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The Stress Budget

By Jesse Kropelnicki                                                        


As we near the end of the triathlon season, it is a good time to take a step back and review your stress budget. To some this may sound like Accounting 101 and in many ways it is. But, stress budgeting is one of the most important concepts in lasting an entire season and making long-term progress. Often overlooked by triathlon coaches and self-coached athletes, this is part and parcel to surviving and benefiting from the training of a triathlon season. I encourage athletes to approach their day-to-day and season planning with a total stress budget in mind. That is, planning well and consistently expanding the stress budget without breaking the bank.

Let’s break it down in a logical and believable way. A way that will finally convince those hardheaded, type-A triathletes that this is the most productive approach to making progress in the sport. So, go and get your balance sheet and maybe a ledger or two, because it’s time to determine your stress bottom line.

Your “stress budget” is the maximum amount of stress that can be added into your life, without it becoming counterproductive to your success, as an athlete. Stress comes in many different sizes, flavors and all kinds of varieties. Work, home, kids, financial, etc.; the list goes on and on. Add to that training for triathlon, and the stress budget can be overdrawn pretty quickly. The notion that there are only so many hours in the day has never rung more true than for a triathlete. But triathletes, being who they are, need stress. They thrive on it and pile it on whenever possible. Give them the big project at work. Throw in the bathroom renovation at home. And, for good measure, have them coach the youth soccer team. Add to that a bunch of training volume, much of it at high intensity, and what you have is a recipe for too little sleep, poor nutrition and someone who is running him or herself ragged. This undermines progress, due to improper rest and recovery, with systematic and physiological stresses, which result in abnormal blood work, lack of immunity and/or hormonal imbalances, amongst many other potential maladies. These are all beacons of “under-recovery,” not necessarily overtraining.

Your total stress budget is, by and large, a function of the prior year’s acceptable stress level. Following a year of training and racing, you should have a pretty good sense of your acceptable stress budget in terms of volume, intensity and life logistics. This is the volume/intensity that you are able to turn over on a weekly basis without becoming injured or burning out. When planning out an upcoming season of training and racing, you can make reasonable increases in stress to this sustainable volume, assuming that your life logistics will remain consistent throughout the coming season. If you foresee a change in these logistics, then an appropriate compensatory change must also be made to your training stress in order to maintain a balanced stress budget. Failure to do so, over time, can result in the under-recovery discussed above.

Your total stress budget can be increased or decreased based on your restorative techniques. Factors such as an increased amount of sleep, better nutrition and frequent massage can significantly increase your total stress budget, because they allow the body more time and the means to recover from training. What does this mean for the bottom line? An opportunity to increase training stress.

Your race day speed is directly correlated to your acceptable stress budget. The higher your acceptable stress budget is, the faster you will be relative to your natural talent, assuming it is filled with a large percentage of training stress, as opposed to life stress. An improved stress budget allows you to appropriate more stress toward sport-specific activities. At the end of the day, the athletes who most improve their stress budget, and then spend the majority of this budget on sport-specific preparation, will most develop their natural-born talents.

There are more and less effective ways to spend your total stress budget. Once you have expanded your stress budget through gradual year-to-year increases and executed perfect restoration, you can begin to take note of the factors that led to this positive change. More than likely, the budget was not expanded by getting fewer than eight hours of sleep each night or further complicating life’s logistics. It was probably the result of getting plenty of rest and massage, eating well and looking after all of the details that go into optimal restoration. If you consider the life of professional athletes, it is rare that he or she will quit their job and devote their entire life to the sport, so that they can train more. They typically make all of these sacrifices so they can focus more closely on all of the details that will allow them to recover more completely, thus allowing for an expansion of their stress budget.

So many athletes make the mistake of adding stress at the expense of restoration. Like using gasoline to quell a fire, this has a significantly negative effect. The added stress and decreased restoration increase the amount of the budget being utilized, while also decreasing the budget itself. This situation is twice as dangerous and can quickly lead to a dangerous overdraw on the account. In these cases, opportunities to increase the budget are replaced with activities that both fill and reduce the available budget. A double-whammy of counter-production — and the third rail of stress budgeting.

So, as you approach the end of your season, eager to succeed and take on additional stress by any means necessary, take a step back and consider where you fall in the accounting. Keep in mind that the proper type and amount of stress, applied within the constraints of your total stress budget, will typically improve performance. All else simply hampers it. Avoid the immediate gratification mindset, as it typically leads to decisions and activities that will break the budget. More so than the six-hour training days, this redirection of ‘wants’ is the real sacrifice that athletes make in preparation for their big race.

Jesse Kropelnicki is the founder of QT2 Systems, LLC, a leading provider of personal triathlon and run coaching, and, a leading provider of Ironman nutrition. He is the triathlon coach of more than 15 professional athletes and Ironman Champions including Caitlin Snow, Jessie Donavan and Pedro Gomes, among others. He's a regular contributor to Lava Magazine, and; a USA Triathlon Level III Certified Coach, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and ACSM Certified Personal Trainer; and he has completed USA Triathlon's Elite Mentorship Program in Colorado Springs, Colo. and has a master's degree from Northeastern University.