processes by which mammals maintain viability following physiological change due to adversity. These processes are captured by the concept of allostasis – a means of achieving psychological and biological states appropriate to changed circumstances. We address this concept within the context of the neurobiology of the normal, adaptive emotion of fear and pathological states of anxiety and depression, which can result from sustained or overexpressed normal feed-forward mechanisms associated with fear. We begin with definitions of allostasis, adaptive fear, and pathological anxiety. Several learning and conditioning mechanisms that are involved in adaptive fear are discussed next. The brain systems and circuits involved in fear, particularly those of the amygdala and associated structures, are described in a context of adaptive processes.
This chapter explores the processes by which mammals maintain viability following physiological change due to adversity. These processes are captured by the concept of allostasis--a means of achieving psychological and biological states appropriate to changed circumstances. We address this concept within the context of the neurobiology of the normal, adaptive emotion of fear and pathological states of anxiety and depression, which can result from sustained or overexpressed normal feed-forward mechanisms associated with fear. We begin with definitions of allostasis, adaptive fear, and pathological anxiety. Several learning and conditioning mechanisms that are involved in adaptive fear are discussed next. The brain systems and circuits involved in fear, particularly those of the amygdala and associated structures, are described in a context of adaptive processes. We also describe feed-forward mechanisms regulated by glucocorticoids to explain how normal, adaptive biological processes of fear can transform into pathological states of anxiety and depression. These steroids are not molecules of fear, but molecules that regulate and sustain fear, acting as hypersensitizing agents that can overload adaptive processes. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)